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Nigeria chief justice forced from office, trial is adjourned

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (AP) — The Nigerian Code of Conduct Tribunal on Monday adjourned proceedings for Nigeria's chief justice who is being arraigned on charges of allegedly failing to declare his assets and for holding foreign bank accounts.

The proceedings were adjourned until Jan. 22 after the lead prosecuting counsel, Aliyu Umar, said that Chief Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen was not properly served with the charges and summons, as required by law.

On Saturday, the federal government ordered Chief Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen to immediately vacate his office as head of the country's judiciary. Nigerian state officials must declare their assets by law before they take office and after they leave.

The Code of Conduct Bureau had filed six charges against Onnoghen on Friday, all related to non-declaration of assets, according to the tribunal. The chief justice has a key role in resolving election disputes and Nigeria will vote for a new president on Feb. 16.

This is the first time a Nigerian chief justice is standing trial. A team of 94 lawyers arrived at the tribunal on Monday to defend Onnoghen, whose appointment nearly two years ago had suffered an unprecedented delay by President Muhammadu Buhari for undisclosed reasons. Buhari will be running for another term in the February elections.

In solidarity with the Chief Justice, the Nigerian Bar Association released a statement Sunday condemning what it called "assault, intimidation and desecration of the judiciary," by federal government agencies.

"Our respective liberties and the rule of law are best protected and preserved if the judiciary remains independent and shielded from intimidation and assault by the other arms of the government," the statement read.

The Coalition of Niger Delta Agitators on Sunday threatened to resume attacks on oil wells in the region should the trial move forward. The coalition of militants argued that Onnoghen is being prosecuted because he is from the Niger Delta and is an attempt to destabilize the upcoming election.

"In the first instance, President Muhammadu Buhari was not disposed to Justice Onnoghen's appointment to this position, which was why he refused to confirm the appointment after so many months of serving in an acting capacity," the group said in a statement, adding that the chief justice's appointment was confirmed by acting President Yemi Osinbajo while Buhari was in London for health reasons.

"We, therefore, want to state categorically that if the presidency failed to reverse its harassment against the CJN (chief justice), we will have no other option but to mobilize all the Niger Delta fighters and commence serious actions that would shake the country."

Nigeria's Senate President Bukola Saraki was years ago arraigned at the tribunal for false asset declaration, though he was eventually discharged and acquitted. Those decisions were upheld by the Supreme Court under the leadership of Onnoghen.

Associated Press reporter Bashir Adigun in Abuja contributed.

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