Op-ed – Uganda should pick a leaf from the Kenyan judiciary

Mr. Badru Walusansa

The Supreme Court ruling in Kenya, which nullified Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential election victory on 1 September, provides key lessons on how an independent judicial system functions.

In an unprecedented ruling ever in Africa, the judges noted that the election had been tainted by irregularities and ordered a return to the polls within 60 days, a move that came as a shock and pleasant surprise to many, especially Raila Odinga, the main challenger and four-time runner for the presidency.

Many political pundits have since praised Kenya’s judiciary for exuding independence. That perhaps doesn’t come as a surprise. In 2015, a survey by Freedom House, revealed that Kenyans considered their Judiciary the third most trusted institution – after the media and civil society – in defending rights.

On the other hand, according to a 2016 Freedom in the World report by Freedom House, Uganda scored 5 out of 16 on rule of law. The report notes that  “executive and military influence” was undermining judicial independence. It further pointed to “corruption at all levels of the Judiciary” as revealed in an investigation by Al-Jazeera.  The Judiciary in Uganda has, according to various reports, ranked one of the most corrupt, besides the police, with resultant mistrust from the public.

Several opposition politicians, including Kizza Besigye of Forum for Democratic Change party, have argued that court should have annulled the 2016 presidential election on grounds that the incumbent Yoweri Museveni influenced the outcome of the ballot. However, in a March 2016 ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed the election petition filed by Amama Mbabazi who came third in the 18 February presidential election. The court argued that Mr Mbabazi had not produced sufficient evidence to back his allegations of poll irregularities.

The disappointment that followed that ruling, can partly be attributed to the mistrust towards the judiciary by a section of Ugandans. It’s worth stressing that a strong and independent judicial system is the cornerstone of democracy and it must be religiously respected and upheld so that democratic ideals such as fairness and equality, transparency and accountability, are espoused.

It’s therefore not surprising that among the key expectations of the Citizens’ Manifesto 2016-2021, listed defense and protection of the independence of institutions of State and citizenship, as foundations of building a durable democracy.

However, despite the citizens’ aspiration of strong and independent institutions, the government has not expressed commitment or political will to pursue the doctrine of separation of powers, which would bolster independence of the Judiciary. The judicial system is fused with the other arms of government such as the Executive, which undermines impartiality.

Recently, Ugandan judicial officers laid down their tools demanding salary increment and welfare improvement. It is vital that government raises the salaries of judicial officers to aid the administration of justice without fear or the temptation of taking or soliciting for bribes.  Corruption is a key factor in weakening the judicial system hence leading to miscarriage of justice and in the long run, a breakdown in the rule of law and democracy.

We must also push for the passing of the Administration of the Justice Bill, a piece of legislation that seeks to provide and strengthen the independence of the Judiciary.

Mr Walusansa is a Commonwealth Correspondent