Challenges that await DPP Abodo as she takes over office
What you need to know:
Political cases. Once she steps into her new office found at Workers House in Kampala, Justice Jane Frances Abodo will be confronted with cases that are already in motion, but they were slapped against the accused amid political tensions and prosecuting such cases has proven difficult, writes Derrick Kiyonga.
As Justice Jane Frances Abodo takes over the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), we look at the numerous challenges that await her.
On paper, the independence of the Office of the DPP is guaranteed under Article 120(6). It stipulates that in the exercise of his or her functions, the DPP shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority.
But over time, it has been empirically proven through a number of botched, if not embarrassing, criminal trials of how the Office of the DPP is influenced by the politics of the day.
Justice Richard Buteera’s tenure was irredeemably stained by a number of criminal charges he instituted against Opposition leader Kizza Besigye, which included rape and treason. The charges collapsed with admonitions from courts.
Besides Dr Besigye, the Office of the DPP was tarnished during Justice Buteera’s reign when in 2005 they proceeded to charge Opposition leaning politicians Reagan Okumu (MP Aswa), Michael Ocula (then Kilak MP) and Stephen Otim (the LCI chairperson of Green Valley in Gulu Municipality) with the murder of Alfred Bongomin, who was the chairperson for Pabbo Sub-county.
Bongomin, who was an NRM supporter, had been gunned down in the northern district of Gulu three years before the Opposition politicians could be arraigned before courts of law.
However, in his January 9, 2006, judgement, the now-retired High Court judge John Bosco Katutsi scolded the DPP for engaging in what he termed as “a crude” and “amateur” attempt to accuse Okumu and Ocula of murder.
Justice Katutsi blamed prosecution, which was led by Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama, who is now the Electoral Commission chairperson, of presenting witnesses with “shady characters “and who were “self-confessed criminals.”
Justice Mike Chibita, who came into office in 2013 with the usual promise of guarding his office against any political influence, met similar obstacles and the treason charge he slapped on Besigye in 2016 on grounds that he declared himself the winner of the disputed February 18, 2016, elections didn’t help matters.
The fact that Justice Chibita left the DPP’s office earlier this year to rejoin the Judiciary as a Supreme Court judge without ever committing Dr Besigye to the High Court for the trial was an indictment on the Office of the DPP and his career.
Once she steps into her new office found at Workers House in Kampala, Justice Obodo will be confronted with cases that are already in motion but they were slapped against the accused amid political tensions and prosecuting such cases has proven difficult, history has shown.
Will, for instance, Ms Abodo give her prosecutors a go ahead with the trial of presidential hopeful Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine, and 30 others who are accused of committing treason in a court found in the northern town of Gulu?
The prosecution under the stewardship of Chibita claimed that Mr Kyagulanyi and his group committed treason having played a key role in the messy incidences in the lead up to the August 15, 2018, Arua Municipality by-election, including an alleged attack on President Museveni’s convoy.
The accused deny the charge, saying they are just being persecuted because of their political views. The case has now been adjourned severally as prosecutors who are at sixes and sevens keep on claiming how “investigations” are still “ongoing.”
Article 120(d) stipulates that DPP has powers “to discontinue at any stage before judgment is delivered, any criminal proceedings to which this article relates, instituted by himself or herself or any other person or authority; except that the DPP shall not discontinue any proceedings commenced by another person or authority except with the consent of the court.” Ms Abodo will have to make a call.
Even before they stand trial, 22 people accused by the DPP for the gruesome murder of former Assistant Inspector General of Police Andrew Felix Kaweesi, his bodyguard and the driver, had got one against the State: they are to get Shs1.7 billion from national coffers for being tortured by security operatives - the High Court’s Civil Division ordered back in 2017.
On October 25, 2017, eight out of the 22 were committed to the High Court for trial, but so far the trial has remained in theory. Instead, the High Court kept on releasing the suspects on bail amid rearrests by shabbily dressed security operatives.
How the new DPP gets around this will be interesting. On one hand, the State wants closure of the matter by trying the suspects it claims were the masterminds, on the other hand, the public is sceptical of the whole trial. The public thinks other unknown people who have never been arrested killed Kaweesi and his handlers. The mere fact that the High Court has already ruled that the suspects were tortured makes the whole trial hard since the Judiciary’s leadership has insisted time and again that tortured suspects shouldn’t be tried under any circumstances.
Welfare of prosecutors
There is an expectation among State prosecutors that by the simple fact that Justice Abodo is a career prosecutor, she will be more conversant with their bread-and-butter issues more than previous DPP Chibita who wasn’t seen as one of their own.
“She has been with us in this struggle and our issues aren’t new to her. So we expect her to continue advocating for the improvement of the welfare of prosecutors because we have been neglected for a long time,” Mr Batson Baguma, the president of the Uganda Association of Prosecutors said in a phone interview.
In 2017, the DPP’s prosecutors, including Ms Abodo, went on strike over low pay, arguing that they prosecute complex cases like terrorism, corruption and murder, yet their emoluments are less than what a tea girl at Kampala Capital City Authority earns.
The lowest ranking State prosecutor, records show, earns a monthly gross pay of Shs644,963 whereas the highest-ranking prosecutor at the rank of senior principal state attorney is paid Shs2.1 million.
The strike, which paralysed courts, were later called off after Maj Gen Kahinda Otafiire, then minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, guaranteed that government would renounce taxes on prosecutors’ salaries, provide professional allowances in the Financial Year 2018/2019 and increase the salaries of the prosecutors to a level equivalent to salaries of employees in the Uganda Registration Service Bureau.
Otafiire had promised the prosecutors that the government he serves would fulfil the commitments within 90 days, but to-date the government has reneged on its promises.
As things stand today, state prosecutors under their professional body Uganda Association of Public Prosecutors are before Justice Andrew Bashaija of the High Court’s Civil Division where they dragged government for failing to increase their remunerations.
Through Katende, Ssempebwa and Co. Advocates, the association wants the court to intervene and compel the reluctant government, the minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and secretary to the Treasury to enforce their pledges of increasing salaries, remuneration and other conditions of service for the prosecutors.
Will Ms Abodo support her staff in this court challenge which can even go up to the Supreme Court?
Besides welfare, the common theme at the DPP’s office has been how positions have remained vacant “across the board” and even those which are filled are occupied by long-serving officers who have stagnated in the same positions for a long time and this has greatly affected staff morale and performance.
There is hence a need to fast track the recruitment of new staff to fill the vacant positions at the entry-level as well as to promote deserving officers as a means of boosting staff morale, prosecutors have suggested.
While Uganda officially has a population of 42 million people, the DPP has only 336 prosecutors and 173 support staff. According to documents retrieved from the DPP’s office, the office is supposed to have 833 prosecutors and 501 support staff.
“We are currently operating at only 40 per cent staff establishment. This staffing gap makes it extremely difficult for the institution to optimally fulfil its mandate,” the prosecutors lamented to Ephraim Kamuntu, the minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, upon taking over office earlier this year.
“As a result of understaffing, we are unable to provide services in 45 districts. The demand for our services is increasing with the creation of new districts, new police stations and courts.”
As Ms Abodo takes over the DPP’s office whose annual budget stands at measly Shs43 billion, it’s now documented how 73 courts just co-opt prosecutors since they have no full-time prosecutors.
“There are now more judicial officers than prosecutors in the field and yet this should be the reverse. In essence, this contributes to the growing case backlog in the criminal justice system,” prosecutors told Kamuntu during their interface.
With a paltry budget, the prosecutors have found it increasingly difficult, they say, to adequately cope with the increasing crime rate and its complexity which requires rigorous and specific investigations and prosecution processes without a consistent increase in the budgetary allocation.
With crime increasing and getting complex every other a day, the new DPP needs to prioritise capacity and skills development of her foot soldiers. The DPP’s office has a long-term plan of establishing a prosecutors’ academy which they say will “promote efficiency and effectiveness in the administration of criminal justice” but in the meantime, the office is pursuing the setting up of a project titled ‘Enhancing Prosecution Services for All’.
It will focus, they explain, on training state prosecutors in specialised skills to facilitate them perform better. Ms Abodo will have to fast track these plans considering that they aren’t new to her.