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Onnoghen’s Suspension: Stupid Or Strategic? ~ By Vitus Ozoke


A few things have happened in Nigeria that fit in the column of executive stupidity. Babangida’s annulment of June 12, 1993, elections was stupid. Obasanjo’s push for a third term in 2006 was stupid. Buhari’s arrest and detention of Nnamdi Kanu in 2015 was stupid.

They were stupid because they were all based on an exaggerated understanding of executive powers. They were not designed as reversible actions in grand schemes of bigger strategies.

Yes, Babangida annulled June 12 because he needed to continue with his ongoing criminal enterprise in Aso Rock. But he intended the annulment as permanent. He was never going to recall and hand over power to Abiola, the presumed winner of the election.

Obasanjo’s scheming for a third term was intended to be it – third term. Had he gotten his way, Obasanjo would have amended the Constitution for that purpose and that would have been a permanent amendment.

It was not going to be an interim and reversible amendment just to serve Obasanjo’s insatiable appetite for more wasteful years in power.

And when Buhari ordered the arrest and detention of Nnamdi Kanu and his friends in 2015, he meant for them to be detained, prosecuted, and possibly convicted. He didn’t plan it as a temporary time-out for them.

Something major, perhaps unprecedented in Nigeria’s democratic history, has just occurred. President Buhari has purportedly suspended the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen. Measured by the parameters of the cited stupidities, this action looks like one.

If Buhari and his handlers were not stupid, they should have known that the president has neither a sua sponte nor a suo motu authority to discipline a justice of the Supreme Court.

His involvement in any such or similar disciplinary process is limited only to the ratification of a petition by the Senate or the National Judicial Commission, as the case may be. So, to the extent that they didn’t know that, Buhari and his enablers would seem to have acted out of gross stupidity.

However, there is something about this Buhari-Onnoghen action that makes it less stupid and more of a strategy. It is the timing. When you consider that Nigeria’s presidential election is exactly three weeks away, you begin to see the strategic contours of the action.

Many see this action as power grab, and they are right. Even many more see it as Buhari’s plan to constitute a Supreme Court that will be sympathetic to him in the very likely event of post-election petitions. They too are right.

But I see it differently. Of course, it is a power-play, but the endgame is not to put together a pro-Buhari Supreme Court panel.

Buhari is not looking to fight Atiku Abubakar at the Supreme Court. Buhari wants to deal Atiku a knockout sucker punch at the polls. The plan is to hit Atiku so hard at the polls that there will be no need to disturb the wise men of the Supreme Court.

Recall my piece, titled “IT’S THE NORTH, STUPID”. Well, it still is. Buhari is making a grand play for the north. Suspending Onnoghen, who is from the Christian south-south (Cross-River) of Nigeria, a region that Buhari is not looking to carry, and replacing him with a Muslim from the north (Bauchi), is a strategic chess move.

The average northern voter will hear it over his transistor radio (not social media) that Buhari has kicked out a Christian Chief Justice from the south and has replaced him with a Muslim from the north. He will add that to what he already knows about Buhari.

That, unlike Atiku, Buhari has not made any commitment to restructure Nigeria. And by restructure, in the way it has been sold to the average northern voter, is meant taking away the northern advantage and giving other Nigerians fair and equal opportunities in the Nigerian project.

He will be reminded that Atiku has accused Buhari, rightly so, of staggeringly lopsided appointments that favor the north. He will now see that, with Buhari’s suspension and replacement of Onnoghen, the north now head all three branches of Nigerian government.

He will now see Buhari as the ‘true’ northerner, championing the northern interest and northern agenda. Not Atiku Abubakar.

Now, why is Onnoghen’s purported suspension more strategic than stupid? Buhari does not intend the suspension as permanent and irreversible. It is an instrumental political move. As soon as he is reelected in three weeks, he will back off Onnoghen.

He will let the Code of Conduct Tribunal wrap up its case against Onnoghen. He might even put in a few good words for Onnoghen and help him return to the apex court. It’s a strategy to win the Muslim north.

The southeast Igbo will cry blue murder, and rightly so. For them, it’s not just Buhari’s alleged anti-Igbo agenda, it is now his assault on constitutionalism and rule of law. They will not vote for him. But they were not going to vote for him even before the Onnoghen tyranny.

The south-south were not going to vote for Buhari anyway. The suspension of their son just firmed their resolve to not vote for him. The southwest Yoruba, with their army of lawyers and judicial and rights activists, will be thoroughly exercised by the Onnoghen assault. But they will be fine.

The Yoruba are the most sophisticated and calculatingly strategic political group in Nigeria. For them, it is self-interest first. A Buhari reelection guarantees the Yoruba the vice presidency. Their admired son Osinbajo will continue to serve as the number two man in the country.

It is a consideration that far outweighs the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Heck, it was Nkanu Onnoghen that was removed, not Femi Falana.

So, it is 2015 all over again. The regional and geographic alliances remain the same. What is different this time is that, unlike 2015 when Buhari was the sole candidate from the Muslim north, he is being challenged by another Muslim northerner.

To fend him off, and consolidate the Muslim north, Buhari has gone for a strategic jugular. It’s not stupidity; it’s strategy.

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