By: Jenna K.
The first things I noticed about Uganda were the butterflies.
We had just landed and were being escorted out of the airport to the van that we would later spend hours upon hours in driving from prison to prison all over the country in order to help inmates file plea bargains and start serving their sentences. The pathway to the parking lot in the Entebbe airport is covered with a tent-like structure that creates a makeshift tunnel. Trapped inside this tunnel were some of the most beautiful butterflies I had ever seen. They fluttered around us as we dragged our giant bags full of 2 months’ worth of living supplies. One finally came to rest on the shoulder of Andrew Khaukha – the special adviser to the judiciary and the project manager of our team – before quickly flying away to join its family in their quest to beautify an otherwise dirty, concrete space.
This was my introduction to Uganda and throughout the course of my stay I discovered it to be more fitting than I could have ever imagined.
Uganda’s current constitution was ratified in 1995. This means that the country’s present democratic structure has only been in effect for just over 20 years. However, they have accomplished more in those two decades than many “developed” nations have in a hundred years.
In 1995, Uganda had been ravaged by civil war, led by the warlord Joseph Kony and his band of deranged men. Kony had ripped the country apart through widespread murder and the recruitment of child soldiers. He coerced children at gunpoint to kill their own families before forcing them to join his megalomaniacal mission to destroy the people of Uganda. War raged and people died and the government seemed powerless to stop it. However, the ever resilient Ugandan people were able to band together and push Kony out of their borders (he has since retreated to Sudan where he is continuing to wreak havoc).
Left with a devastated and broken country bursting with widows, orphans, and former child soldiers, a group of men and women rose up to rebuild their nation. Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Benjamin Odoki, then Attorney General Bart Katureebe (the current Chief Justice) and the members of parliament drafted a constitution that starts off much like our own:
“We the people of Uganda, recalling our history which has been characterized by political and constitutional instability; Recognising our struggles against the forces of tyranny, oppression and exploitation; committed to building a better future by establishing a socio-economic and political order through a popular and durable national Constitution based on the principles of unity, peace, equality, democracy, freedom, social justice, and progress; exercising our sovereign and inalienable right to determine the form of governance for our country, and having fully participated in the Constitution-making process. . . do hereby, in and through this Constituent Assembly, solemnly adopt, enact, and give to ourselves and our posterity, this Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, on this the 22nd day of September, in the year 1995.”
I love the line “recognizing our struggles against the forces of tyranny, oppression, and exploitation; committed to building a better future . . .” I feel like it summarizes the Ugandan people – fueled by the pain of their past and determined to build a better tomorrow for their children.
I had the honor of meeting Chief Justice Katureebe during his visit to Pepperdine last October and again during my stay in Uganda. He is a tall and regal man who commands the attention of those around him but whose eyes are soft and friendly. He and his comrades are essentially the Hamiltons, Jeffersons, Madisons, Washingtons and Franklins of their country and I am in awe that I, a mere law student from across the world, was welcomed with such warmth and fervor into their offices and into their lives. It was easy for us as Americans, who enjoy a well structured judicial system (despite how it may feel at times), to be frustrated by the stage of development at which Uganda currently finds itself. However, think of what our country looked like 20 years after our constitution was written. It was nothing in comparison to where Uganda stands today. Uganda’s leaders are brilliant men and women whose collective accomplishments deserve a world-wide round of applause.
(The team with Chief Justice Katureebe in his office at the Supreme Court.)
The initiatives that have been undertaken and implemented since 1995 are impressive to say the least. Take plea bargaining for example. Uganda suffers from an immense case backlog which leaves those accused of a crime to sit in prison for on average 5-7 years waiting for a court date to see a judge to determine if they will even be convicted of said crime. This is an egregious human rights violation and the Ugandan judiciary has been scrambling to figure out an answer to the problem despite their extremely minimal resources (for example, even most government buildings are privately owned and rented to the government because the government cannot afford to buy a lot of property). The solution came in the form of two Pepperdine interns who introduced the country to the concept of plea bargaining. The Ugandan judiciary was humble enough to listen to the advice of two American law students, and brilliant enough to hit the ground running with the idea. Since its introduction a few short years ago over 2500 prisoners spanning across almost all of the 13 prisons in the country have plead guilty and have started serving their sentences. There are still over 10,000 prisoners on remand awaiting trial, but plea bargaining has offered an option that will eradicate this number in an infinitely shorter time than before. It is utterly remarkable that a program such as this could see a nation-wide roll out in such a short period of time – it would take that long for republicans and democrats to agree on what kind of pizza to order.
It is easy to focus on the negatives – the bullet holes in the fabric of Uganda’s history. Take a step back, however, and you will be treated to a beautiful and elaborate tapestry that is being woven at utterly impressive speeds.
In order for a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must undergo great stress and pain. Wings must develop and break free and its old body must be shed to make room for the new. Uganda has certainly gone through severe struggle and suffering. However, their wings are emerging and they are becoming a beautiful new creation. I read an article a couple weeks ago that predicted Uganda will reach “first world” status by 2066 – if they keep going with the tenacity and passion they have today, I don’t have a sliver of doubt that Uganda will soar to heights we can barely imagine.