The date is November 6, 2013, at the High Court’s Civil Division nestled in Kampala.
Erias Lukwago, his lawyers, and supporters are pensive as they converge at Justice Yasin Nyanzi’s chambers hoping to extract an order stopping the implementation of the report of a tribunal that had found Lukwago incompetent in his job as Lord Mayor ad led to an impeachment vote against him by the councilors of Kampala Captal City Authority (KCCA).
With the air foggy and tensions running high, Lukwago’s hawk-eyed supporters spot a lanky young man clothed in a weather-beaten suit and holding an umbrella. It has just stopped raining. The seemingly paranoid supporters ask around and quickly gather information that the man is neither a journalist nor one of them.
“What does he want here if he is not from the media?” they ask.
Having wrongly concluded that he is a spy for the government, the rowdy supporters rough him up and throw him out of the court premises as court security nonchalantly look on.
That man, as it turns out, is Hassan Kassim Male Mabirizi Kiwanuka, who was has come to court like any other court goer.
Nine years on, nobody who follows news in Uganda can claim that Mabirizi is a stranger. Coincidently, Musa Ssekaana, a judge at the Civil Division of the High Court where Mabirizi first captured public attention when he was roughed up, has sentenced the serial litigant 18 months in prison for being in contempt of court, a charge Mabirizi rubbishes.
Mabirizi, a lawyer who disregarded attending the nine-month diploma course in Legal Practice at the Law Development Centre and therefore is not an enrolled advocate and has no practicing certificate, has cast himself at the center of almost every legal controversy that arises in Uganda.
He has ruffled the feathers of the members of the establishment, opposition politicians, private individuals, businessmen, the Kabaka, and his kinsmen alike by filing cases in magistrates’ courts, the Commercial Court, the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the regional East African Court of Justice.
“I have never counted the number of cases that I have filed,” Mabirizi said. “They are many, but my idea is to file as many as possible because Ugandans don’t know their rights.”
Six years ago, Mabirizi dragged Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II to the Civil Division of the Court, is court accusing him of illegally collecting land fees through the Buganda Land Board (BLB), a private company. Mabirizi’s suit against the Kabaka shocked many in Buganda, to whom the Kabaka is not impeachable. But Mabirizi, a Muganda, just didn’t conform to tradition.
The 35-year-old soon expanded his suit to challenge the Kabaka’s directive to all tenants settled on his 350 square mailos to pay between Shs100,000 and Shs600,000 for a 49-year lease on their respective pieces of land. The crux of Mabirizi’s argument was that the Kabaka holds the kingdom land in trust for his subjects but he is not their landlord and cannot charge them fees for using it.
Apart from this case infuriating the Mengo establishment and its supporters, the way Mabirizi prosecuted it left him at loggerheads with some members of the Judiciary and seems to be the genesis of his current troubles.
He espouses a firm belief in the rule of law and has dubbed himself the “rule of law champion”, but Mabirizi also has immense distrust for most of the judges that have to hear his cases. The case Kabaka case, for instance, was first allocated to Justice Lydia Mugambe Ssali, who walked off the case after Mabirizi claimed she was a Mengo loyalist and accused her of holding a closed-door meeting with Barnabas Ndaula, the legal manager at Buganda Land Board.
Justice Henrietta Wolayo then took up the case, but not for long. Mabirirzi and the new judge didn’t agree on where Mabirizi was supposed to seat during the hearings. Mabirizi wanted to seat at the bar, where advocates seat, but Justice Wolayo insisted he stands in the witness dock since he has no practicing certificate. Following a series of exchanges, Mabirizi accused Justice Wolayo of apparent bias. She walked out on him.
When the case was given to Justice Patricia Basaza Wasswa, Mabirizi still protested against the allocation, saying the judge had previously worked with Kabaka’s lawyers Kalenge, Bwanika & Company Advocates, from 1993 to 1998. The firm currently operates as Kalenge, Bwanika & Ssawa Advocates.
Unlike the previous two judges, Justice Basaza refused to recuse herself from the case. Whilst it was true that she worked with the law firm mentioned, Justice Basaza insisted that does not infer that she will show bias against the litigious lawyer. The Judge reasoned that when traditional kingdoms were restored in 1993, she did not handle any file involving the Buganda kingdom.
“It is true that I worked with the esteemed law firm 24 years ago. But the applicant bases his fear on surmise and conjecture. Judicial officers do not come from Mars. As a judicial officer, I took the oath to serve all and deliver justice,” Justice Basaza ruled.
Ironically, it was Justice Basaza who gave Mabirizi the evictory – albeit short-lived – that rattled the Mengo establishment, when she allowed an application by Mabirizi and ordered the Kabaka to furnish the lawyer with the land titles and bank accounts statements regarding all the money collected from sales of the 49-year leases to tenants on the contested land. The Court of Appeal later overturned Justice Basaza’s directive.
Mabirizi then wanted to be furnished with the financial statements of the kingdom’s accounts in Stanbic Bank and Bank of Africa. Justice Basaza was determined to hear the case but then Principal Judge Yorokamu Bamwine soon transferred her to the now defunct Execution and Bailiff’s Division of the High Court, meaning the case had to get a new Judge.
The only remaining option at the Civil Division was Justice Stephen Musota, the head of the Court at the time. Justice Musota couldn’t be drawn into the case since he had clashed with Mabirizi earlier, although in a different case.
The Kabaka land case was covered prominently, but it wasn’t the first Mabirizi had brought against the monarch. In the previous case, the Kabaka, in exercising his cultural powers, had handpicked a leader for Mabirizi’s Kkobe clan, which choice the lawyer opposed. Mabirizi went to court and the case found its way to Justice Musota’s table. In the process of hearing the case, Mabirizi accused Justice Musota of having a meeting with Kabaka’s lawyers. The judge walked recused himself from the case. The case was then given to Justice Margret Oguli-Ouma but Mabirizi, out of character for him, accepted an out-of-court settlement.
“They [ Mengo establishment] agreed that the Namwama [the Kkobe clan leader] they had picked was wrong and the one I was supporting was the right one,” Mabirizi bragged during an interview with this writer recently.
In 2017, even before President Museveni could assent to the controversial age limit law that the Parliament had passed, Mabirizi had already petitioned the Constitutional court challenging the process of its passing. The case eventually materialised and during its hearing, Mabirizi asked Justice Elizabeth Musoke, the only woman on the panel of five justices, to recuse herself from the case.
The reasons Mabirizi gave to support his request were personal, alleging that the Lady Justice had had children with two regime cadres. Justice Musoke refused to stand down from the case, and she later agreed with the majority that removing age limits from the constitution had been done in conformity with the law.
All the previous judges had let Mabirizi be until he came face-to-face with Justice Ssekaana, who currently heads the Civil Division of the High Court. At one time, Justice Ssekaana blocked Mabirizi from filing any case at the Civil Division, arguing that he needed to stop the lawyer from abusing both the court process and the registry.
The judge and lawyer have had a series of exchanges and it reached a time when it was apparent that a decision like Justice Ssekaana sent out yesterday – sentencing Mabirizi to 18 months in prison – was on the way,
Justice Ssekaana, following an application filed by Kiryowa Kiwanuka, the Attorney General, recently fined Mabirizi Shs300 million for insulting Justice Philip Odoki, who had dismissed the lawyer’s application in which he was challenging telecom company MTN’s Initial Public Offering (IPO).
Mabirizi said he would not pay the money and appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal. Attorney General Kiwanuka, after Mabirizi again took to social media disparaging Justice Ssekaana, responded by writing to the same judge asking that Mabirizi is incarcerated since he had continued to insult judges on social media.
Mabirizi had not been committed to prison yet since he was not present in court when the order was issued, but he took to social media to say he already expects the Court of Appeal to hear his appeal against Justice Ssekaana decisions.
On the other hand, Mabirizi has dragged Justice Ssekaana to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), saying the judge should be removed from office on three grounds: misconduct, incompetence, and practicing as a lawyer after he had been appointed a judge in 2017.