Justice Yorokamu Bamwine is one of the very few career judicial officers in Uganda. He has seen it all, having started out as a grade one magistrate in 1983 before rising through the ranks to become principal judge in 2010.
Over the 36 years, he has presided over more than a thousand cases, and as he clears his desk to prepare for retirement later this year, he told DERRICK KIYONGA about his eventful journey in the judiciary.
It was in 2009 that Justice Bamwine got earmarked to become the principal judge, the third-most powerful position in the judiciary’s power structure after the chief justice and deputy chief justice. However, something went amiss and put his career in jeopardy.
“My hand gave way and I couldn’t write coherently anymore,” he recalls.
Back then, Bamwine was operating in a judiciary system that was not yet digitized, meaning that proceedings had to be handwritten. That had taken a toll on him and he could not write anymore. The condition was so serious Bamwine had to seek medical treatment in South Africa.
It took several weeks and surgery for Bamwine’s hand to fully heal in order for him to take notes again during proceedings. Finally in 2010 he replaced Justice James Ogoola as principal judge. Over the course of his tenure, the digitalization of the proceedings has greatly eased his work and health to the extent that he retires a contented man.
Bamwine arrived in the judiciary as a grade one magistrate in 1983. He also served as chief magistrate at Buganda Road court, an ordinary registrar and later as chief registrar. Once appointed a judge, Bamwine was taken out of his comfort zone, Kampala. He had to test what it meant to administer justice in far-flung areas.
Justice Jeremiah Herbert Ntabgoba, the then principal judge, tasked him to man the High court in Fort Portal. This was no mean feat because at the time, there were few judges and that meant he handled all disputes in the Rwenzori sub-region.
From western Uganda, Bamwine was posted to the High court in Jinja. He would later return to Kampala where he was placed at the High court’s Commercial division. All this time, while using pen and paper only to hear cases, Justice Bamwine says he had one huge obsession: to fight case backlog.
However, that also meant he had to pay a big price. Bamwine concedes he was unknown, at least to the general public, and there were more imperative issues than personalities - fighting case logjam.
“I had some pending judgments,” Justice Bamwine talks of the time he was appointed Principal Judge back in 2010. “I wrote those judgments. The more I wrote, the more I experienced pain [in my hand].”
In legal circles, it is commonplace to ask why Bamwine who was reputed for penning innovatory judgments gave up on hearing cases in the conventional court the moment he became principal judge and the answer goes back to his ailment.
“I experienced pain [in my arm] and in the end I had to scale down and instead concentrate on mediation.”
Unquestionably, Bamwine does not shy away from the fact that mediation will define his tenure. He has not only moved the length and breadth of this country promoting mediation, but he has mediated almost all big civil cases, the latest being the Bank of Uganda vs. Sudhir Ruparelia case, where an out-of-court settlement could not be attained.
“Mediation,” he explains, “is one way of bringing cases to a close quickly, I felt it would reduce backlog.”
But Bamwine’s love affair with mediation did not start in 2013 when the project was formally rolled out in Uganda’s judiciary. It was in 1973 during his high school days at Kitunga High School, now Muntuyera High School, that his passion for mediation was triggered. A Grade Two magistrate visited a community with warring parties, in a bid to settle a longstanding land dispute. He fell in love with mediation.
“I used to wonder why a case would take long in the system. With time, I realized that cases take long because of exaggerated egos,” he says. “That’s one party thinking that he has all the time and all the money to defeat the other.”
As he reminisces from his well-furnished office, which he will vacate by Christmas day, Bamwine mixes both serenity and expertise expected of him as an old-timer of one of the arms of government.
But this is a journey that nearly suffered a stillbirth. Born 65 years ago at Mashekura – then Bushenyi, now Sheema district – Bamwine only started going to school when he was 10 years old. At the time his family had shifted to Isingiro district. James Wanyomoza, Bamwine’s father appreciated education, but made it clear he had no money for it.
“In those days education as a right was unheard of. So, if a parent said I don’t have money for school, that was it,” he recalls.
But then something happened; pupils moving through villages while playing with a brass band sang a song spelling out the consequences of not going to school.
“They said those who don’t go to school miss out a lot and that those who had gone to school would be leaders over those who had not gone,” Bamwine explains.
Since he wanted to be a leader, he convinced himself going to school was a must. He sought his father’s audience and with a serious face, told his “old man” it was about time he saw some blackboards and that he would need a uniform too. His father obliged. Bamwine, who had a total of 14 siblings, started school at Kihanda primary school.
Contrary to his request, he had no uniform. So for the start, the future principal judge attended class wearing just a big shirt – no shorts.
“The moment I went to school,” he says, “I never looked back.”
The school voyage saw him later go to Nabumali High School which at the time belonged to the crème de la crème among schools, for his A-levels. Nabumali was particularly of interest because Arts students fared well while there and Bamwine convinced himself that if he was to be a lawyer, he needed to pass the arts subjects.
He joined Makerere University two years later, in a bid to accomplish his dream of becoming a lawyer and subsequently Law Development Centre (LDC). Between 1982 and 1983 before he could join the judiciary, Bamwine had a short stint as a teaching assistant at Makerere Law School. This, nonetheless, was not meant for him.
“I had interest in teaching law but I did not see my career take that direction. Back then life of a teacher was not the best.”
After getting a job as a Grade I magistrate, an opportunity presented itself; he could go study on a scholarship and he went to Australia for his Master’s in law.
“The judiciary I joined was so conservative. No innovation. It was a dull institution for men and women of advanced age. Judicial officers felt there was no need for further improvement in terms of academic work. It wasn’t necessary to go for further studies.”
Contrasting those days with the current tide in the judiciary, Bamwine says: “Today a degree can’t be counted. You have to get a master’s.”
LIFE ON THE BENCH
Once he became a magistrate, he had to get into the thick of things. All sorts of cases ranging from civil to criminal came to his desk. Between 1992 and 1994 while he was chief magistrate at Buganda Road court, some UPC stalwart authored a pamphlet which did not sit well with people within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), which had just shot its way to power in 1986.
Guerillas-turned-liberators took exception to the forwardness of this pamphlet that ostensibly attacked the NRM and went to court.
Once it was on his desk, Bamwine dismissed the defamation case on grounds it was not maintainable under the law.
“It was a controversial case. It went to the High court and that court upheld my ruling,” Bamwine says, adding that though his court was not a court of record, the judgment became teaching material for university students.
The UPC case gave Bamwine a dose of what it means handling a highly political case and though he has been a principal judge and among his roles to select judges who determine political cases such as parliamentary and local government petitions, he says he maintained the much-accentuated, nonaligned stance expected of a judge.
“Nobody today knows which political party I support,” he says. “And I don’t follow politics when I’m choosing which judge is going to hear which case. I normally ask myself who is competent enough to do this job.”
The case that is memorable to Bamwine, however, was one in which Professor George William Kakoma (RIP) who composed the National Anthem sought billions of shillings or else Ugandans stop singing his composition.
Bamwine dismissed this case but he ruled that since Kakoma did great work for the country, he should be given a monetary reward. Kakoma did not like Bamwine’s ruling and decided to appeal.
“At the time Intellectual Property law was not that developed. I had started from scratch and I made a decision that recently the Court of Appeal agreed with,” Bamwine says, alluding to the Court of Appeal, which ruled long after Kakoma’s death that not only was his case a nonstarter but also quashed the Shs 50m that Bamwine had rewarded him.
“I’m very happy now Intellectual Property is very much a live subject at the university and this case [Kakoma’s] is cited as an example,” Bamwine says with a sense of fulfillment.
Under his reign, the tests facing the judiciary have increased; the budget is still meager compared to the expanding population, state agencies disobey court orders but still the biggest dilemma in the administration of justice is corruption. Real or perceived, corruption is one thing that Justice Bamwine has had to contend with.
“They tried to bribe me. Once you are handling cases, people will try to bribe you. But I rejected the bribes.”
Asked if at all he has ever read a particular judgment written by a fellow judge and felt it was a result of corruption, Bamwine said: “I haven’t come across an instance where a decision was made on account of payment.”
Bamwine believes majority of those who are accusing judges of being corrupt are just bad losers.
“In all cases a party is bound to lose and another to win. The losers normally impute there is ulterior motive yet you know in your heart of hearts that you had to lose.”
Secondly, Bamwine says without giving specific examples that where they have had complaints about corrupt judges, they have forwarded the names to the organ charged with disciplining judicial officers, the Judicial Service Commission.
“People don’t understand that the Judicial Service Commission is different from the judiciary,” he says. “Where we have had evidence, we have passed over the same to the Judicial Service Commission and I can’t explain what happens at the Judicial Service Commission. We don’t know what happens there.”
Yet, it’s pointed out to Bamwine, it is the norm that low-ranking cadres such as magistrates are punished for engaging in corruption, but the same does not apply to judges.
“No judge has been impeached or removed during my tenure. It’s not that we have not taken action. Complaints have been raised but they are general in nature. They lack evidence.”
Not that Bamwine has not tried to punish delinquent judges. In 2013, Judge Anup Singh Choudry, following a string of controversial judgments, was not assigned any judicial duties by Bamwine until he retired in 2014.
“I had to act,” Bamwine explains. “The Uganda Law Society was saying if he continues with cases, they will boycott court. So, I weighed. The interests of an individual and the interests of the organization. And in consultation with the chief justice, I decided not to give that particular judge any other work pending retirement.
Recently, there has been a suggestion that Uganda should duplicate the American system which allows judges to serve until death, or until they feel they can’t do it anymore. Bamwine without directly answering the question says he is still energetic to serve but he has to comply with the dictates of Uganda’s law.
“Blame it on the Constitution, which makes the Principal Judge retire at 65 years and yet the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice at 70 years. The Principal Judge is third in the hierarchy. But that’s the Constitution and if that wasn’t the case, I would have continued to serve. I have no problem. But as a judge of the High court, I have to retire at 65 years. That’s how the Constitution dictates.”
Talking about age, Bamwine is not even sure that he was born on Christmas day of 1954.
“By the time I was born there were no birth certificates. So, my parents just estimated and they gave me a birth-date. So I’m not sure when I was born.”
Be that as it may, Bamwine, who has an infectious smile, has to call it a day.
“I have fought case backlog. I have done my best. Cases are still piling up. Even my successor will come and the cases will pile up still. The judiciary needs resources.”
Citing 2Timothy 4:7, Bamwine says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
It is now on to hopefully better things.