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UGANDA: Mob Justice Increases as Court Backlogs Escalate

Joshua Kyalimpa

KAMPALA, Dec 9 2009 (IPS) - Sam Kubo had gone to lease out his 600 hectares of land in Kayunga district. But instead he went to his death.

Uganda chief justice Benjamin Odoki says arbitration will help reduce the backlog in the courts. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

Uganda chief justice Benjamin Odoki says arbitration will help reduce the backlog in the courts. Credit: Joshua Kyalimpa/IPS

The land had been the subject of a long-standing dispute between squatters claiming the rights to it and Kubo, who inherited and owned the title to the land.

So when Kubo arrived with surveyors, in part of the process of granting a lease out on the land, the illegal squatters would not let him. They would rather he died than lease out the land. The angry mob lynched him and burnt his body and his car.

The surveyors whom Kubo had hired escaped from the killer residents to tell the story. And it was an incident that sent shockwaves through the country.

But this was not merely a case of mad vigilantism. It unfolded into a story of people desperate for justice, who were unable to access it and resorted to take the law into their own hands. This ugly incident is linked to the judicial crisis that has hit the country, as many feel justice is moving too slowly and more and more people are now taking matters into their own hands.

Mohamed Ndifuna, of the Human Rights Network, says there are increasing incidents of mob justice, because people have lost trust in judicial services.

“People are skeptical, and feel the judiciary will fail them,” says Ndifuna, whose organisation runs a campaign against mob justice.

Overwhelmed by the number of unresolved cases, the judiciary is resorting to arbitration as an alternative to what they see as the cumbersome judicial system inherited from Britain.

During a workshop by the Justice, Law and Order sector, a consortium bringing together organisations working on access to judicial services, participants resolved to use arbitration to solve minor disputes.

Bruce Kyerere, president of the Uganda Law Society, says under arbitration the parties agree to an arbiter whose decision will be respected by both. It cuts the court process and eases the clogged judicial system.

“Justice is not about just going to court; it’s also about being able to get the decision and in time,” Kyerere says.

A ministerial policy statement for 2008-2009 presented to parliament by justice and constitutional affairs minister, Dr Khiddu Makubuya, says more than 76 percent of cases filed in the courts had not been disposed off by the middle of this year.

By June 30 this year only 34,178 of the 144,444 cases lodged in the courts had been heard.

The judiciary report says 110,266 cases are pending, a backlog of 76.3 percent – meaning the judiciary will have to more than double its efforts to clear the backlog. Also, more than half of the 29,826 people in prisons across the country are on remand awaiting trial.

This state of affairs has made judicial officers adopt arbitration. Uganda chief justice Benjamin Odoki says this will help reduce the backlog. He says arbitration is a legal practice also adopted in Commonwealth countries to settle disputes without going to court. It saves litigants time and money.

Swithin Minyantwali, executive director of the International Law Institute says arbitration is an African way of dispute resolution. He told IPS the system faced resistance at first, because judges and lawyers said it was outside their jurisdiction, but it is now being embraced.

Minyantwali says alternative dispute resolution is a way of promoting judicial effectiveness and legal reform in sub-Saharan Africa.

Meanwhile mobs are on the loose, and the murder of Kubo, a lecturer at Kyambogo University, was not the only incident in Kayunga district. In the three weeks after the highly publicised murder of Kubo, three more cases of mob justice were recorded in the area.

The crisis in the judicial process has led to a blame game, with each section blaming the other. The inspector-general of police, who visited the district, blamed mob justice on the failure by the courts to resolve land conflicts. Many cases in the Uganda courts are related to such disputes.

Odoki says he has too few judges to hear cases. He says the problem is compounded by the fact that the police take long to conclude investigations, which delays prosecution and exacerbates the backlog of cases. “Some of the cases are delayed because the prosecution keeps on asking for extensions, saying investigations are continuing.”

With the police blaming the judiciary and the chief justice blaming the police for the backlog, arbitration comes at the right time.

Joseph Bwire, who has been in court for eight years over ownership of a house which he claims to have bought from the Departed Asians Custodian Board, but which another person now claims, sees the problem elsewhere. The board was set up to manage property that was left behind by Asians expelled from Uganda in 1972. Most of the property has been returned to former owners but property that was not claimed is still managed by the board, who are mandated to distribute the property.

He believes corruption causes the delays. “In my case the file has disappeared several times, and where we have been able to put together another file, either the judge is absent or the defence lawyer is allegedly sick.”

Bwire, who spoke to IPS at the Uganda High Court, where he had gone to check on the date for the hearing, is not interested in the blame game.

“They are all corrupt. When you go to the police they will ask for transport to go to investigate, the judges will want money to hear the case – it’s a waste of time and money.”

Bwire says he has on a number of occasions been asked by the police to provide transport for them to investigate his case. Although the case is civil, the police got involved after reports of the forgery of documents by officials of the custodian board.

Bwire’s allegations are significant after a grade one lower court magistrate, Moses Ndifuna of the Mbarara district, was arrested for accepting a bribe of about 100 dollars to alter a judgment in favour of an accused. The case is before the anti-corruption court, and investigations continue.

But Elias Kisawuzi, spokesperson for the judiciary, says there are many other factors that delay cases. In his opinion all parties, including judges, witnesses and lawyers, are ready to expedite cases.

Kisawuzi says some lawyers are in the habit of seeking unnecessary adjournments. “Some of the parties often ask for constitutional interpretations of matters arising from the case, causing further delays.”

Thousands of prison inmates are also affected by the slow judicial process. As the judiciary chokes with cases, so too do the Uganda Prisons. Spokesperson for prisons Frank Baine is worried that arbitration may not reduce numbers in the prisons. He says 57 percent of inmates are facing defilement charges, which might not be among those handled by arbitration.

There are 41 High Court judges after the Judicial Service Commission recruited a few more recently. The number practising has been dwindling. Some go on leave to take up positions abroad, such as Justice Julie Ssebutinde, who is with the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Ugandan judge Daniel Nsereko is also working with the ICC, and there are many others whose posts will not be filled because they are “on assignment”.

The Judicial Service Commission has decided to increase the number of judges and magistrates, in a bid to clear the case backlog. Odoki tells IPS there is a need for expansion at various court levels.

The Supreme Court will get another five judges to make it 12 in total. The Court of Appeal needs another seven to make the total 15, and the High Court of Uganda needs 32 more to total 82.

But until that happens, all Bwire can do is to continue pursuing his case in the hope that he will eventually get a fair hearing.

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