Bunyoro kingdom to take the Queen of England to court

Sunday August 07 2011

A view of the Hoima landscape in Bunyoro. Picture: File

The British government is facing unprecedented court claims from its former African colonies for various atrocities committed by its officers.

The once mighty Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom in western Uganda now joins the Mau Mau of Kenya in lodging court proceedings in which they are demanding £1.5 billion ($2.4 billion) as general damages and reparations.

In a case that also raises questions about what should constitute the scope of a colonial power, lawyers representing Bunyoro-Kitara Kingdom have served the British government with a statutory notice of intention to sue for invasion, atrocious human-rights abuses and grabbing of their land in the colonial era.

In the notice dated March 31, issued by the lawyers of the plaintiffs, Ayena-Odongo Co Advocates, the British government has 45 statutory days in which to reply or the case will be filed in the UK courts.

Uganda becomes the second country in East Africa to institute a case against Britain for atrocities committed during the colonial period.

Last month, the London High Court granted an application made by four elderly Kenyans to seek compensation for alleged torture meted out by the British authorities Mau Mau suspectsin the 1950s and 1960s.


In his judgment, Justice Richard McCombe said a trial would determine whether the claimants have a strong case and disregarded the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s argument, that Britain cannot be held legally liable because the atrocities happened outside the UK and that upon Independence, legal responsibility shifted to the Kenyan Republic.

The Court labelled the UK efforts to avoid responsibility “dishonourable.” The four Kenyans, among them former MP Gitau Kahengeri, filed a claim for damages for personal injuries, which they allege were perpetrated by employees and agents of the British Colonial Administration under the villagisation programme.

In the Ugandan case, the lawyers of the plaintiffs, are seeking the following declaration: “The invasion of the suit land (present day Kibaale District) and brute, barbaric and savage force used therein to introduce foreign administration and alienate the suit land was a violation of fundamental human rights and adversely affected the plaintiffs; the plaintiffs are entitled to the relief claimed thereunder.”

“The purported establishment of sovereignty over the suit land did not extinguish the customary rights of the intended plaintiffs over the suit land,” the lawyers add. “The defendant is wholly liable for the loss, injuries and damages suffered by the plaintiffs to be claimed in the suit.”

“The so-called Uganda Agreement, 1900… is null and void abinitio and of no legal consequence,” they add in the protracted case instituted in the High Court on August 13, 2004, and registered in the Uganda High Court as Civil Suit Number 595.

Justice Joseph Mulangira of the Land Division in the Commercial Court on July 21, in Kampala, ruled that there are matters regarding the legality of the 1900 Uganda Agreement that require constitutional interpretation.

Justice Mulangira also ordered the plaintiffs’ lawyers to separate the Queen of England from the initial suit filed against the Attorney General of Uganda, the Kabaka of Buganda, the Uganda Land Commission and the 3,636 absentee landlords of Bugangaizi and Buyaga in Kibaale District.

Judges speak out

The judge told the Banyoro who hail from Kibaale district in western Uganda that Her Majesty’s Government can only be sued in Great Britain, as the civil suit against the other four defendants is halted awaiting the Constitutional Court interpretation.

The lawyers are also seeking aggravated or exemplary damages for the inhuman and unconstitutional acts and omission of the defendant and her agents; a thirty per cent interest per annum from the date of judgment until payment in full.

The defendant should also meet the cost of the suit. And any other relief and or remedy the court may deem fit and equitable in the circumstances.

In a letter to Ayena-Odongo Co. Advocates dated May 31, 2011, the British High Commissioner in Uganda, Martin Shearman wrote: “We write to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 31 March 2011. Despite the date that it bears, it was received at these offices only on 25 May. We have sent the letter to London, and we shall let you have a response in due course.”

The intention to sue the Queen of England follows a High Court ruling in 2005 by Judge Oscar Okumu Wengi that struck out the name of Her Majesty’s Government from the suit.

Justice Wengi ruled: “The English sovereign has in this case which involves her imperial power declined to submit to the jurisdiction of this court and that is that.”

The judge added: “In the result, and, since the Attorney General, who is the 1st defendant, has not supported the impleading of the English sovereign for the purpose of indemnity or otherwise, I would accordingly strike out the name of Her Majesty’s Government of Great Britain from the suit.... I do so.”

Justice Wengi also sent the case back to the Land Division of the High Court where hearing continues against the Attorney General of Uganda, the Kabaka of Buganda, the Uganda Land Commission, and the 3, 636 absentee landlords of Bugangaizi and Buyaga in Kibaale District.

Justice Joseph Mulangira of the Land Division in the Commercial Court on July 21, 2011, in Kampala, ruled that there are matters regarding the legality of the 1900 Uganda Agreement that require constitutional interpretation.

Out of court settlement

The civil suit against the four defendants is therefore halted awaiting the Constitutional Court interpretation of the 1900 Uganda Agreement.

President Museveni met the Banyoro on June 10, 2009, in State House Nakasero and informed them that the Queen of England is willing to pay £700 million ($1.1 billion) to settle the case out of court. And that this money is to be paid in instalments over a 10-year period.

“Since then we have written several petitions to the president to meet him over the same matter in vain,” one of the plaintiffs, Dodoviko Batwale, said.

By the close of the 19th century, the Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom was arguably the most civilised, wealthy, endowed and powerful kingdom south of the Sahara.
“At all material times the says the suit plaintiffs’ forefathers, and through succession, the plaintiffs themselves, were customary owners of the land comprised in what is today known as Kibaale District (the suit land), which they used for settlement, cultivation, grazing, wood harvest, herbal medicines, and as hunting, burial, religious and other cultural performances, among others.

“Between 1893 and 1900 the British, using their armed forces and collaborating with the forces of the Kingdom of Buganda, invaded or trespassed, plundered, pillaged, looted, destroyed, devastated the suit land and killed the forefathers of the plaintiffs in their hundreds of thousands.

“Well documented accounts of the above stated evils from the diaries of the Field Commanders of the British who orchestrated the above stated trespass and human rights abuses; and other scholarly accounts; indicate that upwards of 300,000 inhabitants of the suit land were either killed or not accounted for and properties worth over £1.5 billion were looted, converted, lost or destroyed in the suit land.”

Mr Krispus Ayena, of Ayena-Odongo and Co, Advocates said: “The suit in London will be about the role of the British in the human rights abuses such as loss of life and properties, violation of the culture of the Banyoro and the resultant damages suffered.”

“The recent London High Court ruling that the Mau Mau can proceed with their case against the British government gives us a green light to file our case in the UK as well. Our case is graver because we lost a lot in terms of human and economic resources as a kingdom,” Batwale said.

Mr Ayena described the Mau Mau court ruling as a landmark decision because the British government has now been precluded from hiding behind technicalities. “They can no longer plead the principle of state succession. This plea did not consider the inhuman treatment their officers inflicted on the indigenous people of the colonies.”