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When Lawyer Ssemakadde calls himself a rebel and says he does not bathe, what is he trying to communicate?

Isaac Ssemakadde

“The end-game is, of course, to wrestle power from these blood-sucking elites and their imperialist enablers, and restore pride and respect for the indigenous peoples and their institutions.”

In 2020, the strict lockdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic left salons and barbershops closed for long periods, momentarily breaking the bond between barbers, stylists and loyal clients, and curbing the amity and community of many barbershops.  But not many Ugandans actually followed the rules. They sneaked into salons and barbershops through the backdoors and got their hair styled or trimmed.

Ssemakadde, a self-proclaimed “anti-clockwise thinker” and “legal rebel”, abided by the freeze on salon work, and in the process grew an afro out of which he plaited dreadlocks. All of this was kept out of the public view until Ssemakadde appeared at a press conference in September 2021 to admonish security agencies for kidnapping Victoria University Vice Chancellor Dr. Lawrence Muganga on accusations of espionage.

“Any allegations that are flying on social media are unofficial, exaggerated, unsubstantiated and most importantly regrettable, because they have not been channelled through the responsible authorities to levy a charge in Uganda,” Ssemakadde, flanked by socialite Frank Gashumba, said of what was being said about Muganga.

Ssemakadde added: “The UPDF spokesperson, Brig. Flavia Byekwaso, yesterday lied to the nation in her tweet following the brutal kidnap of Dr. Muganga when she alleged that he is being accused of illegal stay in Uganda. This is not true. How does a Ugandan overstay in his country?”

With the Rwanda-Uganda feud boiling to the surface and common land border shut for nearly three years at the time, Kampala was rounding up persons that were suspected to be connected to the Rwanda government.

But at Ssemakadde’s press conference, the standoff he had come to address was shunted to the back of the mind, and many were left wondering whether it was becoming of a lawyer to spot dreadlocks. To add to his changed look, Ssemakadde used the days that followed to release pictures in which he wore jungle boots and overcoats that one would associate with British Lords of those years.

To a typical Ugandan, being a lawyer, in itself, is a symbol of success. And Ugandans have been raised to expect that lawyers will don a nice fitting suit, perhaps shipped from Italy, which is accompanied by a well-trimmed head and kempt hair to boot.

To shatter this stereotype even further, Ssemakadde dubbed himself ‘atanaaba’ (he who doesn’t bathe). If many Ugandans think something is off limits, Ssemakadde will do much of that, so long as he is convinced that it is not illegal.

His latest mission, he says, is to rubbish all practices that he sees as vestiges of “neocolonialism”, and while at it, public opinion is the last thing he gives a hoot about.

“I have no control over what the hoi polloi perceives me as. I am a man on a mission, a mission to Mars, Jupiter, and the like. I am not going to wait for anybody. I will not seek anyone’s approval. I want to take my clients with me to Mars,” Ssemakadde said in an interview recently.

“We want to change the world from layman misconceptions and common nomenclature. We are trying to reinvent the law; our way, using humble means as humanely as possible.”  Ssemakadde added.

He has established a strong presence on social media, and now has over 48,500 Twitter followers and growing rapidly since his rebrand. He has interesting hashtags, calling himself #LegalRebel #Atanaaba, and recently came up with another, #DimwitsMustFall.

He is currently accused of using insulting language on Twitter against High Court Judge Musa Ssekaana, owing to comments that were posted on his Twitter Account in relation to the cases involving another lawyer, Male Mabirizi, which judge Ssekaana was handling.

Mabirizi first appeared before Judge Ssekaana as a lawyer and ended up being sentenced to a fine of Shs300 million by the same judge, for insulting the same judge on Facebook, and is now serving a jail term of 18 months, again for abusing the same judge, and again sentenced by the same judge.

Mabirizi and Ssemakadde are the two lawyers who have most vocally spoken up against what they call abuse of court process by Judge Ssekaana, and the police recently quizzed Ssemakadde over his own comments about the same judge. Ssemakadde is also fighting a private prosecution introduced in the Buganda Road Magistrate Court by another lawyer, again over allegedly insulting Judge Ssekaana.

For this article, we asked Ssemakadde whether just likes to court controversy for the sake of it, and what is his endgame?

Ssemakadde answered: “I don’t think we court controversy for its sake. We simply expose the hypocrisy of the elite petty bourgeois class, which apparently is a controversial enterprise in a fundamentally dishonest state and society like present-day Uganda.”

He added: “The end-game is, of course, to wrestle power from these blood-sucking elites and their imperialist enablers, and restore pride and respect for the indigenous peoples and their institutions.”

Defender of the media

Before Ssemakadde became an avid user of social media, he had already cemented his relationship with legacy media, defending it against the overreaches of the executive, security agencies, or even parliament.

In October 2016, five media houses – The Observer, Daily Monitor, Uganda Radio Network (URN), The New Vision, The Red Pepper – were summoned by the parliament’s Rules, Discipline, and Privileges committee over what MPs construed as negative coverage arising from the media coverage of lavish expenses of the August House on the legislators.

Robert Spin Mukasa, the Observer’s Editor, instead of appearing before the committee, decided to hire the services of Ssemakade, and the boney lawyer didn’t disappoint.

“Your letter summoning our client to appear before the committee on Wednesday, October 5, 2016, at 10 am is impermissibly vague and invasive of our client’s editorial independence, among other constitutional rights, which you are oath-bound to respect, protect and promote,” Semakadde wrote to the committee, on behalf of Mukasa, effectively ending the proceedings before they could even start.

When Ssemakadde talks about media freedoms and freedom of expression, he follows it up with action, as the case was in 2014. The trial of Ronald Poteri, a detective who was accused of stealing and later leaking recordings of then Inspector General of Police General Kale Kayihura talking to Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s alleged youth supporters, had gripped the country.

Then Buganda Road Chief Magistrate Lillian Bucyana threw a spanner in the works when she banned the media from covering the trial, after being prompted by a prosecutor.

The prosecutor, Lino Anguzu, claimed that the nature of the evidence available, if publicised, might cause disorder within the police force and Cabinet. Ssemakadde, once again available, and free of charge, helped the Uganda Court Reporters Association (UCRA) to upend Bucyana’s order by appealing to the High Court through a judicial review application.

In taking on the Attorney General, Ssemakadde requested Justice Lydia Mugambe of the High Court to declare that Bucyana’s order wasn’t in conformity with the principle of open justice. Justice Mugambe agreed with Ssemakadde and recognised the importance of open justice and the role of media access in legal proceedings.

“…if the state objects to the release of the information, it must provide evidence to support its claim of secrecy. It cannot be a mere invocation of security and privileged information. The courts have to balance the competing rights and determine whether a matter falls within the exception of Article 41 of the Constitution,” Justice Mugambe ruled.

She added: “To satisfy the requirement to find a balance between the two rights, the magistrate court should have requested evidence from the state to support its secrecy claim. The magistrate court also should have evaluated the nature of the limitation sought by the state and verified that its purpose could not be achieved through less restrictive means. Pursuant to Article 28 of the Constitution, the magistrate court should have properly evaluated the dangers of the in-camera proceedings to decide if such a limitation was sufficient in a free and democratic society.

With that, the judge quashed the proceedings that had happened in Bucyana’s court and ordered Poteri to be tried again in the presence of the media. Poteri’s trial in the end didn’t take place since upon the media’s return to court, the prosecutors, for some reason, withdrew the charges. Ssemakadde had pulled off a masterstroke.

Taking it to the Judiciary

The principle of open justice is something Ssemakadde keeps hammering at. It doesn’t stop at allowing the media in on court proceedings, it also extends to the processes through which judges are selected.

The process of recruiting judges in Uganda is a secret one, left to the Judicial Service Commission and the president, but Ssemakadde prefers a selection process that happens in the open.

“They are content to normalise the undemocratic status quo and perpetuate the worrisome culture of elitism and corruption, in which their ‘golden calves are the biggest winners,” Ssemakadde said as he took a dig at the authorities.

He added: “Clearly, how can you transform the Judiciary by sticking to business as usual? How can you imbue the much-needed diversity, intellectual rigour, and national consciousness in the Judiciary when the appointment process is still treated as a rite of passage, controlled exclusively by a handful of ‘high priests’ instead of the whole community?”

Many of the things that Ssemakadde said are supported by many practicing lawyers, but because the other lawyers fear to antagonise the judges, they had rather let sleeping dogs lie.

Some other lawyers, although they admit that Ssemakadde addresses critical issues within the Judiciary, think it is wrong to expose the judges, because this in the end exposes the justice system itself and leaves the Judiciary even weaker.

Ssemakadde wants to see deeper changes in how justice is dispensed in this country. He says: “The system the British brought here was unjust one reflecting the unjust nature of colonial governance itself. This is why up to today there is no jury system in Uganda. The Judge is both the judge and also – person jury. This is not real justice; just a system pretending to be one.”

In a speech Ssemakadde gave recently when he appeared before the police for interrogation on allegations of abusing Justice Ssekaana however, he punctured holes in the arguments of those who find him at fault for calling out judges. He said: “Judges are not justice; they are merely appointed to the task of delivering it. We want to respect them for that, and correct them when they fail to live up to the task of delivering it.”

And when Ssemakadde decides to “correct” a public official, he does so in any way he chooses. He recently appeared on the NTV’s “On The Spot” programme with Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko, who was there to defend his move to introduce amendments to the laws governing use of social media, saying there is need to stem insults that people hurl at public officials and one another on social media.

The show turned into a shouting match and ended prematurely, but not before Ssemakadde put it to Nsereko that his voters have a right to call him out when he falters, even if they choose to do so by calling him “a foolish man who doesn’t deserve our vote”. That, Ssemakadde insists, cannot be illegal and cannot be a matter for the police to handle, and he cites several court decisions to back up his point. A public official who feels this is too much for them to bear, Ssemakadde reasons, has the right to vacate public office.

Ssemakadde the man  

By his own admission, Ssemakadde is naturally stubborn. It’s easy to fall out with him and love him all over again. He jokes and argues a lot, so much so that he can take a conversation into the wee hours of the night.

He likes to question things no matter who is behind them, to push boundaries to the limit.  And according to people who have known him for most of his 37 or so years of life, he chases targets with terrifying purpose.

In Uganda, when students are at Law school, they dream about working with big law firms. It could be Kampala Associated Advocates (KAA). It could be MAAKS.  It could be Katende & Ssempebwa advocates or AF Mpanga Advocates, which now trades as Bowmans in Uganda. Ssemakade started out at AF Mpanga Advocates, a firm whose specialty is commercial and corporate law.

This would have been considered by many as an ideal start, but to Ssemakadde, who seems to always see things differently, it wasn’t the case.  Having performed well during clerkship, he says, the firm’s honchos wanted to retain him, only to stern them by rejecting the offer.

“My interest was never in commercial law and that’s the direction that law firm was taking,” Ssemakadde told this writer. “My interest has always been in public interest litigation. My interest is public law and human rights.”

He followed through with his dream by forming the civil society organisation Legal Brains Trust, which has many limbs such as the Center for Legal Aid, which provides legal services principally to the downtrodden.

It was that latest chapter in the story of a boy from Mbulire Village in Bigasa, Bukomansimbi District, that thrust him at the center of many legal battles in which, with meager resources, he has taken on judicial officers, politicians, government agencies, giant telecom companies, and the big banks.

In 2013, he was at the center of challenging the SIM-card registrations and he later challenged the deactivation of unregistered sim-cards. For myriad reasons, he lost both cases, but Ssemakadde dusts himself and gets back to his feet quickly.

“In each of these cases you learn something and you go back to the drawing table and strategise. I don’t believe in mourning,” Ssemakadde once told this writer while going through a heap of court files at his office located at Teachers House in Kampala.

His mantra – I don’t believe in mourning – was bound to be tested. For instance, in 2019, Dr Stella Nyanzi, his client, was involved in one of the most chaotic trials in recent history.

From the start, Ssemakadde and Nyanzi felt that Magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu was exhibiting bias in the case in which the researcher and writer was accused of insulting President Museveni’s deceased mother, Esteri Kokundeka, in a Facebook post that went viral.

When the trial got halfway, Ssemakadde stepped aside from representing Nyanzi, citing what he called Kamasanyu’s apparent bias.

“I will wait for them in the High Court,” he said as he stormed out of the Buganda Road Magistrate’s Court. “I have no business in this court.” Kamasanyu sentenced Nyanzi to 18 months to prison for cyber harassment a few months later.

Ssemakadde had the last laugh when, on appeal to the High Court, Justice Henry Peter Adonyo quashed Nyanzi’s conviction and sentence. The judgment, however, came too late for Nyanzi, since she had nearly served out her time in Luzira prison.

Nyanzi is a fiery Museveni critic who is not shy to throw in an expletive as she hammers her points. Speaking of representing Nyanzi recently, Ssemakadde said: “We share the same spectrum as regards certain antics and human rights regalia; it was only right I represented her. She was a client. I will do it all over again if asked.”

Ssemakadde takes one’s freedom of expression very seriously, and some of the public that he has had to comment about in the recent past did not feel particularly flattered.

When Jane Frances Abodo was appointed Director of Public Prosecutions in April 2020, Ssemakadde made comments about her appointment that got him to be summoned by the police’s CID directorate.

When Kiryowa Kiwanuka was appointed Attorney General mid last year, Ssemakadde penned an article in which he took issue with the existence of the office of the Attorney General in its current form and the powers ascribed to it, described Kiwanuka as a unfit for the job.

About the office and title, Ssemakadde wrote: These titles are a little tedious, and relics of the late-feudal manners of the royal palace courts of England. But coming out of that, there is actually a need to examine if, indeed, we need such an office, banding together many types of power, as derived from its original Euro-feudal origins. Why, for example, does the lawyer representing one side in a court case have to defer to the lawyer for the other side (Attorney General) because they are “senior counsel”? And why should the AG be seen also as head of the Bar? How then will other lawyers dispute with such a lawyer in court or at the bar association, when the lawyer heads the association to which all lawyers are answerable? And, moreover, the “senior counsel” thing is already hanging over their heads!”

About Kiwanuka, Ssemakadde wrote in the same article: “The new Attorney General is, as I say, different again. If indeed few previous appointees have managed to leave this post with their reputations intact, then what makes Kiryowa Kiwanuka special is that he goes to the post with no reputation of worth to lose in the first place.”

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