By Paul Ampurire
This week wasn’t the best that Minister for Lands, Betty Amongi had in the press following her tense interface with the ongoing Commission of Inquiry investigating land fraud, but it wasn’t the favorite week for the Commission Chair, Justice Catherine Bamugemereire either.
The Minister was subjected to intense quizzing for two consecutive long days on her alleged involvement in land related fraud as well as presiding over a very corrupt land administration system. She was at the receiving end of the heat and the loads of difficult questions hurled at her.
It was in that heat of the moment that Justice Bamugemereire according to her critics went overboard and came off as harsh, disrespectful, petty towards the Minister. Many have labeled her with tags synonymous with bad.
Why? Because she raised her voice at the Minister, denied her time to offer response to her questions and ‘dramatized’ her role as chief investigator.
What bothers me is how Bamugemereire suddenly becomes the monster, and the people her Commission is investigating for allegations close to indefensible, the victims.
I have covered many times for an entire day tribunals led by Justice Catherine Bamugemereire long enough; the UNRA inquiry in 2016 and now the ongoing land inquiry that began last year. So, my opinion on how she executes her work will not be zeroed down to the comments she made on a single day, that could have come out as demeaning.
In my view, she has done her work tremendously and I have unwavering respect for her.
It is easy to be quick to say she disrespected a Minister but while at it, can we also not imply that Ministers and other top public servants aren’t demi gods who owing to their designations deserve special treatment. Ask yourself, how many people get to ask Ministers tough questions even when many have caused loss of public resources and taken decisions that have brought unthinkable misery to people’s lives. Matter of fact, hasn’t Uganda actually come to be accustomed to the idea that these ‘big shots’ are untouchables?
How often do you hear a Katikkiro, Queen Mother of Tooro, a UPDF high ranking officer or business mogul being put on the spot to explain their actions? In Uganda, rarely.
Now, the President institutes an Inquiry to ask questions about the crisis that the land sector has become, Bamugemereire takes on the role without being a mediocre (which she could choose to be) and now suddenly she’s a monster?
What many people forget is that the media doesn’t pick the compliments that will come from that Commission. Justice Catherine has made numerous positive remarks to witnesses but you won’t see them in the news bulletins and headlines. And the reason is simple. A Minister being appreciated for what they are paid to do doesn’t pass as news. Being queried for their inefficiencies or alleged fraud is what makes news.
Unfortunately, Betty Amongi happens to be the highest officer in a sector that the ongoing Inquiry is investigating. A sector that has seen Uganda lose billions of money, thousands of people displaced, some killed and so many other disheartening stories.
To understand Bamugemereire’s conduct, first you must put into context the nature of the Inquiry and how it transacts its business. This is no ordinary court where those being investigated are represented by lawyers and the Judge is only there to guide cross examination, listen to evidence brought forth and deliver a ruling. In this case, the accused is in the hot seat and the burden of exonerating themselves rests squarely in their hands. And the Judge asks the questions. If you choose to be elusive, they will employ whichever tactic in their means to have you respond.
Secondly, one must also understand the circumstances that preceded Minister Amongi’s appearance before the Commission. The tribunal had issued summons to her for four times but she had not honored any of them. Until Bamugemereire threatened to have her arrested, did she finally appear. That kind of attitude and the possible presumptions by the Lady Justice could have evoked a not-so-easy tone. And that was a making of the Minister. She provoked that by trying the patience of the Commission.
Also, that nobody has come up to castigate the Chairperson in previous hearings where she has been tough on ‘ordinary’ peopke takes me back to the actual problem. Why was it okay then, and not now? Isn’t that to suggest that there should be special rules that apply to Ministers separate from those for the ordinary Ugandans? Is that the justice we want the Commission to serve?
As though she had envisioned this controversy would unfold, Bamugemereire in her opening remarks the first day the Lands Minister appeared underscored the issue of equity.
She put it clearly that the rule of law, transparency and equality before the law underpins what the Commission believes in. And that nobody was going to be treated differently because that’s not what is envisaged by Constitution.
Bamugemereire might not be the ultimate solution to all the problems in land transactions and administration, but she has done well in shining the light on the individuals behind this mess. That inquiry shouldn’t be doing pampering to anyone. We’ve had enough of that already. Somebody has to ask the tough questions.
The writer is a journalist and blogger