A Week in Nigeria: 26 January

In this week’s round-up: President Buhari suspends Nigeria’s top judge, the government proposes a 50 percent minimum wage rise and the central bank governor says naira float would spark currency crisis.

President Muhammadu appointed Tanko Mohammed, a judge from the northeastern state of Bauchi, the acting head of Nigeria’s judiciary after suspending the country’s chief justice
  • Even by Nigeria’s standards, this week was eventful. The most notable events came at the end of the week and began with the surprise news that President Muhammadu Buhari had suspended Nigeria’s most senior judge and installed an acting replacement. Nigeria’s judiciary has helped resolve electoral disputes after past votes, some of which have been marred by violence and vote-rigging. And the chief justice could rule on any future dispute. All of this made the decision to suspend the incumbent, less than a month before the 16 February presidential election, particularly controversial.
  • The judge in question, Walter Onnoghen, has been asked to appear before a tribunal over allegations of breaching asset-declaration rules. Under Nigerian law, state officials must declare their assets before taking office and after they leave. The court did not say why it had brought the charges against Onnoghen almost two years into his tenure. Onnoghen has not commented publicly and his lawyers say the tribunal does not have the authority to try him. On Thursday an appeal court issued an interim order to stop charges being brought. But the following day Buhari suspended Onnoghen, saying it was in line with a court order received from the tribunal looking into the allegations.

He also made reference to fresh allegations.

  • The judge’s suspension by Buhari, a retired general who was a military ruler in the early 1980s, sparked a response and chain of events that may be felt beyond election days. The main opposition candidate, businessman and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, called the move an “act of dictatorship”. The Nigerian Bar Association said it rejected what it described as an “attempted coup against the Nigerian judiciary and evident suspension of the Nigerian constitution”. And within hours the opposition People’s Democratic Party said it had suspended its nationwide campaign for 72 hours in protest. The EU, U.S. and Britain all issued statements expressing concern at both the suspension and the timing of the move, coming less than a month before the election.

Even before news of the chief justice’s suspension broke, it had already been an interesting week.

  • The government recommended a 50 percent rise in the minimum wage, with the cost of living one of the big election campaign issues and Atiku focusing on his vow to make Nigerians better off. Labour Minister Chris Ngige said the government would send a bill to parliament proposing an increase in the minimum monthly salary to 27,000 naira ($75, parallel market rate) from 18,000 now. Despite emerging from a recession in early 2017, growth remains weak and inflation hit a seven-month high of 11.44 percent in December. Unions went on strike last year over the minimum wage, initially demanding a rise to 50,000 naira a month. The government bill was discussed by parliament. If passed, it would still need to be signed into law by the president.
  • Oby Ezekwesili, the leading female candidate in the presidential election campaign, withdrew from the race to help build a coalition to provide a viable alternative to the country’s two main parties. She was the candidate of the Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, a little-known party. Following her announcement, the party said it would support Buhari’s re-election bid. Ezekwesili, a former government minister, is known more recently for her work as co-founder of ‘Bring Back Our Girls’, a campaign which seeks to raise awareness about girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram from their school in the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014.
  • Allowing Nigeria’s naira to float would cause a currency crisis, the country’s central bank governor Godwin Emefiele said after opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Atiku repeatedly proposed a free float. Emefiele imposed currency restrictions in 2015, defying advice from bankers to float the naira and raise interest rates as some other oil exporters had done. His decisions were in line with the stance taken by Buhari, an opponent of letting the naira float freely. “On the issue of free float, the monetary policy committee has said it is wrong — it will certainly lead to capital flight,” Emefiele said at a press conference after announcing that the benchmark interest rate would be held at 14 percent, a record high that has been maintained for more than two years. “It will lead to massive, massive depreciation of the valuation of our currency, and ultimately to currency crisis in Nigeria,” he said. Those comments were made on Tuesday, a day after a member of Atiku’s team told Reuters that the former vice president planned to radically overhaul of the central bank if he won the election.
  • French oil group Total will approve plans to proceed with the Ikike project in Nigeria in the coming months, and also aims to expand its liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in the country, said its CEO Patrick Pouyanne said. Total is one of the strongest players in the African oil sector, holding more proven reserves on the continent than any of the other top global oil companies. The 60,000 barrels-per-day (bpd) Ikike project is one of several projects the group has earmarked in Nigeria for a final investment decision, including the 70,000 bpd deepwater Preowei project, which would help Total increase its oil production.
  • Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, said he expected to step up exports of cement and other commodities from Nigeria from this year as he focuses on foreign markets to boost sales and generate much-needed hard currency. Dangote told Reuters he expected to have 8 million tonnes of cement to start exporting from July and was commissioning a 650,000 barrel per day (bpd) refinery near Lagos — set to be Africa’s biggest — next year. The export drive would expand further from 2020.

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