Retired Supreme court judge John Wilson Tsekooko, a man particularly remembered for twice ruling against President Yoweri Museveni in 2001 and 2006 presidential election petitions, has told Baker Batte Lule he is saddened by corruption in the judiciary, and the general state of affairs in Uganda. Read on...
How is life after retirement?
Retirement means a lot of things. It depends on the situation of an individual. I have heard cases of retirees who planned for retirement by stealing. But I take it in the context of my case that you want to know how I am faring in life after I retired from my job as a judge in the judiciary.
I am leading a normal life. I must say I am surviving. Of course, the general view is that life after retirement depends on how one had planned for retirement. In our culture, plans for good life are interrupted by dependants, particularly if you live in Uganda. All the same I am surviving and fairly busy.
Some senior judicial officers retire here in Uganda and then end up taking on jobs elsewhere. Does that mean we retire them when they are still productive?
It depends on the country where they are applying because sometimes those jobs are advertised and they don’t have age limits. If I didn’t have a problem with my back, I would have been doing some jobs outside the country.
There are countries that have retirement age specified in the constitution but others are open like Canada, South Africa. In other Commonwealth countries, a person works up to a certain age but retains all the privileges that accrue to a judge. I think there were efforts that were made in Uganda to have certain privileges remain.
What would be the ideal age for retirement?
I think 75 years could be fine, considering the impact of age like backache and lack of concentration.
Some judges have become almost a liability, basing on their questionable rulings and the only thing that can kick them out is age...
According to the constitution, judges are supposed to behave properly; you have to act according to the dictates of the law. If you become undisciplined, then you can’t enjoy the benefits of having belonged to a free society. So, the law should stipulate the terms of a judge. Proper conduct for a judge is very important.
Nakifuma MP Kafeero Ssekitooleko proposed extending the retirement age of judges…
If I was still a member of parliament, I would probably support it, perhaps with modifications. Generally, I would support it in respect of the judicial officers who exhibited proper judicial conduct while working.
This would ensure that during the period of employment, the officer behaves as required of a proper judicial officer as provided by the constitution, the law and established practice. I believe this is the case in some common law countries. Indeed, in some countries, retiring judicial officers go with full pay and other benefits.
As a former member of the Supreme court who made notable rulings, are you satisfied with the current panel?
Many of those on the bench have not worked with me before; maybe they appeared before me as advocates. So, I can’t judge them.
But rumours have it that some judges who are appointed these days have to do things according to the wishes of the appointing authority and this has been seen through decisions, especially those that affect the interest of the appointing authority.
Does that mean that you also don’t trust the justice system in Uganda?
Twenty years ago, Uganda’s judicial system was the best in common law Africa. I could realise that when I was a student and a state attorney in or around 1970 before I went into exile in Kenya.
In the beginning of the 1990s, I was appointed judge. I worked in the High court for years but from the time I started serving in the court, I had never heard anyone complain about my judgements. Apart from some lawyers and registrars who tried to bribe me but I refused; to them it was a disservice. I could never delay any case even when I was in private practice.
Your reflections on the presidential election petition of 2016 between Amama Mbabazi and Yoweri Museveni...
For reasonable people, you have to reason when you are giving a judgement. You have to understand the facts and then come up with a reasonable judgement. But if you find a fellow who just uses whims other than reason to arrive at a judgement; who imagines that he/she must please the powers that be to arrive at a judgment, then that is not a judgement.
Recently, the Constitutional court in Kenya annulled a presidential election and the drama that followed left a bitter taste. Would you annul an election if satisfied it was below the constitutional standards?
In a presidential petition, there is the law that sets out the standards that judges must follow.
For Uganda, Article, 104(5)c of our Constitution allows the Supreme court of Uganda to annul the election of a president. I participated in the hearing of Presidential Election Petition No. 01 of 2001 and Presidential Electoral Petition No.1 of 2006. My views are in my two judgements. Indeed, I was not alone in wanting to annul.
There are claims that decisions in 2001 and 2006 to uphold those elections were influenced by President Museveni. Can you confirm this?
I heard of whispers in that direction but some of us were known to be too independent to be influenced, not even by threats.
When one is appointed a judge, he/she takes oath and is supposed to live by that oath to uphold the truth. It is those judges who just want to get money and benefits who can make decisions according to the whims of the time or fear, but for me when I was judge, I would make decisions regardless of the consequences.
Reports have found the judiciary to be one of the most corrupt institutions.
I feel very bitter when I hear cases of judicial officers getting involved in soliciting bribes to give judgements in favour of those who give the biggest bribes. I heard of rumours that there are even judges who accept bribes from both sides and in the end that judge gives the judgment to the registrar to read.
I was a state attorney in the DPP’s department from December 1968 to December 1974 when I resigned and went in private practice. During that period, I appeared on behalf of the state in all our courts.
From December 1974 and December 1999, except 1977 up to early May 1979 when I was in exile, I appeared in all our courts representing litigants. Since January, 23 1990, I was a judge until I retired a few years ago. I also had an opportunity to supervise certain levels of judicial officers.
On a few occasions before I became a lawyer, while I was a school boy, I read about or heard about our judiciary performance. Criticism of the judiciary has always been there. The quantity and quality of judicial criticism vary depending on the interest or the political or social background of the critic.
In the recent electoral petitions, we saw two MPs facing similar grounds -- one winning and the other losing. Isn’t that rather confusing…
As Tsekooko, I wouldn’t be confused because I know there is confusion among some judicial officers. Normally there are stated facts and the law sets out what should be the requirement for a candidate to contest for elections. If there is a difference in certificates that are presented for nomination, unless there is a very convincing reason, I cannot uphold that election.
Would you support a situation where judges are openly vetted like in Kenya?
Partly yes. However, I would like the public to be properly educated by unbiased persons about this approach. I do not support the sentimental exercise.
What do you make of the recent amendment of the constitution that removed presidential age limits and the drama around it?
I have my personal reservations about it. However, there is a pending decision by the Constitutional court. As a retired judicial officer who should have respect for courts, I reserve my views which I can express after the court delivers its judgment.
Without going into the merits and demerits of the case, what is your comment about the way the hearing of the case was handled?
The normal practice is that when you’re a panel, the presiding judge is the one who should ask a few questions, then adjourn and go to the chambers and they discuss quietly and agree on what to do.
However, everyone on the panel can ask questions for clarification but each of you talking openly in the court is not a good practice. But let’s wait for the judgment then we can criticise or praise whether this was a good practice or not.
Are you are satisfied with the way the judiciary is working?
Recently, His Lordship the Chief Justice made statements relating to the working of the judiciary. His basic views were published by the press. I must point out that nearly 20 years ago, the judiciary made proposals about improvements. A bill was drafted. That desired law has been a draft bill for many years. One wonders why the government decided not to present the draft bill to parliament for debate.
Maybe government does not want the judiciary to be reasonably independent. That is what the draft bill recommends, among others. Of course there are relevant provisions of the Constitution, the Judicature Act and other laws which show how the judiciary should work. These laws are very clear. But on many occasions, they are not followed.
Are you satisfied with the direction the country is taking?
I must say the Uganda I live in now leaves a lot to be desired; our democracy is suffering by the way things are done.
Other people have not been as generous as you to describe what we have in Uganda as democracy...
Uganda is supposed to be a democracy; that is why you have a number of political parties represented in parliament and their views are expressed. Definitely there are deficiencies here and there.
The other day I heard someone on radio saying the chiefs of the earlier years were doing a better job than our leaders today. I agree with him completely. Those chiefs were supervising the villages effectively, people then had food and their hygiene was better.
As a senior citizen, what advice would you give to our leaders?
Our leaders should be honest and clear on what route they want the country to follow. Exaggeration of achievements should not be encouraged; human rights must be respected and upheld by everybody. Promotion of ethnicity must go away. Telling lies must stop.