Having a conversation with a judge can be daunting, especially one who insists on calling you Nyabo (Madam). How does one address a judge? Your Worship, Your Honour, Lady Justice or Nyabo? I wonder.
The judge in question is Justice Solome Balungi Bossa, who has been elected to the International Criminal Court (ICC) bench and will be leaving for The Hague in the Netherlands in March.
We were supposed to have this conversation in her chambers but Justice Bossa got a visitor and she had to rush home to prepare lunch. When we reach her home, she is in the kitchen busy with the preparations.
Outside, local chicken are walking about the spacious compound like they own it. “Every chicken has a name,” she says, adding, “But sometimes, I get confused because some of them look alike.”
From her demeanour, one can easily tell that Justice Bossa is at peace in her domain. “I think I have been lucky,” she says, “I live in a stable home. I have an understanding spouse and loving children. I cannot ask for more.”
While some people enjoy reading the excerpts from court proceedings, I ask if she ever gets bored listening to the same arguments every day.
“It is difficult,” she admits, continuing, “You have to limit lawyers because they are trained to talk. And they will talk, whether they are talking sense or nonsense. When they start submitting, we give them timeframes and if the time is exhausted, that is the end of it. However, I listen intently to them and if I have not understood, I ask a lot of questions.”
The most difficult cases
The mother of four joined the High Court bench in 1997. Before that, she had been a lecturer at the Law Development Centre and an advocate with Bossa and Company Advocates, a law firm that had once belonged to her father. Under her father, it had been called Ssesanga and Company Advocates.
Some of the toughest cases she has handled were during her tenure in the High Court. “I handled a case from Toro Kingdom where they were haggling over the Katikiroship (office of omuhikirwa/prime minister); whether the office bearers were there legally. That was not an easy case.”
One of the grisly murders she has handled come to mind. The case involved the convict, Abdullah Wasswa who murdered his wife with whom he had six children.
“They asked me whether I could recommend for the president to give a prerogative of mercy and in my humble opinion, he did not deserve mercy; having killed his wife in cold blood with a long knife used for slaughtering cattle. And for no reason. He was just jealous that she had left him and gone to stay with her mother.”
Wasswa was sentenced to death in 1998. On January 19, 2009 President Yoweri Museveni reduced Wasswa’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. Another difficult case for her involved a young man who had stabbed a two-year-old child belonging to his half-sister to death.
I ask Justice Bossa how – as a spiritual person (she says she believes in God and loves Him) – she manages to balance justice and mercy, and she says, “Yes, we (judges) do have those conflicts. Sometimes, deciding an appropriate sentence is not easy, and at the time I was sitting as a High Court judge, we did not have sentencing guidelines. You had to look at the precedents and facts and then, try to mete out an appropriate sentence. We did not have a choice; we had to sentence (to death) once it was murder, armed robbery, or treason. And the murders are not the same. One murderer can be more atrocious than the next one.”
In Uganda, the death penalty was last carried out on the night of April 28, 1999 when 28 condemned prisoners were hanged.
Her journey to the bench
Born on April 14, 1956 in Nsambya Hospital, Justice Bossa divided her time between her father’s home in Kawempe and her grandparent’s home in Ndejje.
“I was brought up fulltime by my grandparents. I have many siblings, both on my father’s and mother’s side. My father, Stanley Walusimbi Ssesanga was a lawyer while my mother was first, a housewife, and later, an employee of (Uganda Garment Industries Limited) UGIL.”
Her earliest memory was in 1961 when she visited Ssese Islands. “I was five years old and I had just completed infant school (Infant School Kyebando). My late uncle, Augustine Ssozi, took me and my elder brother to the Islands where he was teaching. We boarded the ferry for the first time. It was called Emeeri (the Ship). It was such an exciting time for me that when I joined Primary One (Lady Irene Demonstration School), every time we were asked to draw something, I always drew emeeri.
Studying during Amin’s regime
After high school in Ndejje Secondary School and Makerere College School, Justice Bossa joined Makerere University in 1976 to pursue an undergraduate degree in Law. Some of her classmates included; Justice Flavia Senoga Anglin, former attorney general Fred Ruhindi, former minister Jim Muhwezi, and Gen David Sejjusa.
“I never felt discriminated against, although certainly there were fewer girls. In the first year, we went on strike demanding allowances and Amin unleashed his intelligence service on us. Some of our colleagues were raped, particularly those living in Africa Hall. We had to escape from the university for a week or two.”
Normalcy did not return to the law classes after that because shortly afterwards, Archbishop Janani Luwum and two cabinet ministers were murdered. “It was particularly scary for us who were studying Law because the lecturers ran away. In the second year, we spent a whole term without studying because we had no lecturers. The university enlisted the help of some advocates to teach us part time. Justice (Benjamin) Odoki, taught us land law and the late Sam Njuba taught us tax law. Later, the university brought in some Pakistanis to replace the lecturers.”
As she was completing her course, the 1979 Liberation War reached Kampala and during her final examinations, some parts of Makerere University were shelled. “By the way, apart from killing the Chief Justice (Ben Kiwanuka), Amin did not interfere with the administration of justice. The courts functioned and some of the best judgements were delivered at that point in time.”
In August 1979, Justice Bossa joined LDC as a student and there, she met a lecturer named Joseph Bossa. After her course, they got married in 1981. The lady justice and the former vice president of Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party have been married for more than 35 years.
Remembering what she admired about him then, she says, “He was a serious person; not the playboy type. And he loved me. I was 25 and I wanted to settle down and have children. I thought that since I had someone who was more serious than those I had met before, he was the right person for me.”
By the time her father died in 1987 and she took over his law firm in 1988, Bossa had had all her children. She also has four stepchildren. None of the children have followed their parents into the legal profession.
Courts where she has served
Justice Bossa has been a judge of the United Nations Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (2012 to-date), judge of the African Court of Human and People’s Rights (2014 to date), judge of the United Nations International Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR), and Judge of the East African Court of Justice (2001-2006). Currently, she is one of the justices of the Court of Appeal.
“The arguments I have enjoyed the most were at the ICTR. There were good lawyers there. The ICTR tried to do its work but we had two handicaps. The first one was that the proceedings were very slow. Secondly, we tried people from only one side of the conflict; we meted out “victor’s justice”. It was the prosecutor who decided which cases to bring before the court and since she decided to indict only one side of conflict that is what we heard.”
While she was a lawyer, she worked with the Ugandan Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) and was involved in starting the Uganda network on Law, Ethics and HIV/Aids. “It was a fulfilling emotion when I improved the situation of a fellow woman through litigation and won,” she says.
What you did not know
Justice Bossa’s only regret is that she has not been able to further her studies. While at the ICTR, she tried to study a master’s degree from the University of London but abandoned the course because of her work schedule.
“I fear death (she laughs). I fear losing a family member or my job. I fear injuring people’s feelings deliberately or otherwise. I fear conflicts and I try to avoid them as much as possible. I also fear people who are fake, who do not represent what they purport to be.”
She is a traditional mother who insists that parents must find time for their children and give them direction because there is a lot of neglect, irresponsibility, and selfishness in society nowadays.
On her marriage to a dyed-in-the-wool UPC gentleman, she says, “We do not mix things,” adding, “We have different career paths and as a judge, I cannot indulge in politics. But that does not mean I am not conscious about what is going on around me. I have to give my husband latitude to do what he wants to do. At home, when he is talking politics, I listen because he has to talk to someone. And if he asks me for advice, I give it to him.”
On going to the ICC
I am happy because it is an achievement. I will miss my position here, my family, my social network, and church. But at the same time, I don’t think I was making a lot of progress here.
Regarding this allegation that the ICC is biased, I do not want to comment on these issues because these are issues that might come before the court and I might be assigned one of the cases. If I make comments before I sit, it might bring me problems. What I can say, though, is that it is true that Africa has referred a number of cases that the ICC is handling to the ICC.
On allegations of corruption in Uganda’s courts, she says, “It is true that we have some corrupt judicial officials and clerks. Some people use our names to solicit money. If you are careless and give your judgement to your clerk before you read it, they will go and ask for money from the litigants. There are also people who loiter in the corridors accosting litigants and promising to assist them at a fee.”
She adds that the court has tried to address the situation by giving every employee an identity card.
Could change anything…
As a country, we need to review how our institutions work because they have collapsed. We need to revamp our education and health systems because our human resource (as a country) is very important. We need to get rid of corruption and restore merit in whatever we do, and focus on policies that uplift the people.
We need to look at the training that we are giving our lawyers. The moral decadence today does not only affect other people; we need to clean up our conduct as legal practitioners and judges.
My parents and grandparents are gone.
I wish my father was around, though. I have only one paternal uncle still living and now, we look up to the sisters of our grandparents. All of them have been there for me.