Is it time for legal pluralism in Uganda?

Wednesday September 16 2020

Fr Fred Jenga

By Guest Writer

I am following Matthew Kanyamunyu’s admission of culpability in the death of child rights activist Kenneth Akena. Out on bail, Kanyamunyu has sought the help of Acholi elders and has subjected himself to the traditional Acholi justice system of Mato-Oput. 
The death of Akena was an unfortunate incident. Whether it was caused by road rage, alcohol, miscommunication in the heat of the moment;  it was all a sad and an abrupt end to an irreplaceable life. If you think of his immediate family and other dependents who looked up to him, you realise that Akena’s death had consequences beyond the solitary life that was lost.  
I am neither a lawyer nor a son of a lawyer, I am simply interested in the unfolding clash between a traditional justice system and a Western justice system. In Kanyamunyu’s case, I see potential of a new legal precedent in the league of the Kenyan case of “SM Otieno.” I am rooting for a version of legal pluralism where vetted traditional justice practices are valued, recognised, and considered binding in the pursuit of justice.
If I may ask: What does justice mean? Who defines justice? Whose interests does the operative definition of justice serve?  Is it the victim? Is it the community? Who defines justice and whose interests does the definition serve? My point is that the interests of the parties involved when a crime is committed, need to be taken into consideration. It should not simply be “the state.”
If the Acholi through Mato-Oput truly believe that justice can be achieved if both the victim and perpetrator voluntarily accept to meet and resolve the issue, we need to be respectful of the Acholi definition of justice. If the Acholi believe that justice can be achieved if a perpetrator of a crime voluntarily steps forward, truthfully confesses his crime, expresses deep remorse, and commits himself to compensate the family, the Acholi justice process deserves some respect. As the Western justice system tilts more towards punishment, retribution, revenge, and eventually violence, we need to re-examine traditional restorative practices that are tilted towards healing, restoration, and social harmony. 
Several Ugandan online bloggers have pushed back against Kanyamunyu’s apology. They have argued that all along, Kanyamunyu denied ever shooting Akena. Others have argued that Akena’s life is going so cheap for the price of a mere kneel before Acholi elders, a confession, an apology, and 10 cows and  three goats! 
First of all, denial and rationalisation should not be a surprise. It is the default position of most human beings under intense pressure. 
While it is not the ideal, denial of the truth in circumstances with serious lifetime consequences similar to Kanyamunyu’s, is not out of the ordinary. If Kanyamunyu has come to the point of admitting his guilt and asking for forgiveness, he needs to be helped along and not shut down. It is the only way of bringing healing to Akena’s family and Kanyamunyu himself. 
Second, cynics need to understand that the Mato-Oput process is not being handled by some charlatans in Acholiland. The process is under respected cultural and religious elders whose sense of judgment deserves respect. 
The thinking that justice can only come from some wig-wearing individuals in Kampala, is not only mistaken but an insult to the Acholi community and its elders. 
We really can’t tell the direction Kanyamunyu’s case will take. But I reiterate my view that the arrest, successful prosecution, and imprisonment of a perpetrator of a crime should not be the only operative definition of justice in Uganda. Safe alternative definitions situated in traditional jurisprudence deserve attention.   

Fr Fred Jenga is a Catholic priest.