The Constitutional Court has found for the people against the attempt to keep former Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki in office beyond the mandatory retirement age of 70.
This small ruling is a giant leap forward for the Judiciary, the rule of law, good governance, constitutionalism and democracy in Uganda.
In semi-authoritarian states like Uganda, the Legislature and the Judiciary must constantly negotiate for the space against a predatory Executive. This requires financial autonomy, bold and independent leadership, as well as security of tenure.
We have seen sustained attempts to erode all three. In Parliament, it has been in the form of bribes to MPs, whether cash or promises of Cabinet appointments, and attacks on the Speaker. Plans are afoot to end the current practice of all MPs electing from amongst themselves the best man or woman to lead them as Speaker, and instead put that decision to the ruling party caucus where it can be manipulated.
The Judiciary is more vulnerable. It does not appropriate budgets and cannot ring-fence its money. The President appoints the Chief Justice, a constant reminder of which arm wields more power. The safety nets for judicial independence are the Judicial Service Commission nominating the three names from which the President can appoint, and the security of tenure that whoever is appointed enjoys.
The attempt by President Museveni to re-appoint Justice Odoki on a two-year contract sought to rip through these two safety nets.
First, Justice Odoki was not among the names sent to the President by the JSC, as he was above the age-limit. Thus to appoint him would have been a personal favour from Museveni to his old boy from the University of Dar es Salaam.
In addition, the two-year contract would undermine the security of tenure the CJ ought to enjoy in order to dispense justice without undue influence.
The office of the CJ is important. Its occupant is the last line of defence for the Constitution. To reduce the CJ to a contracted labourer serving at the mercy and whim of the President would slam a gavel onto the last nail in the coffin of judicial independence.
Justices Remmy Kasule, Lillian Ekirikubinza Tibatemwa, Solome Bossa and Eldad Mwangusya who ruled to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law have done Uganda proud. So has young Gerald Karuhanga, MP. He might have been a tad reckless on the Oil Bribes Papers but boy, is Karuhanga maturing into the real thing! This time he was measured in preparation, meticulous in execution and not a modicum of malevolence! Well done, son.
We can’t part without asking why Justice Odoki would want to leave with his legacy and reputation in tatters. There is a case to be made – and urgently so – to pay our judges better and ensure they have a decent pension to look forward to.
What kind of country are we building, and what kind of justice do we expect if the Chief Justice, let alone other dispensers of justice, earn far less than mid-level officers in the Uganda National Roads Authority, Kampala Capital City Authority, etc?
Still, the former CJ couldn’t have been trying to stay on to pay off a mortgage; after 35 years on the Bench, one should have enough timber for a log cabin or two. It is disappointing that throughout this saga – for that is what it really is – Justice Odoki has not once spoken out to defend the law, or the rule of law.
To Odoki we say, thank you for the Constitution but it’s time to go write your memoirs. Enough with the drama, Mr President; do your job and appoint a substantive CJ.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. firstname.lastname@example.org