Dear Justice Bart Katureebe,
Greetings! I hope this note finds you well.
On Wednesday, one of your officers, the chief magistrate of Bushenyi, Mr Moses Katorogo, was reportedly interdicted on allegations of soliciting and accepting bribes. I doubt that anyone reading this was in the least surprised.
The Ugandan judiciary and the police force, two of the most important bodies under the justice, law and order sector, top the list of the most corrupt institutions in the country. Your personnel, both judicial officers and support staff, engage in sheer shameless extortion and egregiously defeat the cause of justice. I have been a victim, a subject to which I return in a moment.
Your Lordship, you received overwhelming public support, across the political divide, when the Judicial Service Commission recommended your appointment as chief justice.
The near unanimous message of approval by the Ugandan public and the activism of MP Gerald Karuhanga, who took the matter of your appointment to the Constitutional court, compelled General Museveni to fall through and appoint you chief justice.
The public support was, I suspect, because many thought of you as a distinguished public official capable of cleaning up the mess in the judiciary. Two years later, many Ugandans must be disappointed. I am one of them!
In the lower courts, poor people can’t get justice due to rampant petty bribe-solicitation by secretaries and clerks. In the appellant courts, especially in the Court of Appeal, petty politics is played by especially a former eminent member of the ruling party, your deputy, Mr Steven Kavuma. I suspect you can tell that I am constrained to address him as Justice Kavuma.
The Court of Appeal/Constitutional court has rapidly gained notoriety for obstructing, instead of aiding, justice. The exasperation by the speaker of parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, against Kavuma’s recent injunction that in practice would have shut down parliament spoke volumes. By referring to his order as ‘stupid,’ Kadaga expressed a sentiment that is undoubtedly shared by many Ugandans.
Your deputy has greatly imperiled the integrity of the judiciary. Yet, while the abuse of judicial authority and obstruction of justice have been on full display, you, as the head of the institution, have been conspicuously silent!
In the High court, registrars and judges collude with shady lawyers to frustrate justice and entrench a culture of injustice. There have been numerous reports of misconduct and abuse of office against your officers, the most recent made against an eminent judge of the High court.
In the minds of many Ugandans who have encountered the travails of our courts, the judiciary is not the temple of justice. And if judicial officers can get away with misconduct and blatant corrupt practices in Kampala, what do you think is the situation in rural areas? I am sure you know, but let me briefly narrate a case that I confronted with bitterness not too long ago.
In late 2015, a friend had a land-dispute case decided against him at the Magistrate’s court in Manafwa district. In her ruling, the magistrate awarded a hefty sum as costs to the winner. How did she determine the costs of the suit to include it in her ruling?
But the most bizarre action was that in just a few hours of the ruling, my friend was promptly arrested: he had to pay the costs right away! Court brokers were on hand to effect the arrest. On his way to prison, he managed to call me. I was in Kampala; so, the following morning I made the long trip to Mbale and then Manafwa to try and help him out of prison.
The only way out, short of paying the awarded costs, I was told by a lawyer in Mbale town, was to initiate the process of appealing the ruling. But why would someone be arrested immediately after a ruling yet he has the right of appeal? How can he appeal while in jail?
Since he was in prison, there was no time to ask questions. Lodging appeal papers and applying for a temporary injunction, a stay of execution, and all the litany documents for temporary relief took a full week and cost some good money.
My most horrifying experience was inside the corridors and offices of the High court in Mbale. There, I experienced firsthand the shameless display of greed and callous exercise of arrogance.
To carry documents from one office to another for signature, I was told I had to pay. If I didn’t, it meant at least an additional day in jail for my friend.
To collect the case file in the Magistrate’s court in Manafwa and take it to Mbale, I had to pay. To deliver the court order to prison so my friend gets out of illegal detention, I had to pay. I was appalled and outraged, yet totally helpless.
My Lord, the chief justice, the scale of graft and misconduct in our courts defies characterization. If you can have your way, you must change some rules so your office and that of the Inspectorate of Courts together with the Judicial Service Commission can arrest the situation.
The author teaches political science at Northwestern University/Evanston, Chicago-USA.