By Joseph Onyekwere and Ngozi Egenuka
There is no doubt that the United States of America (USA), the European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (UK) among few other foreign nations have always shown great interest in what happens in Nigeria.
But this attention has increased significantly ahead of this year’s elections, scheduled to commence tomorrow.
In fact, as the election date gets closer, the degree of foreign observation and commentaries heightened too. These are by democratic countries that not only practices but also promote democracy and rule of law across the globe.
While it is also not in doubt that they want to ensure peaceful, credible, fair and transparent electoral system devoid of crisis in the most populous black nation, observers believe their motives may not be absolutely altruistic.
It is important to note that the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari triggered a flurry of reactions from the international community.
The suspension of Onnoghen, who is the head of the judicial arm of government by the head of the executive arm fueled the speculation even within the country that the ruling party was planning to unjustly invade and intimidate the judicial arm of government and the international community cannot just keep quiet under such circumstances.
This is because; the judiciary plays an active and critical role in Nigeria’s electoral process most times by adjudicating over electoral disputes and deciding winners and losers.
Worse still, the suspended CJN was to inaugurate the election petition tribunal panel that would handle disputes that may arise from the election few days before he was removed.
Some Nigerian diplomats believe International communities are unduly interfering with Nigerian politics.
Vice Chancellor, Oduduwa University, Oyo State, Prof. Chibuzor Nwoke, said he doesn’t believe the world powers are interested in Nigeria.
According to him, it is interference into the national affairs. He said: “The question is, could a Nigerian ambassador in the U.S. make such a blatant statement about Trump recruiting other western countries to go to Venezuela to stampede the place? They have already recognized someone who was not voted for and they tell us to practice democracy.
“In my view, they don’t want stability but to cause confusion. The tactic is ‘divide and rule’ and it won’t give us stability. There is a principle on non-interference in the foreign affairs of other nations. Nigeria is a sovereign nation, so they don’t have a right to make such statements. It is more saddening that he could do that to a country and get away with it. In serious sovereign nations, he would have been told to leave because he over-stepped his boundaries.”
He stressed that the principle says sovereign equality; they won’t accept that there is inequality even though that’s the reality. It is the inequality they deny that allows them do what they desire.
He said Nigeria should ensure they fight for their sovereignty and ensure its a sovereign nation in all ramifications, not a neo-colonial out-post of any advanced power. This would be done by completing the independence project and having an economic base or independence.”
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Lagos, Dr. Franca Attoh said it is because out of every five black people in the world, one is a Nigerian, so in a crisis situation, the West African sub region would not only be overwhelmed with the humanitarian crises but the world would see something that is worse than the situation of Syria.
Any right thinking person should be interested in what happens in Nigeria, she stated.
Her words: “It is really not about our interest, that have to protect their borders, the humanitarian crisis alone would shake the world to its foundation, because the truth is, hypothetically, if there is a crisis in Nigeria today, and you open the West African borders, within an hour the whole of Republic of Benin, Togo, Ghana would be overwhelmed by the population. It is in the interest of the world that they take interest in what is happening in Nigeria to ensure peace and stability in the country.”
An Associate professor in Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, (NIIA), Dr. Joshua Olusegun Bolarinwa, said it is intriguing when world powers show interest in our internal affairs.
“From my own point of view, I believe it is as a result of self-interests in the continent and more importantly, Nigeria. Nigeria is the big brother of Africa and a strategic partner to some of the world powers such as US. So they will always be interested in the peace, stability and development in Nigeria. This I believe is one of the reasons for the interests shown by the US in the up-coming presidential election and the removal of the CJN.
Bolarinwa, who is also head of Division of Security and Strategic study of the NIIA, said the EU played a major role in the development and democratization of Nigeria and other African states. “It even went further in placing borrowing restrictions stating that for any African state to access development funds from the EU, they must be democratized, showing their stance on democracy. Therefore, this could be a reason for their growing interest in Nigeria affairs,” he said.
He explained further that Nigeria is endowed with natural and human resources and that the world powers are gaining from it and won’t want to risk a disruption.
In his remark, a senior lecturer of political science and public administration in Babcock University, Dr. Ngozi Nwogwugwu said: “From my understanding, I believe the Nigerian President is not only decided by the Nigerian election but by world powers and top retired military men.
Therefore, I am of the opinion that the West is about to make such decisions because President Buhari has disappointed us. I think the West have chosen Atiku over Buhari as it is known, Atiku embarked on a trip to the US recently.
“I don’t see it as meddling, as the West owns Africa and African states are dependent on the West. They have been in existence for ages and their natural resources have been exhausted, so they use our crisis to gain access to our resources. They have multinational corporations in African states that help syphon our resources back to them. This is the reason they don’t support Biafra, as they believe they don’t stand to gain from its secession.
“Finally, with the action of President Buhari in the suspension of the CJN Onnoghen, they believe it is a means to an end in the forth-coming election that will not favour them,” he said.
A Professor of History and International Affairs, Lagos State University (LASU), Abolade Adeniji stressed that Nigeria is not a tiny country, but the largest black population in the world, with about 200million people which is prone to crisis because of its delicate nature. The international community, he said recognizes that nothing must go wrong in Nigeria.
“We can swamp the whole of West Africa and destabilize the continent in a short while. It is in their own interest to make sure this country doesn’t implode because by international convention, they will have to grant all of us visas because we would be refugees. And they would have the moral burden to accommodate us all,” he declared.
Although reasons and circumstances behind Onnoghen’s suspension are believed to be politically motivated, the president said he was acting on the orders of the Code of Conduct Tribunal. Onnoghen was accused of not declaring his assets completely as required by law. It is compulsory for all public officers to declare their assets in Nigeria.
Having suspended him, the president swore in Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria. Both Justices are now before the National Judicial Council (NJC) to answer to some petitions against them.
Reacting to this, the EU, UK and U.S. called for caution and expressed strong concerns about rule of law. The U.S. through its embassy, said: “The Embassy of the United States is deeply concerned by the impact of the executive branch’s decision to suspend and replace the Chief Justice and head of the judicial branch without the support of the legislative branch on the eve of national and state elections.
“We note widespread Nigerian criticism that this decision is unconstitutional and that it undermines the independence of the judicial branch. That undercuts the stated determination of government, candidates, and political party leaders to ensure that the elections proceed in a way that is free, fair, transparent, and peaceful – leading to a credible result.
“We urge that the issues raised by this decision be resolved swiftly and peacefully in accordance with due process, full respect for the rule of law, and the spirit of the Constitution of Nigeria. Such action is needed urgently now to ensure that this decision does not cast a pall over the electoral process.”
UK in its letter, wrote: “The British High Commission expresses serious concern over the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria. We have heard a wide range of credible and independent voices, including in the Nigerian legal profession and civil society, who have expressed concern over the constitutionality of the executive branch’s suspension of the chief officer of the judiciary.
“We respect Nigeria’s sovereign authority and its right to adjudicate on constitutional provisions but as friends of the Nigerian people, we are compelled to observe that the timing of this action, so close to national elections, gives cause for concern. It risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections. We, along with other members of the international community, are following developments closely.
“We encourage all actors to maintain calm and address the concerns raised by this development through due process, demonstrating their commitment to respecting the constitution and the impartial administration of the rule of law. We further urge them to take steps to ensure that elections take place in an environment conducive to a free, fair and peaceful process,” it said.
Similarly, the European Union through the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) also expressed concern over the development. Its Press and Public Outreach Officer, Sarah Fradgley signed the statement.
According to the EU, the suspension raises the question of whether due process was followed. The EU urged all parties to follow all legal processes in line with the constitution of the country.
“The European Union was invited by the Independent National Electoral Commission to observe the 2019 general elections.
“The EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) is very concerned about the process and timing of the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Walter Onnoghen, on 25 January.
“With 20 days until the presidential and National Assembly elections, political parties, candidates and voters must be able to have confidence in the impartiality and independence of the judicial system.
“The decision to suspend the Chief Justice has led to many Nigerians, including lawyers and civil society observer groups, to question whether due process was followed. The timing, just before the swearing in of justices for Electoral Tribunals and the hearing of election-related cases, has also raised concerns about the opportunity for electoral justice.
“The EU EOM calls on all parties to follow the legal processes provided for in the Constitution and to respond calmly to any concerns they may have.
“The EU EOM will continue observing all aspects of the election, including the independence of the election administration, the neutrality of security agencies, and the extent to which the judiciary can and does fulfill its election-related responsibilities,” its statement reads.
But the presidency saw it as undue interference. Responding to the concerns raised by the international community almost simultaneously, the federal government said the comments were rather hasty.
Its statement reads: “The presidency notes with interest the coordinated statements of the US, UK and EU linking the suspension of CJN Onnoghen to the conduct of the upcoming elections. We appreciate the concerns voiced by the three statements and accept that the authors of the statements believe they were acting in friendship toward Nigeria with regard to making the statements.
“However, we also note that friends, when not properly informed or acting in haste, can indeed make serious mistakes even with the best of intentions. Such is the case here.”
Speaking recently on Nigerian Info FM, the UK, represented by the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Ms. Catriona Laing, said they respect Nigeria’s sovereignty but are also interested in the process, thus the need to deploy over 100 observers covering 15 states to support observer missions from the European Union, United States Diplomatic Mission in Nigeria and other local observers.
She explained: “We’ve invested heavily as a partner with the Independent National Electoral Commission and civil societies to strengthen those institutions and make the process stronger.”
However, foreign interventions are not just new to our politics. In 2015 elections, the international communities were believed to have played a role in the election in which former president Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat.
To give root to this notion, Jonathan, in his new book ‘My Transition Hours’, said the Obama-led U.S. government interfered to influence the sovereignty of Nigeria.
He wrote: “I can recall that President Obama sent his Secretary of State to Nigeria, a sovereign nation, to protest the rescheduling of the election. John Kerry arrived in Nigeria on Sunday January 25, 2015 and said ‘it’s imperative that these elections happen on time as scheduled’.
“How can the U.S. Secretary of State know what is more important for Nigeria than Nigeria’s own government? How could they have expected us to conduct elections when Boko Haram controlled part of the North East and were killing and maiming Nigerians?”
Jonathan further noted that Obama’s ‘unusual’ video message where he spoke directly to the Nigerian people was a subtle attempt to influence the votes in favour of the opposition at the time to oust him from office.
Fast track to the present situation, indications show there might just be an interest from the UK, U.S. and EU to favour the major opposition party, same party that they fought to remove from power in the last elections.
For some commentators, the West is not interested in accommodating a large number of refugees in the event that there is a conflict in Nigeria, while others think it is mere meddlesomeness.