Owiny-Dollo: A Chief Justice who won’t be measured in his words

Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo

What you need to know:

  • Judges are expected to give a lot of attention to their words, but Chief Justice Alfonse Chigamoy Owiny-Dollo finds it hard to stick to that unwritten rule whether he is in his court or he is making a public speech, Derrick Kiyonga writes.

What is your favourite Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo moment? Perhaps it is the one when he told the Attorney General’s lawyers in court that Members of Parliament (MP) wanted to unilaterally extend their term from five to seven years because they wanted to stay in Kampala such that they learn how to use cutlery – folks, spoons and the like.
Justice Owiny-Dollo could have been joking, but MPs who were watching the proceedings on TV took offense as they later threatened not to sanction the Judiciary’s budget. Of course, after some explanation from the Judiciary, which didn’t amount to an apology, the MPs shelved their threats and passed the budget.
Or could it be the moment in 2016 when a female FBI agent who was testifying in the case in which 13 men were accused of killing 76 people in twin bombings in Kampala was testifying about doing tests of the suspects in a laboratory, but Justice Owiny-Dollo had to seek for clarification having instead heard another word with a different connotation.  
“Are you talking about lavatory or laboratory?” Justice Owiny-Dollo, who was sporting a wig and red gown worn by High Court judges, asked. “Because a lavatory [toilet] here means a totally different thing. And you have to speak slowly because of accent issues.”  
The court goers were left with no option but to laugh. It’s now coming to two years ever since Justice Owiny-Dollo, who had served three years as Deputy Chief Justice, was appointed Chief Justice but he has found himself in the spotlight over what he said at the vigil of former Speaker Jacob Oulanyah in Kampala.  

READ: Chief Justice asks Buganda to stop attacks by ‘lumpens’
In his fiery speech, he posed a number of questions: “Is it because Oulanyah is an Acholi? Is it because Oulanyah doesn’t speak your language? Only a wicked person can fight a person who is fighting for his life. Only a super wicked can fight the dead. Actually, for us, it’s an abomination.” 
When he was talking about “your ethnic leader”, Justice Owiny-Dollo didn’t mention Kabaka Mutebi’s name, but it was apparent that he was referring to the trip the Kabaka made last year to get treatment from Germany.

HERE: In Oulanyah’s death, tribalism rears its ugly head
He later apologised to the Kabaka and personally delivered his message to the Katikkiro (prime minister) of Buganda, Charles Peter Mayiga, in Mengo. 
Justice Owiny-Dollo replaced Justice Bart Katureebe. The two men have similarities: Both were politicians having served in the Constituent Assembly (CA) which midwifed the current Constitution.  
Justices Owiny-Dollo and Katureebe served in the 6th Parliament and also served in Mr Museveni’s Cabinet at varying periods before being appointed to the bench after brief stints in private practice.
As Chief Justice and judge of the Supreme Court, Katureebe did all he could to avoid controversy, but it seems Justice Owiny-Dollo thrives in the storm and he always speaks his mind more so when he is in his court.
His no-holds-barred style was on exhibition during the hearing of the presidential petition challenging Mr Museveni’s victory filed by National Unity Platform’s (NUP) Robert Kyagulanyi.  
With the petition seemingly becoming hard to prosecute, Kyagulanyi, who had come second in the presidential polls, resorted to using press conferences to accuse the Supreme Court justices of being conflicted.
Kyagulanyi, a musician-turned-politician, pointed out at how Justice Owiny-Dollo had represented Museveni during the Dr Kizza Besigye presidential petition of 2006; Justice Mike Chibita had been a former legal assistant to the President, and Justice Ezekiel Muhanguzi, who he claimed has relations with Luweero Bush War veteran, Gen Elly Tumwine, then Security minister.
When the Supreme Court presented Kyagulanyi’s lawyers, led by Busiro South MP Medard Lubega Sseggona, a chance to ask the justices to recuse themselves, they said they had no such instructions leaving Justice Owiny-Dollo livid.  
“If anyone thinks he can intimidate, blackmail, induce the Chief Justice, then he is headed for a crash. I have a conviction that what I am doing is right,” he said, making it clear that whatever is being said outside the court premises has no bearing on the presidential poll petition. “I want to say that the judges took an oath to protect the Constitution. In the oath, we all took to exercise judicial functions entrusted to me in accordance with the laws of Uganda without fear, favour, affection, or ill-will.” 
He later added: “We didn’t invite anyone to this court. If you have ‘Plan B’ go ahead with it, but don’t bring chaos in court.”
By “Plan B” it seems Justice Owiny-Dollo meant the much-taunted plans by Opposition to root Museveni out of power not through conventional means such as elections but via an uprising.  
Many thought Justice Owiny-Dollo’s remarks weren’t appropriate. “Who told him about Plan B?” asked one of the lawyers who represented Kyagulanyi before preferring anonymity to speak freely.  “That shows he was biased. He got stuff from TV and he was saying it in court,” the lawyer told this writer.
Biggest crisis
Although the Chief Justice’s remarks on the Kabaka has raffled feathers, the biggest crisis Owiny-Dollo has handled was as a result of the Kyagulanyi presidential petition.  
Justice Esther Kisaakye – one of the nine justices – refused to disclose her ruling to her colleagues, as per court practice, triggering a mutiny with judges refusing to stick around as she reads her ruling which was inconsequential since Kyagulanyi had already withdrawn the petition.
As Justice Kisaakye – the longest-serving member of the Supreme Court – was getting ready to read her judgment, Justice Owiny-Dollo ordered Judiciary staff to switch off power and also called all the files.
Justice Kisaakye, who was left all alone in a tent that was enveloped in darkness, read her ruling to journalists, but Justice Owiny-Dollo made it clear it will never go on record until she discloses it to her colleagues. 
It seemed that there was no way back here, but after some mediation from various parties, it seemed Justice Owiny-Dollo and Justice Kisaakye reconciled.
“We have held talks,” Justice Owiny-Dollo told this writer about his reconciliation with Justice Kisaakye. “Various stakeholders have talked to us and we are now working as a unit.” 
NRM feels his wrath
It’s not just the Opposition that has taken a beating, but also the ruling NRM which the Opposition says Owiny-Dollo panders to.
For instance, by 2013, Idah Nantaba who had been appointed junior Lands minister in 2011, had amassed a dozen of land cases against her in the High Court’s Land Division, living the Attorney General, who was charged with defending her, worried.
One of the cases that turned out to be a headache was one in which Abby Kasolo Kiberu, a private citizen, accused Nantaba of siding with charlatans to take over his land at Kitende Wasozi village, Wakiso District. 
Nantaba, the Kayunga Woman MP who would later be moved to the Ministry of ICT, before being dropped from Cabinet, had declared that Kiberu’s land title for a 38.09-acre piece of land which is in the neighbourhood of St Mary’s SS Kitende, as fake. 
Nantaba, who claimed that she was appointed by the President and courts had no powers over her, refused to turn to court and she lost. 
She also refused to pay costs worth Shs23.7m. The case was taken to Justice Owiny-Dollo, who was heading the now  defunct Execution and Bailiff Division, who didn’t disappoint: He attached Nantaba’s salary. 
Yet in 2011, Justice Owiny-Dollo had stung NRM when he tossed Muhammad Muyanja Mbabaali out of his Bukoto South seat for forging academic documents.
Using colourful language, Justice Owiny-Dollo described Mbabaali’s academic papers he had allegedly got from Malaysia as “dead infectious viruses” and consequently null and void. 
Justice Owiny-Dollo has always struggled to stay clear of politics even in interviews he has had.  
When he had just been appointed Chief Justice, he told this writer in an interview, that his greatest regret was not entrenching term limits in the Constitution.
“I don’t think this thing of age limit was a big issue, but what I wept for this country was for the removal of the presidential term limits. That is where we lost it. The mistake we made in the Constituent Assembly was not to entrench, not to make it difficult for anyone to amend the provisions of the term limits,” Justice Owiny-Dollo, who will retire in three years’ time, said.
“That one, I take responsibility and anybody else who was in the Constituent Assembly; that we should have secured, entrenched that provision so that if you want to amend that particular article, you would go back to the people. We failed the people of Uganda as a consequence.”