African News

African Legal Playground: The Ugandan Way

7 July 2007 at 10:45 | 630 views

News Analysis.

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, Ottawa.

As a nation-state, Uganda, born in 1962, has gone though a lot of trouble - from political and economic instability to an invasion led by Tanzania to coups and counter-coups anf finally to the long-running brutal rebel activities in the northern part of the country.

Most of these problems had come about because Ugandan elites, like other African elites, had failed to thoroughly grasp and utilize the indigenous values that are to run their country.

They opened the country too much to the Western neo-liberal values that created the country. Pretty much of the schisms that had engulfed Uganda are because of this. This is despite the famed sophistication of Ugandan elites internationally. The impression is that, like other African elites, Ugandan elites, despite some recent constructive strides, hadn’t been able to fully integrate their indigenous values openly and boldly into their development process.

Unarguably, Uganda under President Museveni has made impressive strides developmentally such as containing the dreaded HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Despite being described as a “democratic dictator,” Museveni(photo) and his associates are fast rediscovering their nation-state by attempting to appropriate boldly and openly the norms and traditions that formed Uganda. As Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw indicate in “The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy,” the extensive reach and nature of globalization is making the neo-liberal values that run the world’s development system to have ““local content,” drawing on people and resources the world over.”

It is in this context that the Ugandan neo-liberal justice system is increasingly incorporating Ugandan local traditional justice codes, especially in resolving one of the most difficult law-and-order issues facing the country - the persecution of actors of the war in its northern part led by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The wisdom here is that most Ugandans, like most Africans, access their traditional justice system, which emanates from their culture and which they deeply understand better compared to the neo-liberal penal structure. The absence of reconciliation between the two systems has created long-running distortions in the greater progress of Uganda. While surely the Western neo-liberal legal system is human and universal, it does not fully reflect the history, experiences, norms, values and traditions of Uganda. The challenge, as the Ugandan judicial system is attempting to do, is to mix the Western neo-liberal penal system with the traditional Ugandan legal ones.

To do this, Kampala is playing with its neo-liberal penal codes in order to incorporate traditional Ugandan legal values. The key test, in the face of pressing international and national laws, is amending the Ugandan penal code so as to incorporate its traditional legal systems to deal with war crimes committed during the two decades of conflict in the north.

Uganda’s Internal Affairs Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, argues that, “the Ugandan penal code would have to be changed to provide for the Mato Oput system practiced by the Acholi community of northern Uganda, who have been most affected by the conflict.”

The incorporation of the traditional Ugandan system with the neo-liberal penal ones will be done creatively this way: “Those who confess to war crimes under the Mato Oput mechanism will be required to ask for forgiveness and pay reparations,” while “those who committed crimes to admit the crimes they committed. They will be taken through a transparent justice mechanism to be agreed upon.”

In a creatively new hybridized regime, which war-ravaged Liberia and Sierra Leone could learn from, Ugandan justice officials explain that the idea is to compare, in the context of the Ugandan environment, “the two justice systems,” wherein the neo-liberal “national penal code was punitive” and the “Mato Oput was "restorative [and] hence promotes reconciliation.”

Furthermore, Rugunda, explains that "We agreed to formulate and adopt an alternative justice mechanism which will draw on the strengths of the two justice mechanisms and address the weaknesses of each system...By so doing, the question of impunity will be addressed while at the same time reconciliation will be promoted." The idea here is to give respect, dignity and confidence to traditional Ugandan legal values that have for long been suppressed by colonialism and propel its growth in the larger progress of Uganda.

It signals a new dawn in not only Uganda’s judicial service but also the rest of Africa. And reflects the late Ghanaian Justice, George Acquah’s argument that Ghana’s (and indeed Africa’s) traditional legal system “was a potent traditional institution that could play a major role in the peace and development” of Africa, and that Ghana/Africa is “now confronted by growing political and social consciousness...It was time to bring the institution in line with the modern norms and practices of the judicial system, which was meaningful, effective and relevant to modern day judicial administration.”

The grand indications are that Africans today are thinking simultaneously about their progress from within their values and traditions and the neo-liberal ones that run their states. This is the practical African Renaissance process at work.