The resident district commissioner of Ntungamo, western Uganda, Geofrey Mucunguzi, was supposed to stand trial in the magistrate’s court on January 9, related to charges of theft and house-breaking, but he has refused to attend court to do so, saying the courts were corrupt and he ‘wasn’t answerable’ to them. He told a local publication, the Informer, that he was 'not obliged' to appear before court on the appointed day.

He accused the judiciary of corruption and said, ‘Let me make it clear. If the Chief Magistrate of Ntungamo calls me, I cannot go, because I am not answerable to him.’

That attitude has caused a sharp response from Uganda’s judicial leadership, but there has been no official reaction to an even more worrying development: a letter dated 7 December 2023, in which Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, wrote to the country’s chief justice, Alfonse Owinyi Dolo, complaining about an order made by the courts, and urging the CJ to intervene and, by implication, have the order set aside.

The Museveni letter, widely reported on in Uganda and circulated on social media, follows representations to the president by the Mufti of Uganda, Shaban Ramadhan Mubajje. He complained to Museveni about a court order that would have seen the national mosque auctioned off to pay debts due to a businessman.

Stay of execution

The order that Museveni objected to was made on 29 November 2023, by a judge of the court of appeal, Christopher Gashirabake. The judge had dismissed an appeal by the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council (UMSC) to stop the imminent sale of properties, including the national mosque.

This led to Mubaje contacting Museveni and then to the president’s 7 December letter to the CJ.

However, the UMSC had meanwhile gone back to court, and on 14 December, three judges of the court of appeal unanimously agreed to grant a stay of execution of the order that the properties be auctioned, pending a full appeal on the issue.

Court action over the properties is part of an on-going wrangle within Uganda’s Muslim community over the sale of the properties to deal with an alleged debt. Mubaje himself is part of the controversy, and a section of the community recently swore in an ‘acting Mufti’ to replace Mubaje because his actions in relation to the debts were being called into question. However, another part of the community rejects the acting Mufti’s appointment and continues to recognise Mubaje.

Scrupulously independent role

It is clearly an issue of public concern, and one in which the judiciary should play a scrupulously independent role. Some commentators have expressed concern that Museveni has now become involved in a dispute that has divided the Muslim community and that by his letter, he was pushing the courts to do so as well.

In his letter to the CJ, Museveni said he had been contacted by Mubaje ‘regarding the quarrel about the sales of Moslem properties etc’. Museveni went on: ‘I had been hearing about those wrangles but I had not focused my attention to them because I knew there are capable National Institutions responsible for those issues, especially the Judiciary you head.’

He said he was ‘most surprised’ to read in the mufti’s letter that the national mosque was one of the properties to be auctioned. In his letter to the CJ, the president continued, ‘Really!! What sane person, let alone a judge, can make such orders? How can a mosque or church be attached for debts carelessly entered into by officials of that faith? If there is no law protecting institutions of worship, then [what] common sense is there.’

Sick logic

His letter concluded: ‘I therefore request you to review this matter yourself and see how to restore sanity. [Mubaje] alleges other examples of misconduct and collusion. You should study all those. What, however, provoked me was the audacity of attaching the national mosque. The NRM freedom fighters and the government they head, cannot be associated with sick logic.’

Allegations about the issue of the debts, the properties and their sale continued in the wake of Musenveni’s letter. However, while neither the CJ nor ‘the judiciary’ appear to have issued any statement in direct response to it, there has been other reaction.   

‘Ground sufficient to impeach’

Lawyer Gawaya Tegulle, a commentator on current affairs and director of the conference on democracy in Africa, wrote an opinion piece about the letter for the Ugandan publication, Monitor.

It begins: A few days ago, an insider of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) sent me a copy of the president’s letter to the CJ, directing him to review and reverse the execution orders that were to see Gaddafi Mosque in Old Kampala sold off to pay a debt. “What do you think?” she asked. My answer was simply: had this been a progressive, free country, the letter would have been ground sufficient to impeach the president under article 107 of the constitution.’

Some commentators have seen Museveni’s intervention as part of a strategy to grow his Muslim networks, both at home and abroad where the Gulf states have become important allies. The Monitor writes that its journalists spoke to a number of Ugandan lawyers who said that while Museveni may have legitimate concerns about the way the courts handled the matter, ‘it was improper of him to appear to be interfering with the independence of the judiciary.’

Among others, they quote a senior lawyer, Peter Walubiri as saying that Museveni has ‘a long history of undermining independence of the judiciary.’

‘Compromise integrity of the court system’

Although the CJ does not seem to have issued an official public response to the letter from Museveni, a comment from him was included in a statement issued after Mucunguzi refused to appear in court. And although the statement refers to the Mucunguzi issue in its opening paragraphs, the heading and much of the content, could be seen as applying to the Museveni letter as well.

The official statement released on behal,f of the judiciary and quoting the CJ was published this week. Headed, ‘Interference of court processes undermines judicial independence’, it says the judiciary was ‘deeply concerned’ by reports that Mucunguzi ‘continues to justify meddling in court matters claiming they are administrative interventions.’

These actions by Mucunguzi ‘compromise the integrity of the court system and the administration of justice as a whole’, the statement says.

Robust public discourse and debate

‘Judicial and institutional independence is a cornerstone of any functioning democracy, ensuring that courts can adjudicate cases impartially and without external pressures. Any interference in this process not only jeopardises cases in court but poses a significant threat to the foundation of our legal system.

‘The core function of the judiciary is to administer justice through resolving disputes between individuals, and between the state and individuals, Also, to promote the rule of law and contribute to the maintenance of order in society.'

The statement then quotes the CJ as saying that ‘while the judiciary recognises the importance of robust public discourse and debate, such discussions should not infringe upon its (Judiciary’s) autonomy.’

He added this telling sentence, ‘Attempts to influence court decisions or cast doubt on the credibility of the legal process erode public trust and undermine the very essence of justice.’

Court orders were to be respected, and ‘where one is dissatisfied with the court, the law provides for avenues of redress.’

The statement noted that the CJ ‘reiterated the need for all stakeholders and the general public to allow the court [to] operate independently, free from undue eternal influences, in order to maintain the rule of law and protect the rights and liberties of all citizens.’

But the last sentence takes on heightened meaning since it appears to apply equally to the Museveni letter: the CJ ‘also called upon all relevant authorities to thoroughly investigate any allegations of interference in court processes and take appropriate actions to safeguard the independence of the judiciary.’