By Ivan Rugambwa
He has been the subject of criticism over some controversial legal advice to government, and recently, his fellow lawyers suspended him from the Uganda Law Society. Peter Nyombi, Uganda’s Attorney General, spoke to The Independent’sIvan Rugambwa about his work.
You have been suspended from ULS, won’t that undermine your work as government’s principle legal advisor and as a practicing advocate?
Who has expelled me? You see I’ve heard of the Law Society sitting, and they either purportedly expelled or suspended me, I don’t know. But I’ve not been served with their resolutions. But there is an act of parliament called the Uganda Law Society Act.
It says that the Attorney General and the Solicitor General shall be ex-official members of the Society. My membership to the Law Society is by Statute, not by those people who gathered and purported to suspend me. So the resolution they passed is an absolute nullity.
I am by virtue of my office a member of the Society and head of the bar. Secondly, the grounds on which they purport to suspend me are in courts of law, therefore they are subjudice. For them as lawyers, they should have known better. So whatever they did is an absolute nullity and they are going to pay heavily for it.
Is that a threat Mr. Attorney General?
No, it’s not a threat, am serious about it.I am not going to tell you what I am going to do, but they are going to pay for allowing the Law Society to be used by politicians or people with selfish interests.
There was the political category which was disappointed that government signed an agreement with the Kabaka. There is another group aggrieved by the opinions I’ve always given,from the beginning.
But there is equally another group which has fraudulent claims here(against the government) in billions. When I scrutinised their claims, I found them unworthy, so since then, they’ve always had that grudge against me.
Your Legal Opinions have always come under criticism from your legal colleagues. What’s the problem?
Have you seen anybody who has officially contested my legal Opinions?No one has come out to officially write to me challenging my opinion. So I don’t take them seriously. Take for example the Shadow Attorney General (Abdu Katuntu).
I’ve heard people claiming that he wrote a contrary opinion in the press concerning the appointment of Aronda. But my challenge to him is, if he indeed wrote a legal opinion worth the name, why didn’t he copy it to me, or address it to parliament? Why did the Appointment’s Committee agree with me and approve Aronda’s appointment if his legal opinion carried any substance?
There have also been allegations that most of the Attorney General’s opinions are based more on political considerations instead of legal interpretation. Where is the line between politics and the law in your work?
Absolute rubbish.For all my legal opinions, I always quote the provisions of the law. It’s not that I wake up one morning and hear the President say something and I rush to craft a legal opinion to satisfy him.
If I was just playing politics, it would in fact have been easy for one to come up with the provisions of the law, and tear through my opinion. But no one has done that. And by the way, I am a born again Christian.
Have you heard about the East African Revival? I belong to that leadership. I always mean what I say. President Museveni has never,never, ever tried to influence my legal opinions. And the little knowledge I have of President Museveni, if I ever tried to write a legal Opinion in order to please him, he would be very cross with me.
Talking of the Law, in your legal opinion okaying the re- appointment of Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki , you quote article 142 of the Constitution, but that same article allows the president to re-appoint retired judges and not a retired Chief Justice. What do you have to say about that?
(Laughs heartily, pulls out the constitution.) You see that is the interpretation for people who have not thoroughly read and internalised the Constitution. Clause 2 of article 142 says exactly like you have stated. I agree with you absolutely.
But there is article 253, which provides that the appointing authority may still appoint a person who has vacated office to that same office, if he is still qualified and willing to serve.
You see, the Supreme Court ruled that the all clauses of the constitution complement each other, so you cannot read one article and rush to conclude.So you can see, Odoki quit, but article 253 allows him to be re-appointed.
One of the Accusations Leveled against you was that your office failed to appeal against the hefty compensation of Shs13billion awarded to a one Severino Twinobusingye. Why didn’t you appeal against the colossal reward?
On Christmas Eve last year, Severino went to court, and was awarded the costs, without our knowledge. We were supposed to be informed but we read the story in the papers. If am not mistaken, we saw the story in March, and as soon as we saw the story, I called the solicitor General and the director of Civil Litigation and I drew their attention to the story.
I also directed the director Civil Litigation, to get documentation concerning the matter. One of our Officers- George Karemera went there, and immediately after getting the documents, we filed our own case, challenging the award. So what they are saying is untrue, and Severino has not gotten the money.
The government has also been reported to lose large sums of money in rather ‘reckless’compensations as a result of the many mishandled cases coming up against the government. What do you have to say?
How many, can you quote the number of cases we have lost versus the ones government has won? Have you heard of the Heritage case in London? How much money did we save on behalf of government? Over US dollars 430 million.
Have you had about the case of NSSF vs. Alcon? Billions were saved. Have you had about this case of the Northern bypass? Do you know how much these people were claiming; 60billion. And there are many more I can quote for you.
Can an incompetent person win such landmark cases? Of course it is true sometimes, we lose. There are some cases where the government has a weak defense, so we advise it to enter a consent judgment.
But don’t such cases depict the recklessness and inefficiency we are talking about?
Yes Absolutely. I agree with you. If a government department is taken to court, and we request for their side of the story and they fail, obviously that’s wrong. But for us in the Ministry of Justice, we shall have played our part.
You have constantly claimed the Heritage case, which government ‘reportedly’ won in the UK, as one of your landmark achievements as Attorney General, but Heritage claims that actually the case is still ongoing, Particularly, the Merits’ phase of the contractual claims against government. Are you giving Ugandans a raw deal?
It’s a fact. The core issue was whether we could recover that money from Heritage, which we actually did.We could get around US dollars 430million. We got almost the same amount of money from Tullow. Tullow has as a result decided to appeal.
So has the government actually collected that money?
Yes. And that money has been earmarked for construction of Karuma Dam. And besides those cases, there are cases where we have impounded and stopped the unfair claims against government, some of those deals being actually advanced by these same people purporting to suspend me.
Some even attempted to bribe me, but I refused. And now they pretend to be the ‘angels’ defending the law. I just laugh at them.
The so-called ‘rebel MPs’ case appears to have put your office in a tight spot. To what extent should Parliament depend on you to defend it given your earlier comments against the Speaker’s decision to keep the MPs in the House?
You see am not mandated to defend Parliament. (Again brings out the constitution.) Clause 3 of article 119 says, (he quotes) “The Attorney General shall be the Principal Legal Advisor of Government, Parliament inclusive. It’s not just a matter of defending, I give legal advice.
So in the (rebel) MPs’ case, I gave my advice after studying the Law. The constitution provides for three categories of people in Parliament. The government side, the Opposition and the Independents.
So the ‘rebel’ MPs stay in Parliament is legally strange. But the Speaker decided otherwise. So, I could not just defend an illegality in Court. I am not a fool. I’ve heard that they set up a parliamentary (law) firm there. (Laughs sarcastically).
Fine, I wish them Luck. But that is also illegal, unless they amend the Constitution. Because the law says, (reads), that“any civil proceedings by or against the government shall be instituted by or against the attorney General.” Where is Parliament?
You recently looked on as the Public Order Management Act which threatens to infringe on the freedoms of expression and Assembly, which are guaranteed by the Constitution, was enacted, debated and passed?
What is inconsistent with the Constitution? We also want a good law, because we are aware that if we pass a bad law, it may not spare us either. You know these noise makers want to create an impression that this law is only in Uganda.
We carried out research in Australia, Singapore, South Africa,, in Britain and in the U.S. There are similar legislations. But in any case, if they think that the law is Unconstitutional, they have the option of challenging it in the Constitutional Court.
But why this law now, especially at a time when agitation for political reforms seems to be at its peak?
Exactly.These demonstrators like to have their demonstrations in the Central business district. Here there are traders, businessmen, transporters, and others, all with various interests. So how do you ensure that all these people’s interests are safe guarded and regulated?
Now, originally, the law we hadconcentrated all responsibility to regulate in the hands of the police. But this law apportions responsibility. Let’s say in a demonstration, the organisers, the participants and the local authorities all have responsibilities under this law. That is what this law is all about. Regulation of various interests. Is that bad?
Uganda still upholds some sections of the Penal Code like Criminal Libel, and others, that date back to the colonial days, when they were enacted purposely to crash any dissent against colonialism. Are they still necessary and relevant in a democracy like ours? If not why haven’t you repealed them?
No, but some of those crimes still take place. If you think those laws are no longer necessary, you go and complain in courts of law for their repeal. I see no problem. Defamation still takes place, Libel takes place. So until our politicshave matured from this petty talk by opportunistic politicians, some of these laws are still necessary.
You have consistently been bashed by people who disagree with your Legal Opinions, with some even questioning your credentials to be Attorney General. Doesn’t that criticism bother you and your family?
Of course, my family is affected. But for me, I ignore them. For example one MP who has been questioning my abilities is a first year law student at Makerere. And from the information I have, he failed. So you expect me to get bothered by such an idiot? When you come to public office, you develop a thick skin.
So, how would you like to be remembered as Attorney General?
Well, as somebody who meant yes when he said yes, and no, when he said no. Even if one million lawyers stand on one side and I stand alone, as long as I believe in my opinion, so be it; I am not bothered. You know my mentor is President Museveni. One of the lessons I’ve learnt from him is to be resilient, and ignore such irresponsible criticism.