A section of the public and critics have lately been saying Andrew Mwenda has changed. I don't agree with them, and records of my publications going back in time bear me witness. Throughout my career, I have cherished the key cornerstones of journalism - truthful and accuracy; fairness and balance. I hereby reproduce some of the pieces I did back in time highlighting the position I have taken on contentious issues involving allegations of corruption. I hope this article and many more to come will guide the debate on whether I have changed at all.
This article was published in the Daily Monitor of Wednesday, November 6, 2002
The Lady Justice Julia Sebutinde commission of inquiry into Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) has brought to the fore a number of salient issues. Like most commissions on corruption in Uganda, the investigation into URA focuses on an important, but small problem with the Tax authority. Thus although the critical problem with Uganda’s tax administration is political interference from mainly the chief executive, the: Ssebutinde investigation is focus on a public Ritual of naming and shaming individuals in order to appease the public.
Ssebutinde conducts her inquiry with ferocious zeal. She yells at the witness, insults and passes judgment on almost every one-long before writing her reports words like “you are a liar”, “all of you belong to Luzira”, “ he is a fraudster” etc are banded around and give hungry reporters and editors good headlines. To an angry public looking for a red herring, such public executions of people’s reputation make a lot of political capital, and a handsome public-profile rent for the lady justice.
We understand judges to be impartial and fair. That someone from the bench is therefore appointed to chair a commission of inquiry should be sign that justice and fairness to all is being thought. In fact the very essence of a judge is impartiality hearing two, often quarreling sides and deciding for one or the other party.
My own insight into Ssebutinde as a chair of this was born out of an interview I had with the former director of Criminal Investigations Department (CID). Chris Bakiza, when I called him about the information of the commission of inquiry into the police chaired by a judge, he happily said he looked forward to presenting his case before this “impartial” body so that the truth could come out. This was not to be, as Ssebutide turned the inquiry into a public humiliation enterprise against police officers.
The Uganda police force has tried its best to police this country amidst poor pay, political bashing by the president and constant budget cuts. They live in mortuaries, toilets and kitchens and waking up every morning to ensure that we are safe. The public humiliation to which Ssebutinde subjected them made a lot of headlines but did not improve their budget. Instead, it provided justification for the president to appoint an army officer to head the police and militarise it. It did not improve their welfare or professional efficiency, but as the president said the changes were to make the police vote “properly” in 2006.
This brings us the URA probe. A few days ago, former URA boss, Elly Rwakakoko was accused of taking a Shs. 55m bribe' from hotel mogul, Karun Hirji. The source of this accusation was the Special Revenue Protection Service (SRPS), a para-military outfit organised by the president at State House to fight tax evasion, Socialised through a culture of institutional methods of work, RwaKakoko fought running battles against SRPS and State House, seeking to secure the bureaucratic autonomy of his organisation against an illegal military outfit that sought to run a parallel show. He left URA but has remained an icon of Uganda's public service. Rwakakoko enjoys a rare reputation, as a man of great integrity and honour, and his opinion on, any matter in Uganda would be taken seriously by many.
Thus when an accusation of financial impropriety was raised against him, 1 was keen to hear his Side of tile story. He gave a sound explanation. Without calling him to testify before her commission, Ssebutinde, with characteristic gusto, "rejected" Rwakakoko's explanation out of hand. Doesn't Rwakakoko deserve the benefit of doubt from the lady justice! or the right to be heard? During; the police probe. Karim was accused of many things including murder; Karim applied to be allowed to testify. Sebutinde refused, saying she was not investigating him. Karim complained that so much was being said against him, that bad publicity was hurting his business, that he just wanted an opportunity to defend his name before the same commission. Ssebutinde turned him down. Today, Ssebutinde says: "He is not a bona fide- investor; he is a fraudster!'' This is a justice of the High Court of Uganda pronouncing herself about a man she has never allowed before any of her commissions.
Karim is not an angel. But doesn't he deserve fairness from a judge'! One of the principles of natural justice is that you should not be a judge and a prosecutor in the same case. Ssebutinde plays both roles in the commission. The other is that you should not make judgement of someone without hearing his or her side of the story Although the law on commissions of inquiry allows the chair to adopt his or her own style of inquiry, we expect better when the chair is a judge because we attach the virtues of impartiality and fairness to them.
I was listening to Ssebutmde question the URA Deputy Director General, Steven Akabway and it felt like she was talking to her houseboy She even yelled at Akabway, questioning his grasp of the English language and telling him that "if you don't understand English I can interpret for you."
Akabway is a highly respected public servant and to treat him with the kind of contempt as Sebutinde did was, to me, rude. Justice Ogola chaired the commission of inquiry into the banking industry, and everyone who appeared there felt listened to.
Indeed, some of the big stories from that commission reflect the kind of attitude that we need to guard against. Take the case of URA commissioner for administration. Jack Bigirwa. He was accused by Ssebutinde of building a "large mansion" in Sheema Bushenyi, and putting up a large coffee estate on his land, all courtesy of corruption in URA. Bigirwa built the said house in 1984 and the farm as far back as 1980. He has been slowly improving on both over the last 22 years Bigirwa is one of this country's largest coffee farmers and makes more money selling seedlings. He chairs the Uganda Coffee Farmers' Association and sits on the board of Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA). He is also a successful fish farmer with numerous ponds at his farm and makes good money selling fish. I am not saying that Bigirwa may not have involved himself in financial impropriety at URA. l do not know. But you cannot accuse him of stealing money from URA (which was established in 1992 and he joined ill 1994) to build a mansion in Sheema which was around in 1984. ls it a crime to be rich'!
The fact that someone is perceived to be corrupt does not mean that we can manufacture evidence against him. Politicians can be excused for employing this approach as Winnie and Nathan Byanvima did in the Brig. Jim Muhwezi censure in 1998. They got a letter written in 1992 and used it as evidence of a wrong under a constitution written in 1995. They got a house on a Shs 240m unpaid mortgage and valued it at Shs. 900m and claimed it as an asset by Muhwezi. They then published these fictitious figures to whip up public sentiment and cause parliamentary mob justice.
These public rituals called "fighting corruption" only serve the regime and actually help entrench system that thrives on corruptIon Behind the charade to censure Muhwezi, for example, was President Yoweri Museveni himself seeking to sink an ally to win public favour and stabilise his regime. Winnie Byanyima would arrange night "strategy" meetings between the president and the petitioners. But they are politicians and not judges, and many politicians by their very profession are liars. I should therefore not be misunderstood to be saying that Muhwezi, Rwakakoko, Bigirwa or Karim are saints. I am saying they deserve to be heard, they should not be accused falsely, and they deserve impartiality from a judge.
We should not therefore understand Ssebutinde's style as being accidental. It is a deliberate strategy employed by the regime to appease an angry public while masking the real problems of corruption in Uganda, and at the same time serve the interests of regime survival. Ssebutinde ' herself may not be coached on how to handle the investigations. Rather, the regime exploits her unfair style to win public favour, that there is a war against corruption. Her role is therefore not to solve the problems of the organisations that she investigates but to dupe the public that something is being done, and in the process buy political capital for the regime.