UPDATE 3-Nigeria opposition party pauses election campaign over suspension of judge

* Judge suspension follows asset allegations

* Judiciary plays key role in resolving disputed elections

* Presidential election scheduled to take place on Feb.16

* Opposition party calls suspension assault on constitution

* President says suspension followed court order (Adds ruling party comment)

By Felix Onuah

ABUJA, Jan 26 (Reuters) – Nigeria’s main opposition party has halted its presidential election campaign for 72 hours weeks ahead of the vote in protest at the suspension of the country’s most senior judge by President Muhammadu Buhari, it said on Saturday.

The president on Friday said he had suspended chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Onnoghen who has been asked to appear before a tribunal over allegations of breaching asset-declaration rules.

Onnoghen has not responded to the charges and his lawyers say the tribunal does not have the authority to try him.

Buhari, who was a military ruler in the 1980s and voted into office in 2015, is seeking a fresh term in the upcoming election. At stake is control of Africa’s top crude oil producer and one of the continent’s biggest economies.

Nigeria’s judiciary has helped resolve electoral disputes after past votes, some of which have been marred by violence and vote rigging. The chief justice could preside over a disputed election result.

“In the first instance, we are suspending our campaign for 72 hours. It is our hope that President Buhari will listen to the voice of all lovers of democracy the world over and restore democracy in Nigeria immediately and without qualifications,” the PDP said in a statement.

Buhari on Friday said a court order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal, which is looking into the asset declaration allegations, directed him to suspend the judge.

“We call on all well meaning Nigerians to rise in defence of democracy and save our nation from this imminent slide into tyranny,” the PDP said in its statement.

The opposition party, which was in power from the start of civilian rule in 1999 until Buhari’s 2015 election victory with his All Progressives Congress (APC) party, said the judge’s suspension was a “brazen assault on the constitution”.

The APC said the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) was set to lose the poll, scheduled to take place on Feb. 16, and its campaign suspension was part of an attempt to provide an “excuse” after it has been defeated.

“It is just an excuse they are looking for in order to escape the defeat that is awaiting them,” Lanre Issa-Onilu, a spokesman for the ruling APC, said in a telephone interview when asked about the suspension of the opposition’s campaign.

“They have the right to decide to continue with their campaign or not even participate in the election. They know that Nigerians have rejected them because they have failed in the past,” he said.

The PDP’s candidate, businessman Atiku Abubakar who served as vice president from 1999 to 2007, is the main challenger to Buhari in the upcoming poll. (Reporting Felix Onuah; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, William Maclean)


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