By Stephen Lwetutte
Judicial Officers at the rank of Chief Justice are universally reputed to be personalities of outstanding personal, professional and moral integrity. They are normally measured in their words, restrained in their actions and constrained in their conduct, until you consider Uganda, that is! The incumbent there, in a bout of emotional outburst at the demise of a prominent friend from among his tribal kin, has just made inappropriate, insensitive and disparaging remarks about another of the country’s many ethnic groups and its leadership. A few hours later, he issues a qualified apology only to the leader under unclear circumstances and not to the targeted subjects, which begs the question why he bothered at all!
On 20 March 2022, the sad news of the demise in a US hospital of the Speaker of Uganda Parliament was announced the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. Jacob Oulanya, 57, had weeks earlier been rushed to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, in Washington State, in America, reportedly in bad shape with terminal cancer aboard the huge brand new Uganda Airlines 406-seater (if all are economy) Airbus A330-800, at a reported eye-watering cost of US$500,000 one-way. In a country where 20 women die at childbirth while hundreds die due lack of oxygen, that price tag is evidently too steep for the country to swallow for one individual, albeit a high-ranking official, and quite understandably rubbed the public the wrong way.
Members of the Ugandan diaspora in the area got wind of the admission and, exercising their right of assembly, picketed the hospital where Speaker Oulanya was admitted admonishing about the state the health system while he is privileged to access quality expensive treatment in facilities abroad on the poor tax payer’s charge. It appears to be a legitimate political grievance by all suffering Ugandans irrespective of tribe, including by members of the Speaker’s own tribe, the Acholi whose situation, if anything worse than elsewhere in Uganda.
There is now an established practice in Uganda for the well-connected and affluent elite, including the First Family, to be flown overseas for medical treatment due to the absence of quality medical facilities in the country. There is increasing disquiet about this entrenched inequality and the public has openly aired its distaste and disdain for the practice, yet the tax payer’s funds expended for these medical escapades could be deployed to construct equally good facilities accessible by everyone. Every other well-connected personality will spend their last days at a foreign clinic.
At the night vigil at the home of the late Speaker following the news of his death, a sorrowful, vexed and irate Chief Justice and a close friend who also hails from the same Acholi sub region chooses to vent and misdirect his frustration, anger and hopelessness about the Speaker’s death by wrongly apportioning blame to the picketers at the Seattle clinic. In a tirade of accusations, the irate Chief Justice baselessly decides that the culprits are Baganda (of Ganda ethnicity) out to target members of his Acholi tribe, yet “their ethnic Leader (presumably the Kabaka (King) of Buganda) has used the Presidential (President Museveni’s) Jet to travel to Germany for treatment without any such farce as was seen with regard to Jacob Oulanya.
To say that there was national shock at the unfounded insensitive and incendiary rhetoric by a person no less than a whole Chief Justice, would be a gross understatement: first of all, the protesters were concerned Ugandans expressing political not tribal discontent, in which all tribes, his Acholis, participated. Secondly, the Kabaka of Buganda has never travelled on a Presidential Jet nor used tax payer’s money for his treatment abroad. The statements by the Chief Justice are not only not based on facts, they are also inappropriate on a number of levels and worrying for a person whose daily job is to consider and evaluate evidence before him to inform and justify decisions. At another level, the Chief Justice in number three in State hierarchy and his statements must portray a national not the parochial narrow tribal sentiments from which this country has yet to recover.
Having initially reportedly refused to apologise, to he has issued an qualified apology but only to the Kabaka, excusing his conduct by “an emotional rise”, conceding that he tripped at the hurdle restraint, which is in and of itself sufficient to disqualify him from that high state responsibility. This also, in my view, is a hollow apology as there must be no excuses by such public behaviour by a Chief Justice. Moreover, the Chief Justice maintains his tribal accusations against the Baganda, even though he has offered no evidence to back up his views that the demonstrators were exclusively Baganda acting on ulterior tribal, not political motives.
The public conduct by Justice Alfonse Owiny Dollo will do nothing to inspire confidence in the institution that so much defines a society, if justice cannot be seen to be done, even if it were done. At this moment, with such demonstrated tribal bias by the Justice Dollo, only brave and optimistic Baganda can hope to get justice if they must appear before him. His capacity to discharge justice impartial has been impaired and coloured by his tribal intolerance.
The position of Chief Justice is expected to be occupied by the best and finest, whose conduct is beyond reproach and are not encumbered with tribal and political prejudice, as Justice is also a known cadre Judge whose allegiance first and foremost is believed to be to the ruling National Resistance Movement before the bench. Justice Alfonse Owiny Dollo’s position, l believe, is untenable and he must reconsider it as the consequences of lack of trust and confidence in the judiciary by a large disenfranchised section of Ugandans could be dire.
May the late Speaker Jacob Oulanya’s soul rest in eternal peace as those left behind seek to forge a truly and genuinely united and prosperous Uganda in diversity to which he strived and contributed in no insignificant measure.
The writer is a Multilingual Human Rights Practitioner, formerly at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London for over 20 years and now Legal and Human Rights Consultant.
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