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OPEN LETTER TO CHIEF JUSTICE BART KATUREEBE

By Yusuf Serunkuma

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.

Although you will soon leave behind a justice system which has not only emasculated Ugandans but also empowered thieves over their victims, and privileges accumulation by dispossession, there are many lessons to pick from your decision.

I am not writing about blighted political contestations but the malaise in civil matters that 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 recently in court on a private matter 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 colored dresses and oversized jackets. Some were painfully wandering around, their frames bending forwards, sometimes holding one hand onto their knees to support their achy bones.  A rushed step could easily 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 recognized 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 privatization swept around the continent. They had filed their case 17 years ago, and although they received a favorable judgment sometime in 2013, government had blocked their payments when the judge attached NSSF accounts on their pleas. Over 800 of them have spent their senior lives in absolute dehumanization, 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 to help them benefit from their crimes.

Besides the men and women who have been wrongfully imprisoned so as to allow heist to carry on, I know of 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, the judges told them their 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 to 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 part of the script?).

Close to two decades since the UPTC case was first filed, several of the petitioners are now deceased. Their deaths quickly came knocking at their doors because they couldn’t afford medical care and a general decent living that their monies would have allowed them.

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

And when Museveni’s government finally falls, part of the injustices that have defined his reign (most perpetrated by his surrogates), suffocation of activism, general complacence of the population, and the fear of 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 yusufkajura@gmail.com

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