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Top judge's suspension not linked to election: Nigeria

President Muhammadu Buhari replaced Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on Friday, sparking claims he had breached the constitution and was trying to manipulate the judiciary.

President Muhammadu Buhari swears-in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed as Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria. Picture: @NGRPresident/Twitter

ABUJA - Nigeria's government has denied suggestions that the suspension of the country's top judge on corruption charges was linked to the upcoming election.

President Muhammadu Buhari replaced Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on Friday, sparking claims he had breached the constitution and was trying to manipulate the judiciary.

The European Union, Britain and the United States each issued statements at the weekend expressing concern at the development, as elections are due on 16 February.

But Buhari's spokesperson said late on Sunday that there was no connection. "In Nigerian law there is no such linkage," Garba Shehu said in a statement.

"The CJN does not run the election. Nor is he the first arbiter of any electoral complaints.

"He and the Supreme Court will only get involved as the final arbiter at the end of the appellate process...

"To link the CJN to the elections in this way is illogical unless they assume that election complaints will be filed and go all the way to the Supreme Court."

Shehu's statement was his second against the EU, Britain and the United States, which are all scheduled to have election monitors on the ground.

His later comments were more conciliatory in tone than the first, in which the government rejected outside "interference" and said the issue was an internal matter.

Onnoghen is accused of failing to declare foreign currency bank accounts, in breach of rules governing the declaration of assets by public officials.

Shehu maintained Onnoghen's position was "untenable" given the case against him and the president was forced to act because the judge had not stepped down voluntarily.

The suspension was temporary until the conclusion of the case, he added.

Political opponents of Buhari have questioned the timing of the charges against Onnoghen so close to elections at which Buhari is seeking a second term of office.

The 76-year-old Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress, came to power in 2015 on a pledge to tackle corruption.

International and domestic observers have already warned that the two main parties may attempt to rig the vote, in what is expected to be a close race.

The main opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar said Buhari's suspension of Onnoghen was "a brazen act of dictatorship" in a clear reference to his army past.

Buhari headed a military government in the 1980s.

Parliament has been recalled on Tuesday to discuss the suspension.

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