Justice David Porter, who was ‘donated’ by the UK to the people of East Africa, enquired into the pillaging of Congo resources by Ugandan soldiers and, in his quiet retirement, revisits the subject.
Virunga National park is mythical. Found in the Albertine Rift Valley, east of the incessantly distressed Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the park is inimitable.
It has an active sequence of volcanoes mixed up with a rich assortment of habitats that arguably outdo those in any other African park. As if that’s not enough, it has a combination of prairie lands, savannas, fens, low altitudes and afro-montane forest belts, the unique afro-alpine vegetation, and permanent glaciers and snow on Mountain Rwenzori, whose highest peak scales over 5000m above sea level.
Twenty one years ago, Justice David Porter stood on a raised ground overlooking the Virunga, and its striking beauty left him musing over several things that to him didn’t make sense.
“Why would anybody fight over this; this is supposed to be enjoyed. It’s not for fighting over,” he recalls thoughts flowing in his mind.
Of course, for myriad reasons, the DRC has never been at peace with itself, and though this is something that clearly troubles him, Justice Porter doesn’t want to delve much into the politics as to why both its neighbours and global powers have never let the DRC be.
The DRC is again back on the front pages in Uganda, with the leaders of the two countries having agreed to conduct a joint operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels, who they say have for decades operated recruitment and training camps in parts of eastern DRC. Kampala suffered twin suicide bombings in November, and the northeastern DRC city of Beni also suffered a suicide bombing of its own on Christmas day, all of which were blamed on the ADF.
The Ugandan forces are already deep into DRC and frequently post on social media showcasing what they call successes against the ADF fighters. Another contingent is providing protection to Dott Services, a Ugandan road construction company that is opening up roads in parts of eastern DRC.
If there is any prayer to be made about the latest incursion into the DRC, is that it ends well this time. In the 1960s, when Ugandan forces entered DRC to help quell a mutiny, allegations of pillaging the DRC by top Ugandan officers surfaced in our parliament. Worse happened in the late 1990s when the Ugandan forces helped rebels to depose long-serving ruler Mobutu Sese Seko.
Back to 2001, Justice Porter’s incursion into the DRC didn’t end at staring at the mammoth park that is Virunga. He ventured into one of the famous Congolese markets, where he bought a kitenge, the Kiswahili word for African wax print fabric that is frequently worn in East Africa.
“It was a beautiful piece of cloth, the kitenge,” Justice Porter reminisces. “I remember moving in the market and buying it for my wife. I can’t forget that.”
But the judge hadn’t gone into the DRC on a vacation. Justice Porter, for the uninitiated, was then heading the commission that inquired into accusations by a UN report that Uganda and her high-ranking soldiers had pillaged the DRC’s resources during their excursion into the DRC in the late 1990s.
As we discuss his commission, he turns into the interviewer, asking me if I had ever had a look at his report. I hadn’t. my anticipation grew, thinking he would give me a copy.
“I can’t give you the report, because my role stops when I hand over the findings to the ministry which charged me with the duty; that’s the ministry of Foreign Affairs. I don’t know why to-date they have never released the report,” he says.
Justice Porter also chaired a number of commissions, in Uganda including the collapse of banks in the ‘9Os and the criminal justice system.
The Uganda government instituted the Porter Commission after a UN panel of experts had authored reports detailing how plundering of Congolese resources had funded many of the different armed groups, both local and foreign, that had at the time been fighting in eastern DRC. The UN reports claimed that in the process, individual Rwandan, Ugandan and Zimbabwean army officers, as well as individual Congolese actors, had accumulated fortunes for themselves.
But Justice Porter, speaking to me from his neat house at Mulungu landing site, just behind the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort west of Kampala, punctures holes in the report of the UN experts, saying their findings were based on a limited sample size, and that they didn’t give the accused people a fair hearing.
“They got a report basing on three trusted informers who were actually dealing in gold,” Justice Porter said of the UN panel of experts’ report. “They make reports based on politics but not the truth.”
He added: “How can you make a report without hearing from the people who you are accusing of misbehaving? This was unbelievable. The system must be fair to all.”
The government of the DRC dragged the government of Uganda to the International Court of Justice over the pillage of its resources, and despite Uganda putting up a spirited fight, including tabling the Porter Commission report in its defence, lost the case and was ordered to compensate the DRC with $10b, which has not been paid to-date.
David Porter the East African
He took a hard look at me through his spectacles, creating a long pause that left me uneasy. When he spoke again – in abrupt fashion – Justice Porter said, “I have lived in East Africa for longer than you.” His unexpected comment drew a big bout of laughter from both of us.
I considered his statement for a few moments and realised he was right. He first set foot in Nairobi in 1976, years before I was born. He didn’t arrive as a judge. He was a Magistrate who came under the auspicious of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the UK’s official development agency.
In 1981, whilst still living in Kenya, he became a Judge of the High Court. After working for 16 years in Kenya’s Judiciary until 1992, he was transferred to Uganda, which had a critical shortage of judicial officials. He was donated to East Africa by the UK, if you like.
“I remember working in various places including Masaka. I remember working on the terrible case of the clashes between Muslims and Christians after the fall of Idi Amin. It was horrible. Very unpleasant case. It was a horrible case,” Justice Porter said, referring to the reprisal killings of hundreds of Muslims after the fall of Amin, a Muslim, in 1979.
As a judge, Porter made it a habit to visit prisons. He says it was an effort to get a clear picture of the work that the judiciary had at hand, and he in so doing came to gain a sharper appreciation of the wrongs of Uganda’s criminal justice system.
In a case that would profoundly affect his life, Justice Porter found a woman who had been in incarceration for two years without trial on charges of committing adultery. To rub salt into the wound, the woman, who at the time Justice Porter spotted her was begging for food from passersby, had a child who was roughly two years old.
“This meant this child was born in prison,” Justice Porter, who immediately discharged the said prisoner, explained. “Can you imagine they were sleeping on the floor? No blankets. No pillows. No nothing.”
When Justice Porter arrived at the scene, Uganda had endured eight years under Amin in the 1970s, followed by quick-fire unstable governments and then the civil war that ushered in Yoweri Museveni’s presidency in 1986. The wars had led to unspeakable abuse of human rights, collapse of the economy and breakdown of institutions. The six years Museveni had been in power by the time Justice Porter arrived could not have repaired much of the damage.
Among the key tasks Justice Porter set himself, going by what he had experienced during his tour of the prisons, was to try and ensure that suspects did not spend unnecessarily long on remand.
“I got involved in prisons and some of my methods have been adopted. I found a way of collecting data on how long people have been in prison before trial; how long they have been on remand. I made sure that before a criminal session starts, I met with the suspects and had a chat with them.”
In addition, he chaired a commission whose purpose was to find out why criminal cases had clogged the system.
“We discovered that many magistrates had no computers, they would handle two or three cases a day and yet they had 12 cases to hear each day. The advocates weren’t turning up. In other instances, the police would be careless with exhibits, in other instances prisons delayed to deliver prisoners at court. And yet for cases to proceed, all of the above must be present in court,” he said.
The magistrates now have more computers than they had then, and advocates perhaps turn up more often and on time, just like the Prisons officers deliver the suspects to courts on time. But again the case backlog hasn’t gone away. And the problem of suspects spending long periods on remand hasn’t completely disappeared even though the opportunity for a suspect to be released on bail pending trial is now much more pronounced than it was when Justice Porter arrived in the early 1990s.
But solving the problem of case backlog and how long suspects spend on remand is now for others to solve.
I asked him what he has been up to ever since he retired as a judge in 1999. The squelch was instant: “I have been watching TV.” This triggered another round of laughter. “You know now DStv has taken off most of the decent programs. No ITV. No BBC. So it’s boring.”
I put it to him that he is listed as a senior consultant of Shonubi & Musoke Company Advocates Ltd, one of the leading corporate and commercial law firms in the country. His answer: “I was supposed to do some arbitration work with them but some organisation took our work. But they consult me from time to time on other issues.” He added that while he is at home and not watching television, he preoccupies himself with data-based programming, work he said he does for his wife’s organisation.
The conversation happened in Justice Porter’s fruit-tree dotted compound on Mulungu Island, with the cool fresh breeze from Lake Victoria sweeping through from Lake Victoria.
The retired judge was happy discussing the economy and other subjects as he was discussing the justice, law and order sector. For instance, he wondered out of the blue, why Uganda still exports unprocessed farm products.
“Why do they sell tea in sacks? “Why sell coffee in sacks? Why don’t they just process coffee? Kenyan [processed] tea is enjoyed in Europe and America. They make good money out of it. Why not process chocolate from here? I never understand it.”
Adding value to our raw products before export is a subject that has been widely discussed for many decades, and solutions have been proposed and attempted with minimum success. I wouldn’t export the retired judge to have the magic formula either.
In the same vein, he would not know how the most recent excursion into the DRC by Ugandan forces – this time on the invitation of the government of DRC and involvement of the DRC forces – will end. That is best left to time to tell.
Justice Porter, now 87, served his time and earned his retirement. When he isn’t in Mulungu, he goes with his wife Valerie to their other home on Bulago Island, east of Entebbe Airport, for a change of scene.
While there, Justice Porter says, they “enjoy the swimming pool and the boat. We just enjoy ourselves. I enjoy bonding”.