Lawyers for All
Lawyers for All
A blog by Samwiri Wakhakha
In this INPROL Blog based on his own experiences growing up in Uganda and working in the field of rule of law, Samwiri Wakhakha brings the importance of access to justice to the fore.
Brief Country Background
Uganda, a developing country in East Africa. As a former British colony, it has retained a common law legal system. Like other African developing countries, Uganda is not only a poor country but also suffers from a myriad of governance and justice issues. Additionally, since independence, Uganda has been ravaged by internal armed conflicts until quite recently. In that sense it is a postconflict and fragile state. The notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a Ugandan rebel outfit. Uganda’s main economic activity is subsistence farming which makes land a precious commodity countrywide.
Image Credit: Tobias. “Flag of Uganda.” July 12,2008.*
Why I started my own NGO
I was born into a peasant family of eight children in rural Uganda. We lived off a small piece of land that was a customary inheritance by my father. The piece of land helped my family grow crops for our daily subsistence, and coffee and cotton for cash to raise school fees and other domestic expenses.
In 1969, my father was sued as a defendant in a civil suit for refund of a bride price. This was a claim he readily accepted. Following the suit, all of my family’s land was turned over to the plaintiff in satisfaction of the judgment through an erroneous execution procedure.
We were thus condemned to an uncertain future of destitution. As a small boy, I could hear my mother advise my father to appeal to a higher court against this execution, but my father insisted that such an appeal would require hiring a lawyer – and he did not have money to do so.
Meanwhile, as life became extremely difficult, we developed other coping strategies such as working in other people’s gardens (for which we were often paid in kind to meet our food needs) and growing our own subsistence crops on rented plots of land. My mother bore a disproportionate brunt of the latter task.
Four years later, in 1973, I was a high school student, thanks to the local government bursaries then available for needy students. Confident about my English language skills, I decided to write a letter to the area Chief Magistrate, a judicial officer with supervisory powers over the magistrate who had made a mistake in dispossessing us of our land.
After reading my letter, the Chief Magistrate asked the erring magistrate to forward the court record to him. To my family’s relief, the Chief Magistrate decided that the execution procedure of our land had been erroneous. Consequently, he instructed the lower court to immediately hand the land back to my father, and to follow the correct legal execution procedure should my father fail to refund the required bride price to the plaintiff. My father refunded the bride price and the land remained with my family. It is the same land which continues to sustain my four brothers and their families to date.
I later found out that there was no corruption involved in the lower court’s mistaken procedure. Still, it was a mistake for which my family paid dearly in terms of deprivation and emotional trauma. Most importantly, my family’s experience highlights the vulnerability of most rural communities in developing countries, especially the poor and illiterate, to both deliberate and inadvertent judicial mistakes.
Unfortunately, in Uganda today, almost all judicial mistakes are informed by corruption and take deliberate advantage of people’s ignorance of the law. The vast majority of the population (many of them either illiterate or only semi-literate) can neither access nor understand the law – a factor often relied upon by unscrupulous actors to exploit those who need its services.
The existing issues facing the justice system have been aggravated by state agents’ increasing land grabs (under the pretext that it is for the benefit of investors). The consequences have been huge, especially for the young people. Some of them have no choice but to join desperate migrant journeys to Europe. It is a shame. My NGO, “Lawyers for All” therefore seeks to protect the vulnerable people from this very vice.
Lawyers for All?
Perhaps my NGO will not provide “lawyers for all,” but hopefully it will provide “justice for all.” We use various approaches, working with paralegals and customary justice actors to: protect the public from unfair exploitation by the state; give voice to the underprivileged; promote accountability by state justice institutions and administrative agencies; empower the population to defend and claim their legal rights and property; reduce destitution, tension and potential conflict; and foster a rule of law culture.
Lawyers for All was established as a civil society organization. It is dedicated to the defense and protection of citizens from undue exploitation, deprivation, and discrimination by the very system that is funded by tax-payers money. It is intended to reinforce the concept of “justice for all” by giving voice and visibility to the needs and concerns of ordinary citizens in their quest for equal application of the law and for the realization of the principle of equality before the law.
More specifically, Lawyers for All targets those parts of the country where land grabs by state agents and other politically connected individuals have become endemic. The NGO takes measures to ensure that victims of maladministration, miscarriages of justice by state agencies, and illegal acts of individuals can access justice and have their grievances legally redressed. This entails, among other things, grassroots legal empowerment of the concerned communities, including through the establishment of a network of paralegals to attend to victims in real time.
Furthermore, Lawyers for All works to promote more traditional justice mechanisms amongst various communities in Uganda since these are more easily understood, more accessible, and more affordable than the elitist state justice system. In this regard, the NGO will carry out research on Uganda’s traditional justice mechanisms and then publish and disseminate such research.
Uganda is essentially a fragile postconflict country that (following a recent controversial election) is anything but stable. Every effort must therefore be taken to mitigate the rising tension in the country. Establishing Lawyers for All is my attempt to contribute to such an effort. But it is also a way of giving back to my country of birth, and a tribute to the Chief Magistrate who delivered justice to my family purely as a matter of duty, without any inducement whatsoever.
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*This photo was resized, but no other changes were made. Use of this photo does not necessarily indicate the artist or the artist's organization support for this material. More information on the image can be found here.
About the Author
Samwiri Wakhakha holds an advanced degree in law, is an enrolled advocate of the High Court of Uganda, and a member of the Uganda Law Society. Samwiri’s professional experience as a rule of law practitioner spans over 30 years. Half of it was dedicated to working on several United Nations projects, primarily in postconflict countries in Africa. Most recently, he worked on United Nations peace missions in Somalia and Darfur. Through his work, Samwiri has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on strategies needed to address rule of law challenges in postconflict countries. Finally, Samwiri is the Founder and General Director of the NGO “Lawyers for All” in his native country, Uganda.