Open letter to Chief Justice Bart Katureebe

The country must be excited about your retirement, not because you are a bad man, but because, not so many before you, publicly offered to retire when the drums of retirement were beaten.

There is a lot of learning in this decision of yours.  But you leave behind a justice system which has not only emasculated Ugandans, but also one that empowers thieves over their victims, and privileges accumulation by dispossession.

I am not writing about blighted political contestations but, rather, how the malaise in civil matters has pushed Ugandans into some inexplicable somnambulism. The country is asleep in spite of the very active bodies walking the streets.  Let me tell you a rather familiar story.

I was in court recently on a private matter of mine when my eyes caught a painful spectacle of hundreds of senior citizens walking dejectedly out of a courtroom.

Men and women seemingly in their late 60s and 70s dressed in those mild and dull coloured dresses and oversize jackets – which were fashionable then – were painfully wandering their frames down the stairs of TWED Towers. While some of these grandparents of the country were aided by walking sticks, others had youthful lads holding them by the hand. 

But these walking aids notwithstanding, their steps were visibly laboured as they have to mechanically adjust their frames bending forwards, sometimes holding one hand onto their knees, to support their achy bones. 

A rushed step could end in a fracture or dislocation. Although most of them looked well kept, you would tell the frustrations of court had taken a toll on their already haggard bodies.

I was in the corridors catching up with Prof John Jean Barya, who too was in court on a rather different matter, when some of these senior citizens recognised him and came over to greet him.

Prof Barya actually provided counsel in this matter at one point. These senior citizens worked with Uganda Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (UPTC) before the locusts of privatisation swept around the continent. 

These senior Ugandans had filed their case 17 years ago, and although they received a favourable judgment sometime in 2013, government had ignored but later blocked payment when the justice attached NSSF accounts on their pleas. Over 800 of them have spent their senior lives in absolute dehumanisation hitting from pillar to post to scrounge a reasonable existence.

My intention is not to debate the finer details of the matter – it really doesn’t matter – but, rather, the implications and pains of time. My intention is to make visible the ways in which criminals rely on otherwise explicable precedence in their interaction with their victims. 

Criminals actually have more faith in the Ugandan justice system than their victims. Criminals know for certain that the judicial process can be delayed and delayed as they benefit from their crime.

Besides the men and women who have been wrongfully imprisoned so as to allow a heist carry on, I know a family that filed a case of land grab in 2009; the matter dragged on for nine years (which is fairly small, right?), and upon making their final submissions in late 2018, they were told that judgment will be received on notice.

Nothing has come. For this entire time, no activity has happened on their otherwise huge piece of land (luckily – as in other cases, the thief would have put the land to own use), and these country peasants now struggle to feed their families despite being renowned landlords.

In truth, this technical challenge – of delay in time – has been eloquently cited by thieves when they advise their victims “to go to court.”

They may not necessarily buy the judicial system, but they know the judicial system sees no urgency in dispensing justice (or is it simply a part of the script?).

Close to two decades since the UPTC case was first filed, several of the petitioners are now deceased. Their deaths came as lack of access to medical care and a general decent living that their monies would have allowed them. 

Even if they were to get their monies now, their haggard and frustrated selves cannot put them to much investment. Since time kills, your justice system remains accomplice.

When Museveni’s government finally falls, part of the injustices that have defined his reign [most perpetrated by his surrogates], the lack of activism, and general complacence of the population, the fear for action, will be squarely blamed on the justice system. You and your predecessors have done a lot to enfeeble Ugandans – not just with judicial kickbacks – but with delays in time. Time gives life, and time also kills.


The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd