Kabila Anti-Corruption Drive

A new wave of purges in the justice system – but will they make a difference?

Kabila Anti-Corruption Drive

A new wave of purges in the justice system – but will they make a difference?

Thursday, 30 July, 2009
If you have no money, you’re a loser from the start,” complained a Lubumbashi resident, who has spent the past six months trying to get compensation for the loss of his home, which he says he was taken from him unfairly.

“I have all the property rights, but one day I saw all my belongings thrown out on to the street by the police, who claimed my house belonged to a well-known businessman.”

He argues that the businessman had forged documents that asserted his ownership of the property, and that corruption within the courts means that they are unwilling to take any action.

“Can we say there is justice in the Congo?” he asked. “I don't think so.”

His anger towards the courts is not isolated.

Another resident told IWPR that he has spent over a year trying to seek compensation for unfair dismissal from his previous employer.

“I was not given my final salary,” he complained. “The magistrate who is taking care of my case received money from my former employer, so my case is stuck.”

He says that he is one of several people seeking redress from the same company whose cases remain in limbo because, he claims, the judges have been bought off.

“Because of corruption within the magistracy, we don’t know how to get our rights,” he said.

In February 2008, 92 magistrates were dismissed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, over allegations of corruption, including the president of the supreme court and the state prosecutor.

This year, on July 14, a further 165 judges were sacked in a bid to clean up the profession, more than ten per cent of the country’s entire magistracy of about 1,400.

Addressing the nation on June 30 on state-owned broadcaster Radio Télévision Nationale Congolaise, RTNC, DRC president Joseph Kabila restated his pledge to fight corruption in the judiciary.

“Judicial operators must decide which side they are on: either serving or harming a people already ravaged by several years of conflict and violence,” he said.

However, Kabila's presidency has not been without its own allegations of high-level corruption, and many think current moves to clean up the judiciary could be a way of distracting attention from where the real malaise lies.

“To the extent that the judiciary does engage in corruption, this is almost always petty compared to the corruption perpetrated by the executive,” said Harriet Solloway, head of the rule of law unit at the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUC. “Targeting judges for corruption shifts the focus away from where most of the blame lies.”

Solloway argues that the justice system is a very easy target, since this is the part of the government that directly affects most people.

“Most people in this country have been aggrieved by the current system, or know someone that has been,” said Solloway. “Not every judge is corrupt, but because corruption is rampant in the country, anyone who loses a case is likely to say that the judge has been paid off.”

One of the root causes of corruption in the magistracy is a lack of adequate payment for court judges.

It is difficult to put an exact figure on how much money is spent on the justice system each year, but Solloway says that between 0.2 and 0.6 per cent of the five billion US dollars annual state budget is earmarked for this purpose – although much of this money never finds its way into the justice system due to corruption at the executive level.

The High Council of the Magistracy, which was set up under the country's 2006 constitution, is supposed to guarantee the independence of the judiciary by disciplining judges who step out of line, while remaining separate from the government.

But, like the judicial system itself, it remains paralysed by lack of funds. It has never received an official budget, and is therefore dependent on the presidency for money, which immediately undermines its claim to independence.

“The High Council should fulfil its mission by launching a thorough inquiry into the allegations made against magistrates,” said lawyer Marie-Paule Ngalula. “The ministry of justice should not interfere in the management of judicial power.”

Corruption in the justice system is certainly a serious matter, but Solloway argues that the widespread sacking of judges may not be the answer, and may simply serve to weaken the system. An alternative approach, she says, would be to try to improve the lot of judges, who are clearly under-paid and find it difficult to make an honest living without turning to corruption.

Judge Maurice Kitwit says that the monthly salary for a judge in the DRC is typically between 100 and 200 dollars, “This salary does not allow judges to cover their basic needs.”

Judge Kitwit also says that something must be done about the working conditions of all staff employed by the justice system, who often do not have tables and chairs, or even basic stationery items like pens and paper.

“It's not just about salary increases,” said Judge Kitwit. “New buildings should be constructed for magistrates, to replace those that exist. New libraries should be installed in all courts. Administrative procedures must be modernised, by replacing all the old typewriters with a new computerised system. Seminars, symposiums and conferences should be organised for judges.”

Héritier Maïla is an IWPR-trained journalist. Blake Evans-Pritchard, IWPR Africa editor, contributed to this report.
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