ABUJA, Feb 4 (Reuters) – A tribunal on Monday ordered Nigeria’s top judge to appear for trial on Feb. 13 in a case that has raised fears of interference in next month’s presidential election, after an appeals court cleared the way for the hearing to begin.
The court in Abuja on Wednesday 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 President Muhammadu Buhari last month 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.
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.
Onnoghen could not be reached to comment.
“The defendant must appear in court on the next sitting of this tribunal. He has to appear, be arraigned and thereafter he can raise any objection, if he has any,” Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) Danladi Umar said.
“If he is not in court, I may be forced to used my powers to cause him to appear.”
Onnoghen’s lawyers had initially argued that the tribunal did not have the authority to try him.
The government’s laywer at the hearing informed the court that the attorney general had sent a petition on the alleged asset declaration breaches to Nigeria’s top legal body, the National Judicial Council.
The CCT 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. The charges are yet to be disclosed. (Reporting by Camillus Eboh, Writing by Chijioke Ohuocha, Editing by William Maclean)