Uganda: Rampant Corruption At Nakawa High Court
By Bakampa Brian Baryaguma
There is a gentleman (name withheld, but whom I shall simply call ‘the accused’) who has been languishing in Kigo prison for three years and seven months now. He was arrested by police on 30 May 2011, from Mubende district, charged before the Chief Magistrate’s court on 15 June 2011, and remanded to Kigo prison on the same day. On 23 January 2012, he was subsequently indicted and scheduled to appear before the High Court of Uganda, since the offences he is alleged to have committed are only triable by the High Court. Unfortunately, to date, the accused has never appeared before any court or judge to defend himself and secure his freedom, because he strongly maintains his innocence! He remains incarcerated behind the walls of Kigo prison.
I was approached by a family friend of the accused (and also doubles as my friend), who requested me to help them secure the accused’s release from prison, and see to it that his case is duly resolved in court. I accepted to help them, and embarked on finding the accused’s file, whose location was unknown by the accused and his family. But prison authorities told me that I should check with High Court Nakawa. They gave me basic information pertaining to the accused’s case, like his police and court case file numbers, and I headed off to High Court Nakawa to begin my search.
While there, I was referred to a lady in charge of the criminal files archives, whom I was told is called Helen. She told me that in order to trace that file, I ‘… have to put in money.’ So I gave her Uganda shillings fifteen thousand only (Ugx 15,000/-) so that she begins searching for the file. After about one week, I called her to inquire on the progress. She told me that she had found the file, but that I should come with more Uganda shillings thirty five thousand only (Ugx 35,000/-) allegedly for her ‘boss,’ totalling to Uganda shillings fifty thousand only (Ugx 50,000/-).
Thereafter, I embarked on working on the accused’s bail application so that he may appear before the High Court. I drafted all the necessary documents, relevant to the case. I also paid the court fees, and even tried to obtain a Certificate of No Objection to the application from the Court-based Resident State Attorney’s office, but I was told to first file the application and come back thereafter.
On Wednesday, 28th January, 2015, I went to file the bail application documents on behalf of the accused. I was referred to a gentleman whose name I heard pronounced as ‘Medo.’ Mr Medo gave my application a court number, and he registered it as Criminal Miscellaneous Application No. 8 of 2015. I asked him how long it would take before the Court issues a production warrant for the accused to appear in court. He said that, ‘That depends on the weight I put on the file to support it.’ He was effectively asking me for a bribe. I said I don’t have any money, because the applicant is a poor young man, who is rotting in jail. But Mr Medo insisted, saying that, ‘As a lawyer, you should know that something is needed to kick-start the engine.’ I maintained that I didn’t have any money (and indeed I didn’t have it), but requested that the accused should be assisted, after suffering in prison for far too long. At that point, Mr Medo promised that they would follow up the matter. He advised me to check on Tuesday, 3rd February, 2015, to see if the Registrar of the Court has signed the relevant documents. Meanwhile, during this time, he often left me there for long periods of time, apparently to exhaust and beat me into submission. Ms Helen was also there, busy convincing me to bring the file back into her hands, saying that Mr Medo is a very strict man, who would disturb, and give me a lot of hard time. It was clear to me that she wanted to take more bribes, arising out of handling the file especially, after seeing that I was a generous person.
I wasn’t able to go back to the Court on Tuesday, because I was heavily engaged elsewhere. But yesterday – Wednesday, 4th February, 2015 – in the afternoon, I went back to check on the file’s progress. I met Mr Medo again, who told me that they are still waiting for me to give them something small, ‘… as we discussed last time.’ I again told him that I didn’t have any money. After some time, he told me that the matter was ready to be presented before a judge, but that I should first bring their Uganda shillings twenty thousand only (Ugx 20,000/-). I told him I was going and that I would come back later. He asked where I was going. I said I would be waiting. Then he told me that the application would be placed before Justice Musene, and I saw him make some entries in a certain book, which I suspect is of matters to be handled by the learned judge. I bade him farewell.
All this long, I was very annoyed by these shameless demands for bribes and penchant for corruption, moreover in a supposed temple of justice. For the short time I have frequented this court, I have heard some lawyers, and many members of the public complaining against the extreme level of corruption exhibited there. One gentleman told me that the court officials demand bribes as though they are entitled to receive them, perhaps as part of their salaries. I felt the urge to step-in, to restore sense and order at the supposed temple of justice, which is now a den and haven of thieves.
I therefore, decided to report my experience to the Deputy Registrar of the Court, whose name I learnt is Lillian Mwandha, because ordinarily the members of staff in the registry report to her and are directly under Her Worship’s direction and supervision. After waiting so long, I entered her chambers, greeted her, and said that I needed to speak to her ‘in confidence.’ She listened attentively. Then I told her of my bail application pending before the court and the plight of the applicant (the accused). I told her my problem is that her officers in the registry were asking me for bribes. I described the particular officer, Mr Medo, because he had been to her office during the lunch break. What came out of her mouth shocked me to the marrow. She looked outside, through the window on her left, and said firmly, clearly and confidently, ‘Give them.’ I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I replied calmly that I was uncomfortable with giving bribes. Then she said that she couldn’t help me, because she doesn’t handle bail applications. I put it to her that as court registrar, she is the one who signs the documents, and that the bribes were asked for that purpose. She again said that she couldn’t help me, and advised me to, ‘Just give them.’ I asked her where else I should report my matter if she couldn’t help me. She now looked stuck and helpless. Then she asked me whether I was willing to give them the bribes. I said I was unwilling to give bribes. From that moment on, she became very angry with me and looked visibly so.
She angrily asked for my file’s number. I gave her the bail application number, as earlier stated, and a few details. In a display of anger and frustration, she repeatedly banged a small bell on her desk, calling her clerk, whose name I learnt is Florence, and said to her, ‘Call for me Medo.’ Mr Medo walked in, and that is when I got to know the name of the gentleman I was dealing with all along. ‘Bring for me file number eight,’ she said. In the meantime, she said to me that, ‘You don’t want to give bribes. I wish you well.’ I kept quiet. Then I realized that she started shaking, as she couldn’t write confidently. Mr Medo brought the file and left. She noticed that it was already allocated to a judge. ‘Who allocated it?’ she barked, looking at Florence, as she tried to tear off a white piece of paper that was pasted onto the file (I think for purposes of the court’s jotting on progress notes). A visibly scared and shaken Florence tried to explain that Her Worship had cleared the file together with others the previous day. But Madam Mwandha seemed not ready to listen to her explanations, and ordered her to, ‘call Medo.’ Ms Florence came back, and this time she explained the allocation situation, as Madam Mwandha read through the file. ‘You make it look like it is an old file, yet it just came the other day. Don’t you know that courts have very many cases to handle, and are very busy?’ she said to me. Mr Medo came in, but was told that it was ok, the matter had been handled.
Then Her Worship Mwandha told me that the file would be re-allocated, and actually erased with her pen, something on the white piece of paper pasted onto the file. I suspect it is the judge’s name, Justice Masalu Musene, to whom the file had been originally allocated. I asked when the production warrant will be issued, for the accused to appear in court. While again looking out in the window, in a clear show of disinterestedness, Madam Mwandha told me that, ‘When the file is ready, we shall call you.’ I asked her with whom I should follow up on the matter. ‘With her,’ she said, still looking out of the window, apparently referring to her clerk, Ms Florence, since she was the only other person in the chambers with us. ‘So, I should follow up with Madam Florence?’ I asked, for avoidance of doubt. ‘Yes,’ she said, as she called to another person waiting in the corridor to her chambers. It was clear to me that I was no longer needed, and had to leave. So I thanked her for her time and left immediately, to proceed with other errands at parliament.
I must say that I am flabbergasted by the level of corruption at the Nakawa High Court. The ease, confidence and simplicity with which the court officials demand bribes, is as shocking as it is annoying. No wonder several corruption reports consistently rank the judiciary among the top two most corrupt institutions in Uganda. I have been to several government departments, but I have not witnessed the audacity exhibited at the Nakawa High Court. I am aware that a team of concerned judicial officers, led by Justice Geoffrey Kiryabwire, is working on fighting corruption in the judiciary, through a proposed law that will have court clerks appointed, regulated, and disciplined by the Judicial Service Commission, instead of the Public Service Commission, as the case is today. Justice Geoffrey Kiryabwire, and his team, blames the rampant corruption in the judiciary on indiscipline by court clerks. While this is largely true, and their efforts definitely a positive step in the right direction, and a welcome measure against the vice, the Justice Kiryabwire team should henceforth know that the court clerks are not working alone. They collude with senior officers like registrars in this case, magistrates, and in some instances judges, who are all appointed by the Judicial Service Commission. Therefore, what we need is a wholesome – not piecemeal – approach against corruption in the judiciary, where everybody is suspect, and closely monitored.
In order to stamp corruption out of the judiciary, and the country as a whole, lawyers, and other members of the public, will certainly have to play more active and leading roles especially, reporting and exposing the corrupt. As court users, we should desist from encouraging, and giving out bribes to court officials, because this has the net effect of escalating the cost of justice, and as the corrupt sharks in the judiciary get used to free, easy and quick money, denial of justice will be the order of the day, until they are bought off to do what otherwise is their duty, for which they are paid monthly salaries and regular allowances by government, out of our hard-earned taxes. Imagine for instance, that the court fees for a bail application is Uganda shillings three thousand only (Ugx 3000/-), which I paid in the bank, yet so far I have spent Uganda shillings fifty three thousand only (Ugx 53,000/-) in pursuing this matter, of course minus transport and communication costs. Not many Ugandans can afford that, and this makes justice inaccessible to them.
Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised, for instance, after yesterday’s nasty experience and now this publication, if I went back to Nakawa High Court, and found that no one is willing to talk to me, or that the file is “missing” or is perpetually not ready, yet by yesterday, it was ready for cause-listing and presentation before a judge. This drastic measure would be taken to punish me for my perceived bad manners of not giving bribes, all at the expense of an innocent soul still languishing in prison, thanks to an ineffective judicial system that is supposed to be looking out for and championing his fundamental human rights and freedoms.
I am afraid the justice system, and legal profession in this country has gone to the dogs, and lawyers, and judicial officers are surprisingly at the forefront of their demise, through erroneous actions and inaction. To my mind, this defeats the purpose of education and learning, which we like throwing around for all and sundry to hear, posing as ‘learned friends.’