Wilson Tsekooko (1942-2019), Justice of the Supreme Court

Thursday October 17 2019

 

By Karoli Ssemogerere

John Wilson Natubu Tsekooko began and ended his career as a judicial officer as a Justice of the Supreme Court. In 1988, the Supreme Court was constituted as a permanent appellate bench from the adhoc arrangements of the former Court of Appeal of Uganda, which had replaced the Court of Appeal for Eastern Africa, whose tenure lasted more than 80 years from the days first of the Imperial British East African Company (“IBEACO”) and the British East Africa possessions (the protectorates of Uganda and Zanzibar, trusteeship of Tanganyika and Kenya colony).

In 1987, Samuel Wilson Wako Wambuzi had returned to Uganda from a stint as a Justice of the Court of Appeal of Kenya where he served during the Obote II administration after being ousted as Chief Justice shortly before the 1980 elections. Justice Wambuzi’s record yet to be broken and probably permanent was service three times as Chief Justice (1973-1975), (1979-1981) and then unbroken (1987-2001) when he retired.

In 1979-1980, Justice Wambuzi served with Justices Benjamin Odoki, Francis Muzingu Sekandi and Kenneth Lubogo, two of whom are still alive. Justice Wambuzi served with a number of Justices, including Tsekooko, who became principal justice after the death of Arthur Oder, Joseph Nyamihana Mulenga, Dr George William Kanyeihamba and Leticia Mukasa Kikonyogo. Just three are alive today.

The Supreme Court of the land is the final appellate court of the land. That is the prestige and authority of this address. When Justice Tsekooko’s memoirs are being written, they will focus on the court’s restraint and exercise of its authority to bring the government of the day into account sometimes with great consequences.

In Justice Tsekooko’s time, the court famously a few times struck down abuse of parliamentary powers using the tyranny of numbers, the famous referendum cases in 1999 and 2000. The court also after Justice Wambuzi’s departure struck down the Movement political system as it operated after 1999 as nothing more than a one-party State clothed in constitutional provisions.

Justice Tsekooko’s time of the bench was marked by two other major judgments, the election petitions filed by Col Kizza Besigye in 2001 and 2006. While 2001 attracted mind numbing political violence on the part of the State, 2006 was either too close after the removal of term limits and introduction of multi-party democracy or it suffered a “numbers virus” that would have resulted in another winner. Justice Tsekooko, a former UPC Member of Parliament for Mbale South (1981-1985), who had previously served as a State Attorney, firmly voted to annul the presidential elections in the two instances.

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It is believed that a number of pre-judgment reversals begun at the court at this time. In a sharply divided three to two opinion, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Dr George Kanyeihamba, accused one of his colleagues of switching his decision from annul to uphold a few minutes before walking into the court room.
Since 2009, the Court has been in a State of flux. First the Odoki years, which largely maintained the tradition of the Wambuzi court, were lost in the final years as Justices of the Supreme Court declined to retire upsetting a delicate balance on the independence of the Judiciary by taking up acting contracts.

The spectacle continued when former Attorney General Peter Nyombi succeeded in convincing Justice Benjamin Odoki to remain in office as an Acting Justice of the Supreme Court, bringing the entire court into disrepute. Justices in short shrift refused to pack their books as some would reach the parking lot and be handed another acting contract. Sadly, the man in the casket fell victim to this State of affairs.

Judges worried about inflation eating their benefits were afraid to confront every day life’s challenges including medical that let their colleagues rot early unable to take care of themselves outside of office. The outcome of this episode will be felt for decades to come.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law
and an Advocate. kssemoge@gmail.com