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Sir Udoma: The judge who handled the 1966 Buganda crisis case

By Vision Reporter

Added 24th August 2012 04:20 PM

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities who have shaped the history of this country.

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To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities who have shaped the history of this country.

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profiling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, Joseph Ssemutooke searches the archives and brings you the story of Justice Sir Udo Udoma, the first African Chief Justice of Uganda

As the British colonial masters were preparing to leave as Uganda’s independence came nearer, they fast-tracked the Africanisation of the civil service. However, in the case of the judiciary, there were no Ugandans with enough experience on the bench to qualify as judges or the chief justice.

According to the Uganda Law Society, this discovery prompted the colonialists to hire Nigeria’s Justice Sir Udo Udomo. 

This ensured that the country would at least have an African at the helm of the judiciary, even when he was not a Uganda.

That is how Justice Sir Udo Udoma, came to be the first African to become Chief Justice of Uganda. He subsequently sowed the firm legacy of a Chief Justice “celebrated for his diligent and irreproachable dispensation of justice in Uganda,” (to quote the words of the Makerere University Law Society)

It is worth noting that before Sir Udoma took office, all its previous occupants had been Europeans. Udoma’s successor was also a Briton, before Wako Wambuzi became the first Ugandan Chief Justice.

Udoma’s background

According to his biography, Udo Udoma: In The Shelter Of The Elephant Rock, Justice Sir Udoma was born on June 21, 1917, in a family with traditional leaders among the Ibibo tribe of south east Nigeria.

Growing up, the young Udoma proved himself an exceptional scholar in primary and secondary schools. After which, in 1935, he was employed as a bookkeeper in the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria and later, in his country’s customs department. 

In 1938, he was selected as one of six scholarship recipients by the Ibibo Union, the people’s union of his small tribe, which had began financing its young men for studies in the UK so they could come back and help the tribe.

In the UK, Udoma attended Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with a first class degree in law in 1942. While a student in the UK, he was one of the leaders of the West African Students Union, according to his biography. He joined the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Hastings Banda in criticising British imperialism. 

After graduation, he enrolled for post-graduate studies at the University of Oxford, and by 1945, he had attained his PhD in law as well as a call to the bar in London.

However, after this, Udoma returned to Nigeria and set up a private law firm, where he was known as a diligent and skillful lawyer. 

In 1961, he was appointed a Judge of the High Court of Lagos Territory, going on to distinguish himself on the bench.

Uganda beckons

In 1963, Sir Justice Udoma was seconded to Uganda as the country’s Chief Justice, becoming the first African to serve in that office which he would hold for six years. 

The Uganda Law Society talks of Sir Udoma as one who “helped to reform the Uganda justice administration system and to deepen constitutionalism and jurisprudence in the country.”

The late Professor Dani Nabudere, in his paper, The Fast Tracking of Federation and Constitutionalism in East Africa, notes that Sir Udoma was instrumental in setting the pace and the tenor for the Africanisation of law in Uganda by making rulings that were the first of their kind in the country, subsequently setting major precedents.

Deciding some landmark cases

Among the said cases that Justice Udoma heard and set precedent are those that involved the different parties that had played out the 1966 Buganda crisis. 

He is credited for his professional conduct in the face of the warring parties, one of which was in government. 

Justice Udoma heard the case, where Mengo subjects were challenging their arrest by Obote’s government after the 1966 riots. He exhibited himself as a disciple of justice as he ruled in favour of the Mengo subjects. (Uganda vs Commissioner of Prisons ex parte Matovu). 

In the same way, Justice Udoma also set Grace Ibingira free after Obote’s government had imprisoned him.

The Chief Justice also presided over the case, where Buganda royals were challenging the constitutionality of Obote’s government and all its dealings in the aftermath of the 1966 crisis. They argued that Obote and his government were acting unconstitutionally. 

In his ruling, he upheld the 1966 Constitution and Obote’s government, describing what happened was a coup. He noted coups were recognised in international law as a proper and effective legal means of changing government or constitutions in countries like Uganda, a politically and completely independent and sovereign state. (Attorney General of Uganda vs The Kabaka Government).

Another of Justice Udoma’s famous and precedent-setting judgements was: “When he put an African stamp on the interpretation of African customary practices concerning marriage, after he over-turned a long-standing ruling of a British judge. The British judge had defined African traditional marriage as ‘wife purchase’. 

“Since then, the application of African traditional conceptions of law and justice has been handled in a more sensitive manner by the courts. Although a long journey still remains to be travelled in this direction,” the late Professor Dani Nabudere, noted in his paper.

Leaving Uganda, his legacy

In 1969, Sir Justice Udoma was fired by Obote under unclear circumstances. Some people said the action was unfair and politically-motivated. 

Sir Udomo himself writes in his autobiography that his removal from office was engineered by his enemies, who lied to Obote he was planning with Obote’s enemies to overthrow the President.

After leaving Uganda in 1971, Udomo was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, where he served until he retired in 1982. He had also served as the chairman of the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the 1979 Nigerian Constitution. He chaired other various national panels of inquiry in his motherland. 

However, in his autobiography, he expressed bitterness about how he was by-passed twice for the position of Chief Justice of Nigeria.

Udoma died on February 2, 1998, a few months shy of his 81st birthday. For his legacy, the headquarters of the Ibibo Tribal Union is named after him, among other things named after him in Nigeria. 

In Uganda, the Makerere University Law Society organises an annual Udo Udoma Law Symposium, named after the eminent jurist in recognition of his contribution to the development of law in Uganda.

Sir Udoma: The judge who handled the 1966 Buganda crisis case

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