January 30, 2019 / 12:36 PM / 6 months ago

Nigerian court rules suspended chief judge can be tried on conduct charges

Lawyers are pictured ahead of a hearing to consider whether a tribunal has the authority to try the country's top judge, Walter Onnoghen, on charges of failing to disclose his assets, in Abuja, Nigeria January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

ABUJA (Reuters) - A court cleared the way on Wednesday for the trial of Nigeria’s top judge, whose suspension by President Muhammadu Buhari, just weeks before an election in which he would have helped resolve any disputes, has led to accusations of electoral interference.

The appeals court in Abuja ruled that chief judge Walter Onnoghen can be tried by a code of conduct tribunal over allegations that he broke the law by failing to disclose the full extent of his financial assets.

Onnoghen was suspended by Buhari last week pending the tribunal’s verdict on his alleged violation of wealth declaration rules, weeks before a Feb. 16 presidential election in which Buhari is seeking a new mandate.

Onnoghen has not responded publicly to the allegations.

The appeals court had originally put the tribunal proceedings on hold indefinitely.

Because Nigeria’s chief judge has a key say in resolving electoral disputes, Onnoghen’s suspension has led opponents of Buhari to accuse him of interfering in the electoral process and of showing regional and religious favouritism. The European Union and the United States have also voiced concerns.

The judge’s roots are in Nigeria’s largely Christian south, where the opposition People’s Democratic Party has its base. His temporary replacement is from the predominantly Muslim north, where Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress is strong.

The Code of Conduct Tribunal said on Jan. 12 that Onnoghen would face six counts of alleged non-declaration of assets. The allegations were initially made by Dennis Aghanya, who served as Buhari’s media aide between 2009 and 2011.

Reporting by Camillus Eboh; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Catherine Evans

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