Political cases that will define CJ Katureebe’s tenure

Sunday June 28 2020

Chief Justice Bart Katureebe (right) swears in

Chief Justice Bart Katureebe (right) swears in President Museveni (left) in 2016. PHOTO | FILE 

By Derrick Kiyonga

Political cases are always used to define the careers of judges and so will it be for retiring Chief Justice Bart Katureebe.

Though he has on numerous occasions ruled against interests of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) government where he served in various ministries, his critics maintained he couldn’t go against President Museveni where it matters most the presidential election.

Katureebe, even after upholding Museveni’s election in 2006, had always insisted that if the evidence is presented before him he would have no qualms in cancelling his former boss’ victory.

In 2016, the first test came when Katureebe’s former Cabinet partner and presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi filed a petition at the Supreme Court challenging Museveni’s electoral victory, saying he had stolen it.

In his capacity as president of the Supreme Court, Katureebe led the panel of justices Jotham Tumwesigye, Esther Kisaakye, Stella Arach-Amoko, Eldad Mwangusya, Rubby Opio- Aweri, Augustine Nshimye, Faith Mwondah and Prof Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza in unanimously dismissing Mbabazi’s petition, citing lack of evidence to support its claims.

During the hearing, an unconvinced Katureebe told Mr Asuman Basalirwa, who was representing Mbabazi, how the lawyer was on “a fishing expedition”.

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While in the previous two presidential petitions filed by FDC’s Kizza Besigye each judge gave their own detailed reasons as to why they were dismissing or allowing the petition challenging Museveni’s election, the Katureebe-led bench wrote only one judgment, triggering criticism.

“There is no law or rule that stipulates that judges on a panel must write their judgments,” constitutional law expert Peter Walubiri says, adding, “But this kind of practice of nine judges writing just one judgment is dangerous because it will lead to laziness. A judge will just wait for others to write and she or he just agrees with them without doing personal research.”

Another strange thing was that in the 320-page judgement, Katureebe and his colleagues did not pronounce themselves on the government’s shutting off social media and mobile money platforms during election time.

Mbabazi, in his case, had asserted the social media blockade created an information blackout and denied voters information on real-time election results. The barrier, according to Mbabazi, smoothed and assisted the Electoral Commission to cook and control figures in favour of Museveni. But the judges went mute, meaning the State can repeat the same in the next election without any repercussions.

Even in the 2018 age limit appeal, Katureebe never changed trajectory. Museveni’s standing in the next year’s presidential election hinged on the removal of presidential age limits from the Constitution.

The Constitution had an upper age cap of 75 for presidential contenders and Museveni had officially clocked 74. Parliament, which is dominated by Museveni’s NRM, removed the limit, triggering a petition, which was dismissed by the Constitutional Court in a majority judgment of 4-1. The petitioners appealed to the Katureebe-led Supreme Court and results were the same: they lost.

Katureebe, Tumwesigye, Arach-Amoko, Opio-Aweri threw out the appeal while Mwangusya, Tibatemwa and Paul Mugamba agreed that the amendment was unconstitutional.

Katureebe, in his analysis, disagreed with Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, one of the lawyers representing the appellants. Who had argued that the removal of age limit entrenched Museveni’s hold onto power.

“Mr Lukwago in his submissions tried to link the issue of age limit with that of the removal of term limits. In my view, this argument is not tenable for two reasons. First, the age limit provision is about the qualifications of a person’s eligibility to stand for election for president, irrespective of whether that person has ever been elected or not. It may well be the first time that person is presenting him or herself for 15 elections,” Justice Katureebe ruled.

“As such, it has nothing to do with longevity in office. This provision simply means that a citizen of Uganda who may have distinguished himself/herself in public service, private sector or any field, is not eligible for election as president because he or she is 75 years of age, even when that person has never served as president. On the other hand, term limits were meant to check persons who have already served as president but limit them to two terms, irrespective of age.”

Prof Frederick Ssempebwa, however, insists that it’s not accurate to measure a judge on political cases he or she has handled.

“It’s a judgment that one might like or not like deepening on his or her political leanings,” says Ssempebwa, one of the founding partners of Katende, Ssempebwa Advocates – one of the oldest law firms in Uganda.

Walubiri widens the scope, saying during Katureebe’s reign as the Chief Justice the Supreme Court hasn’t come up with any ground-breaking judgment that enriched Uganda’s jurisprudence.

“Still, I can’t blame that on the Chief Justice because he has to work with other judges in panels and he doesn’t appoint judges. Some of the justices at the Supreme Court should never have been anywhere near the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal or High Court,” Walubiri says without mentioning names.

Salaries of judicial officers
Against Katureebe’s wishes, in 2017, there was labour action by mainly lower cadres – magistrates and registrars. Uganda Judicial Officers Association (UJOA), which led the strike that paralysed court work across the country, demanded an increase in judicial officers’ salaries from a total budget of Shs14 billion to Shs95 billion per year.

The Chief Justice, who was coming under fire from the lower carders for being comfortable with the Shs20m he was earning, advised against the strike, asking for more time as he engaged the President and Parliament.

The strike went on but was later called off after negotiations with the government, but not before Katureebe pleaded with his foot soldiers.

“You can say all those sorts of things but the truth will always come out,” the under-pressure Katureebe said.

“I always put the issues of magistrates at the forefront. I am very mindful of the state in which the grade one and grade two magistrates are in. I went to Kyegegwa [District], I nearly cried,” he said.

Last year, Katureebe’s patience seemed to have paid off as government increased salaries of judicial officers across the board.

The Chief Justice now earns Shs26.7m up from Shs20.6m. The Deputy Chief Justice earns Shs25m up from Shs19.5m. The Principal Judge who is the administrative head of the High Court, in the new salary structure earns Shs24m up from Shs18.7m.

The Chief Registrar, who is the fourth top judicial official in the Judiciary hierarchy, is now earning Shs16 from Shs13.2m. Deputy Registrars earn Shs10m while assistant registrars earn Shs8m. A Chief Magistrate is at Shs7.6m while a Grade One Magistrate is at Shs4.2m and a Grade Two Magistrate is at Shs3.5m.

Salary increment aside, Ssempebwa says Katureebe has failed to increase the number of judicial officers. In total Uganda has about 82 judges who have served 42 million people.

“When you look at how many judges we had when he was coming in and what we have now as he is leaving, you see there is no much big difference. I think it’s one those shortcomings,” Ssempebwa says.

Still, Walubiri asserts that Katureebe, like other aspects, staffing courts was one of those issues that were out of Katureebe’s hands.

“They starve you of resources,” Walubiri explains. “The few judges they appoint are cardres. The Executive disobeys court orders wantonly then you can’t do much.”
Digitalisation of the judiciary
Katureebe has had an ambitious agenda of transforming the Judiciary through ICT. The strategy was to automate courts under the vision “e-justice for all” and but it required Shs60.2 billion.

In 2016, Katureebe started this process by unveiling at the High Court Criminal Division the audio- visual link technology that enables a court to receive evidence through electronic means without a person physically appearing in court.

As the Judiciary got more money, Katureebe expanded the video conferencing system to Buganda Road Chief Magistrate’s Court, thereby operationalising two virtual courts that were set up within the Luzira Prison complex – one in Luzira Upper Prison male wing and another in the women’s prison.

As he retires, Katureebe leaves in motion the Electronic Court Case Management Information System – that will track the progress of all aspects of the case right from its filing to its conclusion and in the process eliminating corruption.

The system that will cost Shs5 billion won’t only end within courts, but it will also be incorporated within the Justice, Law and Order Sector (JLOS) institutions such as police, Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and prisons in a bid improve service delivery in the criminal justice system.

A seven-storey twin building meant for both Court of Appeal and Supreme Court is under construction at the High Court Criminal Division. It is anticipated to be completed within 24 months at the cost of Shs63.9 billion, decreasing the rent budget.

By that time, Katureebe who commissioned the project in 2019, will be enjoying his retirement somewhere in Bunyaruguru.

“As an individual he [Justice Katureebe] tried to live beyond reproach. But truth be told, President Museveni doesn’t like independent institutions. He likes weak institutions. He prefers bickering in institutions and the Judiciary under Katureebe wasn’t going to be an exception to the rule,” Walubiri concludes.

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