As of last year, an estimated 1.4 million Ugandans were living with HIV/Aids while another 23,000 died of HIV/Aids-related illnesses. As of 2018, Unaids estimated HIV/Aids prevalence among adults aged 15 to 49 at 5.7 per cent.
The judiciary isn’t spared in all this and in an effort, ostensibly, to mitigate effects of the pandemic in the sector, it set up a committee to sensitize and create awareness. But as DERRICK KIYONGA writes, power struggles in the institution are putting the fight against HIV/Aids at risk.
In July 2019, a six-man judicial committee on HIV/Aids assembled at the High court in Jinja to evaluate its effort so far to create awareness on the scourge.
Chaired by the then Judiciary’s undersecretary Aggrey Wunyi, the committee comprised of the then inspector of courts Immaculate Busingye, who was appointed a judge recently. Others were the registrar in charge of planning Fred Waninda, principal human resource officer Apophia Tumwine Namutamba as well as communications officer Rehemah Nasuuna.
The committee was in line with the Public Service Orders and President Museveni’s project dubbed ‘Presidential Fast-Track Initiative on Ending Aids in Uganda by 2030.’
It is also important to note that the president instructed all ministries to set aside 2.5 percent of their budgets to fighting HIV/Aids. So, the committee had an estimated annual budget of about Shs 250m.
In Jinja, they were armed with questionnaires and the intention was get reaction on how the committee can improve the services, going forward. “What would you love to know about HIV/Aids?” went one question; “What would you want us to improve?” went another question.
Unknown to this committee, Jinja would be their Waterloo. As the committee was going about its duties, things were falling apart; Expedito Kagole Kivumbi, the then secretary to the Judiciary, who was the brains behind the committee, was facing off with the Public Accounts Committee over illegal expenditure of Shs 34 billion in the financial year 2017/18.
Events unraveled quickly and on July 26, 2019, President Museveni sent Kivumbi on forced leave before replacing him with Pius Bigirimana.
From then onwards, The Observer understands that this critical committee has never done any more activities as they had envisioned due to lack of funds. When prodded about the fate of the committee, various officers of the judiciary either give contradictory responses or they simply have no ready answer.
Solomon Muyita, the judiciary’s senior communication officer, said such activities now fall under the institution’s human resource office. “I need to check the work plans of that office in order to ascertain if they have activities in respect to HIV/Aids,” Muyita said.
Namutamba, who also doubles as the acting commissioner, Human Resource, offered that the judiciary now holds a health camp at the judiciary’s headquarters at the Criminal division of the High court.
“People were told about non-communicable diseases. HIV/Aids counseling was done. And also other diseases such as hypertension were treated,” she offered.
Though this health camp indeed happened in the middle of last year, judiciary staff interviewed for this story dismissed the effort as a one-off that can’t replace the works of the HIV/AIDS committee work - which emanates from a presidential order.
“The HIV/Aids committee traversed the whole country,” a judiciary staffer explained, “You can’t say that it was replaced by a one-off event ...” the female staffer said.
Meanwhile, a judiciary technocrat who sought anonymity since he isn’t authorized to speak to the media told The Observer: “Every regime comes with its own agenda and that committee and its work were not in the agenda of the current one.”
The source adds that the committee members were seen as Kivumbi’s favorites and thus a new regime couldn’t trust them. “It happens all the time. When you look at that committee critically, all members were close to the previous permanent secretary [Kivumbi]. It was easy for the new regime to deal away with them,” the source said.
When contacted, Kivumbi declined to comment on the issue, saying that he was on leave and he prefers the current administration to execute its agenda. “I’m still in my leave,” he said, “You will have to seek an explanation from the people in charge now.”
It remains to be seen whether the committee will be revived. Before its disbandment, it had traversed virtually the whole of Uganda since the judiciary essentially touches every part of the country through magistrate courts. Workshops were organized as far as Karamoja sub-region, West Nile, Kasese and Kabale, among others
According to records that were seen by The Observer, the committee tapped into the knowhow of Dr Stephen Watiti, a doctor and counselor living with HIV/Aids, Tom Etii, a facilitator from Uganda Aids Commission, and Moses Nsubuga who is popularly known as Supercharger, an entertainer and motivational speaker living positively with HIV/Aids.
Watiti and Superchargers’ testimonies about living a productive life with HIV/Aids have moved millions and the committee felt that the same trick would work with the conservative judiciary staff – and seems it worked.
“We were not coercing anybody to come out. We talked to staff and support staff about the advantages of coming out and many came out,” one of the members of the committee said, adding that each month staff who had come out as HIV/Aids positive would be given Shs 150,000.
The key catchword for this committee was creating awareness because it seemed there was lack of knowledge among the staff. “We had to fight stigma,” one of the female members of the committee said, “Those who come out shouldn’t be stigmatized at work. They shouldn’t be laughed at it.”
That was not all the committee was offering at these workshops- testing and counseling, for HIV/Aids, testing for hypertension, hepatitis B and also treatment of tuberculosis.
“We had a lot to offer even in terms of food. Those who came out as HIV-positive were given nutritious food. I believe we were making a positive contribution,” a committee member opined.
As the committee was doing its work of financing of HIV/Aids activities according to documents seen by The Observer, the amounts allocated varied depending on the moods of the judiciary’s finance committee - in total denunciation of the presidential order. Over the years the figures have oscillated from Shs 60 million, 45 million to 25 million, depending on who seats on the sought-after finance committee.
Another issue under sharp contestation is a document called: ‘The judiciary’s policy on HIV/Aids. Before it was disbanded, the committee had come up with an HIV/Aids policy, records obtained by this paper indicate. In a nutshell, the policy was hinged on issues such as non-discrimination, confidentiality, HIV testing at the workplace and promotion of prevention, support and care, among others.
Essentially, it spelt out how staff living HIV/Aids shouldn’t be sent to work in hard to reach areas, how they have a right to get sick leave with pay without any conditions or threats and the policy also institutionalized the HIV/Aids committee.
Those who drafted the policy insist that during their time in office it was validated by the Judiciary’s top honchos and all that remained was for it to be launched. Namutamba, who seems now to be in charge, when asked about the policy, had different narrative, “The policy isn’t ready,” she said, “There are a number of changes that have been made.
And we are still looking at it before it is launched. I can’t give you a document which isn’t ready.”
In its strategic plan that will be revisited this year, the judiciary had laid out plans of addressing HIV/Aids issues in the delivery of justice but as we speak now the committee that is supposed to do that work is grounded and future looks no so rosy.