Context: Judges have recently taken a tough stance against criticism by some lawyers, the climax of which saw Justice Musa Ssekaana of the High Court slap a fine of Shs300 million on serial public interest litigant Male Mabirizi. The enormity of the fine, among other issues, has drawn criticism from many, including lawyers, and Isaac Ssemakadde, the author of this piece, was one of them. The judges insist on preserving what they see as respect for the courts of law and judicial officers, while their critics see the move as intended to shield these public officials from legitimate criticism – Editor.
The bizarre statement issued by the Uganda Judicial Officers Association (UJOA) on February 1 confirms our indelible criticism that the Uganda Judiciary has gone to the dogs.
Full of grammatical and stylistic errors, and based on overly broad and unproven allegations, UJOA’s 160-word statement smacks of prejudice, incompetence, intolerance, narrow-mindedness and a penchant for tyranny, censorship and low-key colonialism.
We urgently need radical surgery of the institution, including fresh vetting of its current members—especially those irredeemably bent cadres who believe they are untouchable, infallible and invincible, because they are protected by the junta.
To condemn an Advocate who is qualified to be a Judge of the High Court, an award-winning member of the Uganda Law Society, before making the necessary consultations, without due process, and in total disregard of the principle of a fair hearing, is the lowest of the low—it just doesn’t get any lower than that!
Mob justice is now the official policy of the Uganda Judiciary. Due process is a thing of the past, an irritant not to be observed once the Judiciary perceives an attack on one of its members.
The same message was also sent out yesterday through another bizarre resolution on ‘zero tolerance to cyberbullying of judges’. It was reached after the week-long sessions of this year’s judges’ conference at the posh Nsambya-based Mestil Hotel.
But, of course, the resolution is unacceptable at best, and laughable at worst.
The constitutionality of the offence of cyberbullying or cyber harassment is sub judice, i.e. pending a decision of the Constitutional Court in several cases including Uganda Law Society vs Attorney General, Petition No 1 of 2019.
We therefore don’t know how the judges arrived at a working definition of ‘cyberbullying’.
What examples did they cite of the gravity and frequency of such incidents in the past, so that we can be convinced that this is a pressing and substantial issue of national importance? Aren’t judicial processes supposed to be transparent, impartial and proven beyond doubt?
The resolution is also in bad taste since the sweeping charge of ‘cyberbullying’ is the modern tool of choice for the political persecution of dissenting voices in Uganda.
But now that the Judiciary has thrown concerns of sub judice to the wind, and formally re-entered the business of political persecution, thus allying itself with the forces of tyranny, exploitation and oppression, isn’t radical surgery of the judiciary inevitable, if we are to restore public confidence?
Analogue, colonial judges
The resolution is laughable because it depicts our Judiciary as digitally stunted, much like the biblical example of Lot’s wife (Genesis 19:26).
The judicial officers of Uganda should adapt to the new digital order enthusiastically, not only by decolonizing and digitalizing their processes, but also being the best example of how to exercise maximum restraint when criticised online.
In short, if the judges want to pry into our online conversations, they should first grow much thicker skin, consistent with the community standards of our favourite social networks. Otherwise they are in for a rude awakening!
Obviously, like Lot’s wife, most of them are still stuck in the colonial-analogue era of unbridled judicial tyranny, exploitation and oppression of the ‘captured, primitive natives’ — which is a pity, because well…Judge Judy happened.
Shielding rotten tomatoes
With the People as our shield, and social justice our spear, we are constitutionally justified to step on the toes of tyrannical judges and magistrates, using social media and other digital innovations, to remind these high priests and freemasons that they are in reality oath-bound servants of the People.
Social accountability mechanisms, such as judicial watch apps and social media networks, are feared by errant judges and magistrates—the rotten tomatoes—for this very reason.
Traditionally, rotten tomatoes in the judiciary have been able to hide behind the thick red tape of colonial decorum, analogue formalism and excessive proceduralism to commit unspeakable crimes against the People—with impunity.
But the digital pivot has radically upset the status quo. It has equipped all citizens (including the meek and illiterate) with readily affordable and accessible means of enforcing judicial accountability, without the burden of red tape.
Suddenly every Kajubi, Okello and Mugisha can become an active participant in the war against judicial malpractice—simply by clicking, swiping, liking, sharing, retweeting, etc. They don’t even have to comment.
We should therefore be very distrustful of, and actively resist, any cleverly-crafted resolution or statement by unelected high priests and freemasons, which will in effect shield the judiciary’s rotten tomatoes from exposure. This is not how democracy works.
Judicial office is not immune from scandal. Judges are not infallible or immortal lords, and court decorum doesn’t mean that they are above trenchant or caustic criticism on the digital streets.
The cat is already out of the bag.
The People are wiser, braver and more empowered these days.
Long jail sentences, astronomical fines, terse warnings and other mysterious sanctions will no longer deter anyone from the patriotic duty of exposing and combating judicial corruption.
But these excesses will certainly embarrass the judiciary, and lower its standing in society. Classic own goal!
Voyeurs and fragile flowers
As custodians of our Constitution, judicial officers of Uganda must caution themselves against curating the wrong image in the digital era.
Judges and magistrates have no business conducting digital surveillance, scouring the Internet in search of dissenting or critical voices. That’s the preoccupation of tyrannical regimes, like the one we are determined to topple.
Entrusted with the high duty of midwifing a constitutional democracy from a colonial contraption, judicial officers in the 21st century should be careful not to present themselves as obsessive voyeurs prying into our social media lives, or fragile flowers which wilt in the heat of cyber-criticism.
The newly appointed ones should especially desist from ‘chamber bullying’, mob justice and other acts of intimidation and harassment of critical court users.
The people of Uganda don’t need the help of judicial officers in assessing acceptable and unacceptable ideas.
We are intellectually mature enough to conduct unmoderated, unpoliced, unsurveilled and unmonitored discussions in our homes, streets and workplaces.
Try to clear these phantoms from your heads and grasp the reality that we live in a constitutional democracy now, not the Queen’s colony or Tyrant’s hamlet.
Swept under the carpet
The Ostrich head-in-the-sand posture taken by both UJOA and the 23rd judges’ conference is irresistibly comical, if not absurd.
What is the fundamental challenge being faced by the judiciary or the practice of law in Uganda today, and whose duty is it to fix it?
Also, if the one with the duty of fixing it is not doing so, whose role is it to call them to account?
Who will bell the cat?
These are the issues that our esteemed judges feared to discuss openly (inside the police barracks at Nsambya), as Uganda continues to bleed from the yoke of militarism, surveillance and repression.
Cowardly but wanting to look tough and relevant at the same time, the judicial officers of Uganda opted for old-fashioned petite bourgeois petulance.
By picking on a secondary target (an outspoken legal rebel) to deflect from tackling the fundamental issues and the real enemy whom they actually fear (a tone-deaf military tyrant), the lethargic, opportunistic and careerist Benchwarmers (hiding behind closed doors) shamelessly recast criticism of their ilk as an issue of ‘cyberbullying’ — without even sparing a thought for the myriad genuine but less privileged victims of physical bullying (torture) whom they lock out of justice on a daily.
A strange case of judicial gonorrhea
The purpose of a justice system is to streamline dispute resolution and make personal solutions unnecessary, so as to preclude the attendant personal abuse and malevolence.
So if you defeat the justice system, by neglecting your constitutional duty to protect the People against marauding forces of tyranny, oppression and exploitation, it does not make sense to complain (while using state resources moreover) about ad hominem attacks.
The Baganda have a saying: ‘Guluma yaguzza, enziku teruma kkundi’ — literally meaning that gonorrhoea (a sexually transmitted disease) rarely harms the navel.
How did a legal rebel collectively offend all the judicial officers of Uganda by tweeting about the anatomy of a single judge?
By the way, does the size of a judge’s genitalia or brain merit discussion and resolution in a week-long judicial conference?
What does this reveal about the state of our Judiciary today?
Accordingly, I find the grumblings from UJOA and the 23rd annual judges’ conference misconceived, frivolous and vexatious, and I urge right-thinking members of society to dismiss them with contempt.
The writer is an advocate of the Courts of Judicature and a member of the Uganda Law Society