Wanted: A court in Arusha that can stand up to depsots

10Sep 2017
Isaac Mwangi
Guardian On Sunday
Ea Whispers
Wanted: A court in Arusha that can stand up to depsots

Ever since the killing of Ugandan Chief Justice Benedicto Kiwanuka by the murderous regime of Idi Amin Dada in 1972, political leaders in East Africa have maintained an uneasy relationship with the judiciary.

This fact has once again been brought home following the annulment of Kenya’s presidential election and the subsequent fallout.

Soon after the Supreme Court pronounced itself on the matter, President Uhuru Kenyatta came out to publicly attack Chief Justice David Magara and the other judges who nullified his re-election as “wakora” (thugs).

While the president has promised to respect the ruling of the judges, he has taken every opportunity to ridicule and trash their ruling.

This attitude, whereby the rich and powerful have little respect for judicial authorities and even disregard court rulings, portends a dangerous future for the whole of East Africa. Regional integration cannot be built upon lawlessness.

Indeed, the very fact that the region found it fit to establish the East African Court of Justice is a testament to the tenets of justice and fairness that the region’s citizens wish to uphold.

That the verdict by the Supreme Court of Kenya has been lauded as a landmark decision – being the first time that a court in Africa has nullified a presidential election – speaks volumes about the state of the justice system in the region and continent as a whole.

It is because of the absence of avenues for the just settlement of disputes that African countries have been beset by endless conflicts over the past five or so decades of independence.

Had there been sufficient checks and balances – and men and women with the boldness to execute justice regardless of the political pressures and exigencies of the moment – then perhaps we would have had fewer of the perennial conflicts and violence associated with elections in Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar, Burundi and elsewhere.

But it is not just when it comes to election petitions that a strong judiciary becomes a stabilizing factor. All the ethnic and resource conflicts that have occurred in the region over the past few decades – in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance – would probably have been avoided if an avenue for an amicable settlement existed in these countries.

As matters stand, it is an open secret that many judicial officers in our countries are highly compromised, or cannot rule against the political establishment for fear of the consequences to themselves and their families.

That the Kenyan Supreme Court judges felt safe enough to make their ruling castigating electoral authorities for a stolen election shows that judicial institutions can indeed perform as expected where appropriate checks and balances exist.

But as the region moves towards integration, the justice system is such an important component for peace and stability that it should not be left to individual countries to tinker with as they wish.

The region needs to move boldly together with the confidence that integration is built on a bedrock of justice and fairness to all citizens.

One way of doing so would be to strengthen the regional court in Arusha. With the courts in many partner states highly compromised in favour of the ruling cliques, an empowered EACJ will be a no-nonsense institution where those aggrieved by electoral disputes, resource distribution issues or other serious matters in the region can argue their cases and obtain the necessary reliefs.

For that to happen, however, regional leaders will have to accept that sort of extended jurisdiction for EACJ. If we are truly working towards creating an East African federation (or confederation) with a common currency and close political collaboration, this is a question that cannot be avoided. And the earlier the region addresses it, the better for all the citizens of the six partner states.

What the Kenyan Supreme Court did, then, was simply to open a new frontier of boldness for the Judiciary. That precedent needs to be followed up and applied seriously by judicial authorities across the region and continent for Africa’s narrative to change from a story of injustice, lawlessness and conflict to one of justice, brotherhood and hope.

East African News Agency