Uganda's answer to corruption: fiery 'Lady Justice'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Inside the hot, stuffy hearing room, already two months into the case of forgotten bank accounts and unexplained fleets of luxury four-wheel drive vehicles, Justice Julie Sebutinde loses her temper - again.

She wags her finger at the witnesses, employees of Uganda's notoriously corrupt tax authority. "Today, I am going to have you for lunch and supper," she barks.

Ms. Sebutinde, a petite, fiery mother of two, is the Ugandan government's weapon of choice against corruption. Her investigations of the police department, the military, and most recently, the tax authority, have exposed graft that has managed to shock a country where public skimming rarely surprises anyone.

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All this has made the outspoken, sometimes outrageous "Lady Justice," as she is commonly known, into a celebrity here - Uganda's version of America's tough-talking "Judge Judy." Her popularity illustrates the growing pressure on countries like Uganda - currently ranked third among most-corrupt nations by Transparency International, a watchdog group - to clean up their acts.

With President Bush and other Western leaders calling for measures that would tie aid to good government, fighting corruption can now mean billions of dollars in needed foreign assistance.

"She is our voice," says Brenda Okello, a waitress at Madonna's Restaurant in downtown Kampala, serving plates of roasted goat and steamed bananas to the lunchtime crowd.

The local press, which has referred to her variously as "the probe queen," "the most feared judge in Uganda," and "the iron lady against corruption and thieves," recently named Sebutinde woman of the year in a public poll. She has three bodyguards, and a group of death-row inmates recently even wrote a song entitled, "Sebutinde Come Back," in which they appeal for a second chance.

"In Africa, people are not used to seeing their public officials held accountable for anything," says Sebutinde, who spent her early career working as a government lawyer in Namibia.

She was just a few years into her tenure as a high-court judge in Uganda when, facing growing public outrage, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni's government tapped her to head an inquiry into the police department in 1999. Sebutinde and a team of investigators soon began touring the country, interviewing villagers.

"The police had become an absolute nuisance and untouchable. People just thought it was a waste of time," says Geoffrey Kiryabwire, a lawyer who has assisted in several of Sebutinde's probes. "She just said, 'I don't care who you are. I am a judge and you will answer my questions.' People were amazed."

During the hearings, the judge grilled the police, frequently shouting at high-ranking officers and ordering them to sit down, which quickly drew television cameras and standing-room-only crowds. The commission later wrote an 800-page report pronouncing the police department a "mafia-type organization" that routinely shook down the public, colluded with criminals, and quashed investigations in exchange for bribes. Several top department officials, along with dozens of officers, were eventually sacked, and several other reforms were put in place.

The following year, Sebutinde headed an investigation of the revelations that Salim Saleh, a high-ranking Army general who is also the president's brother, allegedly took an $800,000 bribe to use public funds to purchase two military helicopters that couldn't fly. Her report, which the government has never made public but was leaked the press late last year, sharply criticized the government for its role in the affair and recommended prosecuting Mr. Saleh. To date, the government has taken no action on the matter. President Museveni himself has been somewhat dismissive of the commission's scathing conclusions, saying recently: "They did the best that they could to deal with ... a subject that they weren't familiar with."

The Lady Justice's biggest coup has been sticking it to Uganda's tax collectors. The press has provided daily coverage of the testimony, which detailed elaborate tax-evasion schemes and massive embezzlement, and featured a parade of modestly paid bureaucrats with mysteriously acquired houses, cars, and farms. Throughout the hearings, Sebutinde routinely called witnesses "liars" and "fraudsters" and pounded the furniture with her fist. At one point, she told the agency's officials, "All of you belong in jail."

In this male-dominated culture, where women still customarily kneel as a sign of respect, some have been offended by such theatrics. Stephen Akabway, a high-ranking tax authority official, who at one point during the hearings was asked by the judge if he needed help speaking English, described his treatment as "most unfortunate."

"A judge ought to be as open-minded as possible," he said. "These are intelligent people. And she was just outright calling them thieves."

There are others who say such probes are merely exercises in public relations, a government smoke screen to appease an angry public.

"Ugandans are tired of corruption; the public is crying for blood. She is always crying for blood. So the regime has learned to use her to its advantage," says Andrew Mwenda, a Kampala newspaper reporter and radio talk-show host.

Sebutinde herself concedes that there is a grain of truth in this criticism. "No matter how thick the report is, if the government does nothing, then what is the point?" she asks.

As for her temperament, Sebutinde makes no apologies. "Women here have always walked and lived in the shadows," she says. "I think people are surprised that a lady can do this kind of work."

She adds, "I always call people 'sir' and 'ma'am' - except when I get really mad."

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