UPDATE 1-Nigeria rejects foreign “meddling” over chief justice suspended before Feb vote

(Adds statement from presidency; updates dateline, previously LAGOS)

By Felix Onuah

ABUJA, Jan 27 (Reuters) – The Nigerian government said it would not accept any foreign “meddling” after the European Union, United States and Britain raised concerns over last week’s suspension of Nigeria’s most senior judge before a Feb. 16 presidential election.

President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second term in office, suspended Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen on Friday over allegedly breaching asset-declaration rules, drawing criticism at home and abroad.

The main opposition party called it an act of dictatorship and halted its election campaign for 72 hours in protest. The EU election observation team said Onnoghen’s suspension raised concerns about the “opportunity for electoral justice”.

Nigeria’s judiciary has helped resolve electoral disputes following previous votes, some of which have been marred by violence and vote rigging. The chief justice of Nigeria (CJN) could rule on any future dispute.

“FG [federal government] determined to ensure free, fair elections. This government will not bend the rules, and will not allow meddling in our affairs,” read a statement issued late on Saturday by Buhari’s spokesman, Garba Shehu.

Coming hours after statements expressing concern were issued by the E.U., U.S. and Britain, the statement said the government would “reject any interference or perception management that promotes apprehension” about the outcome of the election.

In a separate statement issued by Shehu late on Sunday, the presidency said: “The statements by the three seem more driven by unfounded assumptions and to be honest, a certain condescension to this African democracy.”

It questioned the link drawn between the judge’s suspension and the upcoming election, since he would only be called upon at a late stage of any post-election dispute.

“For the authors to link the CJN to the elections in this way is illogical unless they assume that election complaints will be filed and will go all the way to the Supreme Court,” the statement said.

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

Buhari, who took office in 2015 after winning an election largely on his vow to fight corruption and improve security, is a retired general who was a military ruler in the 1980s. (Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Daniel Wallis)

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