By Julius Odeke  

On Tuesday, October 11, while listening to the ruling of the Buganda Road Court Grace III Magistrate, Justice Ereemye James Julius Mawanda on the case where the two accused persons were awarded a court bail, my heart felt so low on how courts of law are not empathetic to the conservation of wildlife in Uganda.

Justice Ereemye who is handling this high profile case in split-of seconds granted bail to Ibrahim Onzima, 24 and Mohammed Kulubale, 23, court bail that was bonded with only a paltry Shs2million each.

With a heavy heart, I write article, representing the views of Natural Resource Conservation Network (NRCN) an organization that deals in the conservation of wildlife species such as; elephants, rhinoceros, parrots and pangolins to mention but a few. My view is equally shared by our supervisor the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) since we are partners in the aspect of ensuring that we bring the illegal wildlife trade in the country to an end.

This article also serves to interest the public of Uganda to issues of wildlife conservation so that they are aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it.

The State Minister for Tourism and Antiquities, Godfrey Kiwanda clearly says government is planning to come up with a Bill of Conservation of wildlife that will ensure that the life of animal poachers and traffickers will be difficult in Uganda and that it will curtail this illicit trade. If this is implemented, then it will aid our work as of wildlife conservationists. The Minister further said that, “Uganda has weak laws when it comes to animal conservation and by that judges merely give warnings to these poachers and traffickers as a punishment.”

The legal team of NRCN Ms Winnie Namayenje and Keffa Ndeke Chadiha from UWA while presenting the evidence that we thought would deny the duo bail, gave glaring evidence that shows that the accused persons are not Ugandan citizens but from Democratic Republic of Congo.

As if that is not bad enough, the accused persons do hold official travel documents from a considerable number of countries on the continent that include; Burundi, Guinea, Chad, South Sudan and Central African Republic and Mali. The magistrate’s decision, though it is within his powers as a learned friend to grant any suspect bail, his decision notwithstanding, will make it quite hard to track the accused persons down once the decide to flee the country.

Those who are mandated to handle the judicial process in our country should be educated that, these poachers and traffickers are killing the economy of this country through their illegal wildlife transactions. In that, Uganda looses a lot of revenue that would have been used to stock the ailing hospitals and schools with drugs and scholastic materials.

For the case of Onzima and his co-accused, they were arrested for possessing 134 pieces of ivory tusks which when it was weighed it resulted to 250 kilograms of ivory. They were sourcing for market but with keen interest in a Chinese businessman.

When experts from UWA and our legal officials sat down to cost how much 250 kilograms of ivory would fetch, it surprisingly found out that 250kgs of ivory is valued at approximately USD375,000 an equivalent to at least One Billion, Two hundred thirty seven million five hundred thousand shillings (1,237,500,000). Without clear documents from UWA, being in possession of animal body parts is an offence and our police officials reasonably suspected that this ivory was unlawfully obtained.

And here, a learnt Judge grants the accused persons court bail of Shs2million cash each while their sureties were bonded at Shs10million not in cash. In my view, the accused persons would have been asked to pay a bail of Shs50million cash each and then their sureties; it would have been Shs25million not in cash. This would act as a warning to the general public most especially those who deal in this illegal trade.

The actions of Justice Ereemye Mawanda have given Ugandan courts a bad precedent by granting the accused persons bail yet the case is of a high magnitude. In my quick research as conservationist, this was my first time to witness ivory weighing 250 kilograms being intercepted from traffickers and never has it happened in the country for the last 10 years, making this case a high profile one.

By the help of security, the accused persons telephone handsets were put in security scrutiny and the resulted showed that their family members are kingpins in wildlife trafficking. For example, a notorious man, Bangaly Kourouma a family member of the accused person– a Guinea national who was arrested with ivory. He was taken to police and in a few hours was released by police, to-date, he has never surfaced to any relevant authorities in our country.  In my view, courts should liaise with the prosecutors when it comes to this kind of cases.

odekeOdeke is a Head of Media Relations with Natural Resource Conservation Network