Justice Musa Ssekaana has stepped down from hearing a petition challenging the planned giveaway of part of Bugoma forest reserve in Kikuube district.
Justice Ssekaana noted that he had perused the files before him relating to the matter and found that he had previously handled the matter, adding if he decides to proceed with the case filed by Uganda Law Society and two civil society organizations, he may appear to be biased.
He explained that he could be in possession of more information relating to the matter compared to what has been presented by the parties. Justice Ssekaana has directed that the file be returned to the High Court Civil Division registrar, Jameson Karemani for a reallocation to another judge.
Ssekaana recused himself from the matter when the lawyers representing Uganda Law Society, Civil Society Organisations, and the Environmental Shield Limited and Resource Human Rights Africa Limited appeared before him for the hearing of the matter. The lawyers included Eron Kiiza, Shafir Yiga, Anthony Asiimwe, and Nalukoola Luyimbazi.
The group ran to the court on May 18th seeking an order compelling Hoima Sugar Limited, Martin Aryagaruka, the National Environmental Management Authority, and Attorney General to restore or replant trees on part of Bugoma forest reserve, which was gazetted in 1932 as a tropical high forest and home for chimpanzees and part of the ecosystem.
It came after NEMA granted Hoima Sugar company, a certificate of approval of environment and social impact assessment okaying the use of 21.54 square miles for sugarcane growing and associated developments on August 14th, 2020. According to the approval, the sugarcane project was expected to commence within 24 months from August 14th, 2020, and the certificate was valid for five years subject to revision on request when the project area condition changes.
But the petitioners, the majority of whom are environmentalists and climate change activists noted that sugarcane growing has adverse environmental and climate change impacts including pollution of water bodies such as rivers and streams and soiling the water quality.
They further indicated that the certificate of approval issued by NEMA for the Kyangwali land use mixed project to grow sugarcane on Bugoma forest land was marred by flaws because it did not follow the statutory procedures laid down under the laws since the environmentalists and other interested parties like the local communities were never given a chance to effectively put forth their views aimed at protecting their right to a clean and healthy environment and protection of the country’s resources.
They asked the court to cancel the certificate and order the respondents to replant trees on part of the forest reserve, which they had cut down. As Justice Ssekaana was directing all the parties to ensure that they include all the necessary documents on record before the file returns to the registrar, some activists stood outside his chambers with placards with messages calling upon people to save Bugoma forest rreserve.
This didn’t go down well with the Judge as he ordered them to go to places like Nambole stadium or where the forest is found if they want to demonstrate. Ssekaana explained that there has been a tendency of litigants attacking judicial officers on social media after filing their cases, saying that they have got an opportunity to see if the judge knows the law or not, which he described as a bad habit.
According to Ssekaana, he understands that the activists are paid to demonstrate but when they come to court, they should leave the Judges to do their work. The petitioner’s lawyers led by Eron Kiiza welcomed the Judge’s decision to recuse himself from the case.
Early this year, Justice Ssekaana dismissed three consolidated petitions in which conservationists had sought to quash the environment and social impact assessment certificate issued to Hoima Sugar Limited to grow sugarcane on Bugoma forest reserve on grounds that they carried distorted facts. The petitions were filed by the Water and Environment Media Network Uganda Limited, National Association of Professional Environmentalists -NAPE, and Africa Institute for Energy Governance.
On April 25, 2019, High Court Judge Wilson Musalu Musene dismissed another case in which the National Forestry Authority had sued the Omukama of Bunyoro Kitara, Hoima Sugar Limited, and Uganda Land Commission over the same land. In his judgment, Justice Musene indicated that the Bunyoro Kingdom acquired freehold interest and legally leased the land for 99 years to Hoima Sugar Limited.
NFA appealed the High Court decision but Justice Fredrick Egonda-Ntende dismissed the appeal on December 3, 2019. There is also a related case in the East African Court of Justice in Tanzania filed by a Human Rights Activist, John Robert Turyakira over the same matter pending hearing.