By Agather Atuhaire and Joan Akello
Fredrick Ruhindi, newly appointed Attorney General (AG) talked to The Independent’s Agather Atuhaire and Joan Akello about wide ranging issues and plans.
Many people think you are the best choice for AG and well deserving of that position, how will you handle such high expectations?
It is a challenge and I look forward to your cooperation, constant advice, and support.Humility is a challenge, because when you are a politician, there are so many demands and everyone wants help. You do your best to maintain that level of humanity because your life and mine reside in the humanity of others. That philosophy is why the likes of Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela triumphed. I have managed to stay long in politics because I do not practice confrontational politics.It helps build a society that looks at issues not parochial and personal matters.
What experience do you bring to this office?
I worked in the Ministry of Justice and constitutional Affairs from 1981 for ten years and left at the rank of principal state attorney.I was admitted to the role of advocate in the courts of judicature in 1984, served as Corporation Secretary for Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) from 1992 to 1999, treasurer of Uganda Law Society(ULS) and, currently a member of the Commonwealth Legislative Council. I also served in the first Parliamentary Council. So it has been a transition from a legislation drafts person to a law maker because I had always wanted to participate in the debate of the Bill I had drafted and then be there to defend my own Bill! God made it for me; in 2006, I was minister of state for Justice and Deputy AG at the same time.
While at UIA, I started a law firm Ruhindi and Co. Advocates in 1996 though I am not an active advocate but I have young officers there and I just guide them. Principally that office has helped me in my political career. That is why the people call it Ruhindi and Nakawa Co.Advocates; it is more or less a political and legal aid clinic. I started serving from Local Council I to IV representing Bugolobi from 1988 till 2001 when I was elected Nakawa Member of Parliament. It is my third term and I’ve been urged to serve on.
What skills will you employ to change people’s perceptions of the AG’s office?
I practice an open door policy. This will be a people centered office. I talk about legitimacy and legality as necessary factors in implementing and executing our job. It is not only about legalities. Have you involved all the stakeholders in executing our common mandate? People talk about mandate but to do what? To deliver a service for the common good of society.
Kiddu Makubuya was dismissed from ULS and your immediate predecessor was issued a Certificate of Incompetence, so how will you ensure that you avoid both scenarios?
I am not at liberty to discuss my predecessors because I have been in this office for a long time and am not from Mars. I cannot talk about my predecessors because people will say `why is this man washing himself clean, was he not the deputy AG when this and this was happening’? But I know there has been friction between our office and some key institutions like the Inspectorate of Government, ULS, and Parliament among others and my job is to reach out to these friends and try to harmonise our working relationship. And what does that cost? It saves many things and costs nothing.If it means walking to ULS and meeting the executive I will. If it means walking across the road to discuss something with the Inspector General of Government, I will do it. Whatever it takes, we can do that; harmony in the pursuit of common objectives is key. You cannot have the head of the judiciary, executive, and legislature not agreeing with each other. You can imagine the effort we spend on bickering. What if we spent that energy on fighting poverty?
What are the challenges and how will you tackle them?
We have pending judgments in court which involve substantive amounts of money and staff attrition so we need to work out a way of improving the conditions of service. In the constitutional amendments we are likely to come up with a solution for salaries and remunerations for everyone who gets paid from the Consolidated Fund.We shall set up a Salaries and Remuneration Commission.
Then for our indebtedness in terms of court awards which is very high, I have written to the Principal Judge requesting that we can use the same team which worked on the Sentencing Guidelines to develop the same on awarding costs, damages, and interest on the principal amounts so that we could create harmony. We do not want to impair or prejudice those who are entitled but we should have some level playing ground because why should I win a case in court and get Shs10million and another one with more or less the same facts wins a case and gets Shs13billion? We need the guidelines to mitigate the spiraling level of court awards.
Also, we have a challenge of people misunderstanding the role of the institution of the AG. You find some colleagues going out and entering into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) thinking it is simply intent to get into contractual legal obligations yet you find what is in that MOU creates contractual legal obligations leave alone its financial implications. So we have always been at pains informing those concerned to be careful on executing documents which create binding obligations without the input of the AG’s office. We shall deny because that becomes void under Article 119 and there are judicial precedents that all treaties, conventions, agreements must have clearance.
On March 24 when Uganda Human Rights Commission issued its 17th Annual report, Justice Lawrence Gidudu said there is no motivation for ministries and government agencies to observe human rights. He proposed that the Ministry of Justice stops paying their court costs so they feel the pinch, what do you think?
That position has already been accommodated by the Committee on Legal and ParliamentaryAffairs on who should pay in the issue of court awards because there is where a person in another ministry is negligent in the course of doing his or her work and in the process the AG is sued and the AG loses that case because of that negligence. So it becomes the responsibility of the AG to look for that money from the ministry of Finance to clear domestic arrears of over Shs400billion.We fight to get these paid yet in the budget we have been given Shs3 billion to Shs4billion. When that happens, the ministry where that person works should take responsibility for the payment of that money out of its budgetary vote.
How will you balanceand draw the line between legal opinion and political considerations?
There may be a variance in opinion but you seem to think that the people I serve with are politically highhanded; I don’t think the President would want to champion a decision he knows is not good for his people. But I am a human being and not holier than thou and can make the same mistakes as everyone else. There are mistakes you make in good faith. I always prefer giving advice I am able to defend so that I donot begin stammering. I may be wrong and I am always open to being guided and that is why I prefer consultation and team work.
When you do it single handedly, then there is a problem. That is why we are called the AG’s chambers, a team of lawyers and the biggest firm in the country and that is why I think I am where I am. There are times the President has said I was wrong but he will not tell you that you were right; you will see it in action. It will not be Ruhindi’s opinion. I want to hear that the AG’s Chambers has given an opinion because these young lawyers are even cleverer than us and can do immense work and change many things. For instance, we have finished a major reform exercise on commercial laws that started in 1996 on amendments to the company’s law, new acts on bankruptcy, partnership and trademarks, copyright and many in the intellectual property field were amended but you the media have focused only on the electoral reforms.
People are anxious about electoral reforms and the opposition is vowing not to participate in another sham elections
We have not had a sham election in Uganda apart from the one of 1980. But there is no election that is going to be as smooth as everyone wants it to be. Nonetheless, there should be no cause for alarm. The delay, which I agree has been there in the passage of these Bills, will not affect the work of the Electoral Commission. We have finished handling most of the amendments and I will have them printed and tabled in parliament soon. Am hoping that by May, we will have them ready.
Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago has been out of office for more than a year because his cases are pending in court partly because of the AG, so what will you do about this issue?
It is pending because the case of the Lord Mayor and the state has never been heard on its merits. When the mayor was impeached, apparently he went to challenge what had happened arising from an action which had gone to court before he was impeached. Principally, the law would have expected him to challenge his impeachment which was never the case. What followed were miscellaneous applications, injunctions, and interim orders.
But the case has never been heard on its merits. There is an initiative by the Prime Minister to discuss these issues openly, in a sane manner to see the way forward and that process has been on-going. I am about to reach out to my colleague Hon. Medard Sseggona (the shadow minister of Justice and constitutional affairs)so that we can sit down as lawyers and discuss the way forward. Governance can improve in this city by looking at the fundamentals; mere negotiation or dialogue may not be sustainable. We need institutional frameworks supported by legal frameworks that can create some sustainable peace within our city, create development, and prosperity amongst ourselves and the leaders. That is a fairer approach to some of these issues; discussing them with colleagues in the opposition on the way forwards. The challenge with matters in courts of law taking some time may be a challenge to the aggrieved parties and we can always find the best way of engaging the judiciary in good faith on what can be done.