By Gyagenda Semakula Zikusooka
On September 2, 2020 just 35 days after Justice Bamugemereire handed over her 750-page report to President Museveni, the Daily Monitor published a story “Constitutional Court quashes Bamugemereire land probe.” The story that was written by Ephraim Kasozi and Jalira Namyalo who were present and regular at the commission’s public hearings for the greater part of its inception, seemed alarmists.
To a gullible citizenry that misrepresents every fact, the story went viral without due attention to the facts therein. In a 4:1 majority decision, court quashed the orders of the Commission’s chairperson that led to the arrest and detention of city businessman Abid Alam who was probed for acquiring 10,000 acres of land in Mubende District.
Alam’s case was questioning the powers of the commission to order his arrest that it had done on November 8, 2017 on allegation that he was obstructing its work. The commission had conducted public hearings during a field visit to Mityana Farm Group enterprises which is owned by Alam between September 11 & 14, 2017. Whether Alam’s case was of a Constitutional nature, this is for another day. However, The report was not quashed. The ostensibly sponsored headline was intended to hoodwink the public that there is nothing left to this inquiry. It’s not true.
“Whether Alam’s case was of a Constitutional nature, this is for another day. However, The report was not quashed. The ostensibly sponsored headline was intended to hoodwink the public that there is nothing left to this inquiry. It’s not true.”
The voluminous 750-page report recommended among other issues, a national land bank to operate under the Uganda Lands Services Bureau, enactment of a distinct wetland law, establishment of a land and environment court, reinstatement of district land tribunals and establishment of a land ombudsman. If this commission was not intended to mollify the bad situation, it is a landmark report that should be implemented by any progressive and revolutionary government.
But what is it with Uganda’s Commissions of Inquiries? Do we constitute them to mollify bad situations or to solve problems?
The most recent is the seven-member land commission that Gen. Museveni appointed on December 8, 2016, barely seven months into his current term of office, to investigate into land matters, pretty aware that he has led an administration that until now has no clear land policy on acquisition, registration, management, and the obscene rampant life threatening evictions. He appointed Court of Appeal Justice Catherine Bamugemereire to lead this inquiry. This is currently her third commission in just three and half years.
Having traversed the country asking for votes, Mr. Museveni discovered that the rampant land evictions were a threat to his baseline support and grip on power. He constituted a judicial inquiry in December 2016. This could not be sworn in till late February 2017 and waited up to May 2017 to officially start public hearings. The six months probe was extended to May 2018 before getting another 18 months extension.
Just like the UNRA probe, the land inquiry grilled several big wigs in government, private and the corporate sectors in addition to ordering arrests of some people, most notably Abid Alam who was investigated for alleged illegal eviction of thousands of people from their own land. The tough-talking and spirited Bamugemereire became a darling and a household name amongst the oppressed Ugandans who had become vagrants and vagabonds in their own country. It was indeed a soothing season.
Surprisingly, all her efforts were watered down by her own staff at the commission’s secretariat. She headed a noble cause that was blotted with abettors of corruption and conspirators to land grabbers. They traded case files and leaked information to accused persons. Some of her secretariat staff labored to fail the report. The commission that had a national outlook in executing its mandate received over 8500 complaints from the 123 districts constituting 91% of the total districts. They fell short of only 12 districts of the entire 135.
The Commission that exhaustively tackled issues of the Land Fund and the Uganda Land Commission also recommended the establishment of an institutional framework for administration of customary land within Uganda Land Services Bureau. The President joyously received this report on July 29, 2020 and said it will be given to the line minister who will present it to cabinet for discussion and government will write a white paper to address it in totality.
Before this could take shape, the 2017 Alam case was resurrected and concluded. The quashing headline then showed up to tell the Commission, we are not interested in your findings. Again, are inquiries just a tradition of defusing public rage or intended to solve a problem?
However, the history of Uganda’s commissions of inquiries in the recent past dates back to Legal Notice No. 5 of 1986. This was a commission of inquiry into the violations of human rights that was appointed on May 16, 1986; three months after NRA’s Commander Museveni had taken office. The Justice Arthur Oder’s 720-pages commission report that gathered evidence and testimony relating to the events of October 9, 1962 to January 25, 1986 was tabled eight years later, on October 10, 1994. The commission’s recommendations and findings were so revealing and I am pretty sure that Gen. Museveni who was focused and fixated on rebuilding the shattered nation wouldn’t think about implementing the report any time soon. Yes, we all needed to heal and to cure our country’s scars. This good feat at that time gave birth to a tradition of considering commissions of inquiries’ reports as intended to simply defuse public rage.
The long list of commissions includes the 1990 inquiry into the shooting of two Makerere University Students; Patrick Okema and Patrick Onyango who were shot dead on December 10, 1990 during a sit-down strike over the abolition of stationery and travel allowances. The report of this commission of inquiry has never been made public. The following year in 1991, there was another commission on the abduction of 43 school girls from Sacred Heart School in Gulu. What do Ugandans remember about this?
In 1999, comes Justice Julia Sebutinde’s probe into the alleged corruption in the Uganda Police Force. The sturdiness of the commission’s chairperson brought pomp to it and the public felt a sense of annihilating corruption from our Police Force. The Sebutinde commission, which ran from November 1999 to March 2000, handed over its voluminous report to the then Internal Affairs minister Prof. Edward Rugumayo on May 19, 2000. This was released more than one year after it was received from the Commission. Three former senior police officers in the Criminal Investigations Department were interdicted and the report recommended that the Scotland Yard be brought in to investigate those who were found culpable.
However, cabinet’s delay to implement the report created an impression to the commission’s witnesses and the public that the government was protecting the corrupt and frustrating the efforts of Ugandans in the fight against corruption.
Just as Sebutinde was concluding her judicial inquiry and the world was preparing to adapt to the reality of the Y2K compliance discussion that was threatening to end life on earth, in that same month of March 2000, Joseph Kibwetere and his cronies of the religious cult of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Kanungu, massacred hundreds of unsuspecting followers in an inferno that caught the attention of the world. Justice Augustus Kania was appointed to head a judicial commission of inquiry into this record-breaking massacre in the name of God. This probe that came three months to the March 12, 2001 general elections impelled a political debate that became a talking point in the campaigns. It was believed that the Museveni campaign machinery was targeting his main challenger and former NRA colleague Kizza Besigye who hails from Rukungiri near Kanungu. We later heard that government failed to get money for this probe. The rest is in our annals!
High Court Judge Julia Sebutinde bounces back in November 2000 to probe into the controversial purchase of two junk combat helicopters from Belarus by the defence ministry in 1996. These two attack helicopters cost the government of Uganda a whopping shs.9.5b only to be grounded at the Entebbe airbase. The probe timing was also blurred in a political season where Presidential aspirant Kizza Besigye had accused President Museveni of personally awarding the helicopter deal to a local company from which his brother, Maj. Gen. Salim Saleh, allegedly took a bribe of $800,000. This is just one of the many commissions in our history.
In April 2002, Julia Sebutinde who was credited with causing a rout over corruption in the Uganda Police Force and the Defence Ministry in her two previous probes was appointed to lead another investigation in an effort to wipe out the high levels of corruption at the tax authority whose revenue collections had grossly fallen below average. A three-month judicial probe in its investigations found that four companies; Mukwano, Kakira, Grand Imperial and Genesis owed the authority more than shs.30bn in unpaid taxes.
There were also rumor talks of a list of the 100 most corrupt people in the authority that was never given to the commission. Was this also intended to solve a problem or diffuse public rage? Eighteen years later, Mr. Museveni in his budget speech to Members of Parliament and the public confessed that there has been a lot of corruption in URA and he had thoroughly cleaned it. We saw the axe swinging on several commissioners’ heads during this COVID-19 lock down and numerous inexplicable resignations. We hope that this tax house was truly cleaned!
Enter 2006; another probe into the misuse of money from the Global Fund on AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Uganda headed by Justice James Ogoola, unearthed its own share of the corruption filth in Uganda. This was occasioned by the suspension in August 2005 of five grants worth US$367 million; raising numerous questions about the integrity of the fund managers. The most notable event of this probe is the on-camera exchange between Justice Ogoola and Jim Muhwezi, when the latter called on the former minister to look into the then WBSTV cameras and publicly take responsibility and apologize. Muhwezi’s response became another media debate tag line. We proudly saw some manifestations of a spirited combat against corruption when the key suspects, State Ministers Mike Mukula and Dr. Alex Kamugisha (primary health) were charged at Buganda Road and remanded to Luzira Prison. There were crowds at the court premises demanding that Muhwezi who had at the time fled the country be produced and charged as well. We’ve since moved on.
In 2007, the government again constituted another probe to investigate the misuse of a shs.70b World Bank loan given to UWA meant for the Protected Areas Management Sustainable Use (PAMSU). The Justice GW Kanyeihamba led commission was tasked to probe into the mismanagement of these funds. The tough-talking judge put up an uncompromising posture and threatened errant witnesses with indictment. Not much of this commission may be remembered by Ugandans. But in a turn of events, the hunting judge became the hunted when his commission was accused of failing to account for over shs.280m that was given to it. The rest is history.
In April 2008, 20 pupil residents of Nassolo dormitory at Budo Junior School perished in a mystery fire that left us with more questions than answers about what happened that fateful night. What is most remembered about this incident is the warning to anybody who spread rumors of the adult bodies in the inferno, even when rescuers and parents insisted that they saw two male adult bodies. Twelve years later, the mystery still lives on.
When corruption was exuded in the education sector, the president set up a commission of inquiry on December 12, 2009 headed by Justice Ezekiel Muhanguzi to investigate the prevalent corruption in UPE funds and other resources. The Commission was required among other tasks to make a comprehensive review of the UPE and USE programmes, investigate alleged existence of ghost pupils and teachers in schools per district and look into the efficiency of using enrolment numbers instead of attendance lists as a basis for releasing capitation grants to schools. This is just one of the many commissions, again.
On the eve of the Kibwetere 10th anniversary; March 16, 2010, another wonder befell our nation. The Kasubi Tombs (Mausoleum) went down in a burning blaze. The chaotic scenes that turned political cost some lives. Another Judicial Commission of Inquiry by Justice George Engwau was constituted to find the facts. The public hearings were conducted at UMA Conference Centre in Lugogo. Notable politician Damiano Lubega was a Buganda kingdom representative on the commission. One of the witnesses Princess Gertrude Tebutagwabwe, the new caretaker of the tombs, made a personal appeal to the commission to speed up inquiries to enable the reconstruction of the tombs. The commission’s recommendations were so abysmal because they didn’t point to the aspirations of political freebooters. Another closed chapter!
In June 2013, the KCCA Act 2010 was put to its first test when 17 City Councilors petitioned the Minister of Kampala; Frank Tumwebaze to set up the tribunal to investigate allegations of abuse of office, incompetence, misconduct and misbehavior by the Lord Mayor. Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki appointed High Court Judge Catherine Bamugemereire attached to the Anti-Corruption Court to head this tribunal. Her name now in itself reverberates so easily with commissions of inquiries. At first, she was thought to be a westerner from somewhere in Ankole when she chaired this tribunal that investigated and caused the eventual impeachment of Lord Mayor, Erias Lukwago.
It was a surprise to many that she is actually a Gishu from Namisindwa district; formerly part of Manafwa, whose maiden name Hakhasa is known by a few especially her OBs and OGs. This commission is one of the few inquiries that accomplished work in its preset 60 days and the inquiry report made public and implemented. All of us who have been active and alive to Uganda’s trends know what happened thereafter. Seven years later, little or nothing can be said of what this was intended to achieve. The findings and recommendations were blurred into the supremacy of one court order over another, as warring sides branded judicial officers as partisan. This was the demise of that inquiry.
The petitioners successfully proved eight of the twelve particulars pleaded according to the Commission’s findings. The tribunal on the basis of standard of proof, proved a prima facie case for the removal of Erias Lukwago from the position of Lord Mayor of Kampala Capital City. In a stormy council meeting chaired by Tumwebaze, 29 councilors voted for the removal of the Mayor. One most remembered event of this censure day was when Makindye West councilor Allan Ssewanyana stood up on a point of order, brandishing a document, claiming it was a court order halting the meeting. His stunts of denouncing the proceedings in front of the minister while he stood onto a table catapulted him into the August house a few years later. He is currently my representative in Parliament.
Lukwago lingered on the fate of Judges Yasin Nyanzi and Lydia Mugambe’s Court Orders for survival and sought another term in 2016 which came so easily as a sympathy vote for him and a protest vote against the ruling NRM. All the 29 Councilors that jubilated at his impeachment were voted out of the city hall and many of these have since fallen into our political abyss. Another probe on the shelves!
In June 2015, Mr. Museveni again appointed Justice Bamugemereire to head the six-month UNRA probe. She had just convicted and sentenced local government PS John Kashaka to 10 years and 10 days imprisonment for causing loss of shs.4b to government in the LC bicycle scam. The UNRA probe was indeed very revealing. The voluminous 1,300-page report was handed over to the President in May 2016 shortly after being voted back into office for his current term. In the report, it was discovered that about shs.4 trillion was misappropriated by the outgoing old UNRA administration whereas the shs.9 trillion that was used in 7 years could only construct a paltry 1500km of roads; an average of only 214km annually.
Interestingly, the report revealed that these misappropriated funds would have been enough to cover a whopping 5147km. What a record-breaking loss! The President ordered the IGG, CIID and AG to expeditiously implement the commission’s report by jointly following up over 90 culprits for prosecution and attaching their assets for recovery. The Probe also recommended that two leading construction companies; Energo Project and Dott Services that were implicated in the report be blacklisted.
It is evident that these were just awarded more projects and Ugandans have since left this to fate. Before Mr. President could apprise himself with the report, the culprits (thieves) were on their way to secure a court injunction to bar the IGG from implementing its recommendations. They did it, fought back and succeeded. All our hopes of winning against corruption diminished into stupor. This is another adorable commission report dangling redundantly in shelves.
Are Uganda’s commissions of inquiries intended to solve problems or to mollify bad situations?
The writer is Journalist/PR Practitioner