The common understanding of the cliché “rule of law” is that the life and activities of all the citizens are regulated by the law of the land without fear or favour. This indeed is the ideal situation and should be the aspiration of every nation. In such a situation, the population would be happy to allow the law to take its course. Unfortunately, the reality in Uganda is that this is merely a pious aspiration with no relation to what happens in real life.
What then explains why the population or sections of the population resort to self help and take the law into their own hands? In my simple mind, it is loss of confidence in the administration of justice.
The administration of justice is in the hands of the courts of law and the police. If the population believes that any or both of the two arms of the administration of justice have been compromised, then it is inevitable that they resort to self-help. When that happens, it does not help for the police to keep telling the population not to take the law into their hands but rather to hand matters to the police. This will always be ignored because the police have become irrelevant. Matters are made worse when so called human rights activists are seen to clamour more for the rights of accused persons than for the rights of the victims of the accused’s actions. Just imagine a situation where a person has hacked his neighbour to death in the course of a robbery. The typical situation is that the killer is arrested, taken to court and charged and eventually remanded to prison to await trial. In such a serious offence, it invariably takes not less than one year to commence the trial. In the meantime, may be some of, if not all, the witnesses have died or immigrated to other areas. The prosecution is unable to present the witnesses and the killer is acquitted for lack of evidence. The population then sees the killer back in their midst without, in their view, having been punished for his crime. Is it realistic to expect them to depend on the police the next time a similar thing happens?
On the other hand, is it unreasonable for an accused person who has been on remand for a year only to be acquitted for lack of evidence to feel aggrieved that he has not been treated justly? What if he actually committed the offence and is so acquitted? Will he respect the justice system or will he not be contemptuous of the whole process?
Look at the usual practice. You are aggrieved because your neighbour has wronged you. You go to court. It takes up to five, eight or even 10 years before the matter is resolved. Will you be happy that you have received justice?
We have all heard the clichés that “justice delayed is justice denied” and that “justice should not only be done but also be seen to be done”. If a matter in court takes many years, is it not justice delayed and therefore denied? If a judge concludes the hearing of a case and takes a month, two months, six months or a year, and this is not unusual, to deliver his her judgment, is that not justice delayed and so denied? Is it realistic to expect the affected persons to respect the system?
Unless something is urgently done to remedy the situation, this country could very easily find its administration of justice irrelevant to the population which will then resort more and more to self help which is commonly called “taking the law into their own hands”.
The challenge is on the Executive and on Parliament to avail all the resources necessary for an efficient and effective administration of justice so that it does not become and or continue to be regarded by the population as irrelevant and therefore ignored by them. The Judiciary too has a vital role to play. For as long as the number of judges remains insufficient for understandable reasons, the Judiciary should be able to devise a way of optimising the utilisation of the few available. I can right away think of one very practical step that can be taken. The judges could for example start working like all other public servants by reporting and starting court sessions on time. The judiciary could also abolish court vacations. Also the use of modern technology should be pursued more determinedly.
Ideally, in a situation where the rule of law obtains all persons are equal before the law. Most unfortunately this is not always the case. There have been and continues to be cases where the rules have not been applied equally for everybody. Take the example of a politician who is arrested as a suspect in a murder case. Because of the ‘political’ noise that will follow such an arrest, the politician suspect is accorded speedier attention that the ordinary citizen. He is promptly produced in court and even granted bail where the ordinary citizen has been denied the same in similar circumstances. It looks to me that this preferential treatment undermines the principle of the rule of law where all are supposed to be equal and to receive the same treatment before the law. Whenever this happens, there is no way the ordinary citizen will believe that the law is fair. Indeed one hears people commenting that where there is money or political influence, anything can be obtained from the courts, in spite of the judiciary’s loud protestations that justice is not for sale. It is quite unrealistic to expect such a population to respect the system.
In sum our judicial system is on trial. It has to acquit itself honorably if it is to be and remain relevant to the ordinary citizen and to give meaning to the cliché that the rule of law obtains in Uganda.
Mr Rukanyangira is an aocate, email@example.com
SOURCE: Daily Monitor