Othembi Spills LDC Secrets
By John V Sserwaniko
Frank Nigel Othembi (FNO) is the Director Law Development Center (LDC) which has lately been in the news not for very good reasons.
The reasons for bad press related to management disputes regarding who should be Head Bar Course and many prominent City lawyers being struck off the staff list on grounds they are too busy for the Center.
It’s these and many other issues that Othembi responded to in the following interview with Sunday Pepper’s John V Sserwaniko & Venenscias Kiiza.
Below are the excerpts:
QN: You have had a long, eventful professional journey to becoming Director LDC. Tell us a little bit about it.
FNO: I have had a professional journey of over 20 years. I started off in private practice as a Legal Assistant with Oloya Donge & Company Advocates. I served in the Judiciary for 10 years as a Magistrate Grade 1 (Lira, Apac & Mengo) and Chief Magistrate (Arua & Buganda Road). Buganda Road was particularly challenging with many high profile cases. I served as Registrar Education &Public Affairs, Judicial Service Commission and Secretary Uganda Law Reform Commission – a Permanent Secretary level position. I have been Director LDC from 1st May 2012. It has been a challenging but fulfilling journey.
QN: What have been the biggest challenges as Director LDC?
FNO: My biggest challenge and the biggest challenge for LDC is managing numbers. We have ever increasing numbers of applicants wanting to join LDC particularly for the Bar Course and we are mandated to ensure that we cater for all those who qualify to join LDC. This academic year about 1700 applicants sat the Bar Course pre-entry exam and about 700 passed and joined LDC. We aim to take on board the large numbers while maintaining small class sizes and ensuring high quality of teaching for which LDC has a well-earned reputation. We currently divide the students into four streams with a total of 32 firms – not so long ago LDC used to have only 4 firms. The legal profession is extremely conservative. In order to reform and move forward LDC needs to embrace change and new ways of doing things.
QN: LDC recently cancelled and recalled some diplomas in legal practice. Why is LDC punishing innocent students yet these diplomas were issued by LDC?
FNO: We discovered that there was fraud including tampering with marks in relation to the diplomas we cancelled and recalled. We concede that there was no evidence that the affected students engaged in any acts of fraud – LDC staff who were found to have participated in the fraudulent acts in one way or another were disciplined. However, it is a well-known principle in law that even an innocent party cannot be a beneficiary of fraud – the moment the fraud and irregularities were discovered LDC had to take appropriate action.
QN: LDC recently badly lost Judicial Review applications filed by
aggrieved students and since then, a quiet debate has been raging
among lawyers that the contents of the court judgments are indicative
of how standards have declined at LDC under your tenure as Director.
What do you say to such critics? They are saying you even hire lawyers
who aren’t very good to represent LDC because they are your cronies.
That the Center loses but your friends financially benefit….
FNO: The cases currently before court relate to matters that happened over 10 years ago – long before I became Director LDC. We have been litigating various cases over the years and have won the vast majority of them. It is true we lost a case for judicial review before the civil division of the High Court. We respect the decision of the High Court but disagree with it and have instructed our lawyers to appeal. We still have the option of appealing to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court and I am confident we shall be successful. Counsel Tibaijuka Atenyi has represented LDC in the cases involving former students. He has been LDC’s lawyer from well before I joined LDC. He is a highly competent and respected civil litigator and has done an excellent job representing LDC for minimal pay.
QN: There are also claims that you have personalized things a lot at LDC
to the extent that you sometimes don’t inform the Management Committee
regarding some of these matters. That you take personal decisions
almost unilaterally as Director. That it’s becoming a one man’s show.
Why is this so?
FNO: That is not true. The Management Committee meets at least quarterly and at every meeting I present the Director’s brief updating and informing members about key matters affecting LDC. I regularly consult with and brief the Chairperson of the Management Committee. The LDC Act vests the executive authority of the Management Committee in the Director. I exercise that authority within the ambit of the policies, programmes, work plans and budgets approved by the Management Committee. I work together with a very strong management team comprised of the Deputy Director, Heads of Department and senior managers. As chief executive of LDC I am the face of the administration and often have to take final decisions and executive action in many matters. It comes with the job!
QN: There are also claims that the LDC under your tenure hasn’t been
transparent in the way it recruits lecturers, examiners and staff for
senior positions. That you sometimes advertise for teaching jobs when
you already have some lawyers you want to give jobs and just advertise
for formality purposes when the decisions regarding who gets the job
have been pre-determined before interviews are even done…
FNO: The full time appointments at LDC are very transparent – we advertise in the papers, shortlist and interview candidates. The best candidate gets the job without any lobbying or ‘god father’. LDC also has about 40 part time lecturers and uses a two tier recruitment process – head hunting and advertising using the Uganda Law Society mailing list. We have a very transparent process and all applicants go through a short listing process to ensure that they meet the minimum requirements e.g. at least 8 years professional experience. Shortlisted candidates are interviewed by a panel chaired by the Deputy Director LDC and that includes heads of the teaching departments. The panel recommends to the Director persons to be appointed as part time lecturers. LDC gives 1 year contracts and evaluates lecturers before renewal of contracts.
QN: We also have the issue of the Head bar Course. What exactly happened?
Reports show the former head was sidelined in favor of someone else
and the matter resulted into a petition by the aggrieved applicant.
How far have you gone resolving the issues raised in that petition?
FNO: The position of Head Bar Course fell vacant following the appointment of the former head as a Judge of the High Court of Uganda. We embarked on a recruitment process that saw two heads of subject shortlisted and interviewed for the position by the Appointments Committee of the Management Committee. Both were excellent candidates for the position and one emerged successful and was duly appointed Head Bar Course. The unsuccessful candidate was dissatisfied with the process and petitioned the entire Management Committee. The matter will be resolved at the next meeting of the Management Committee scheduled for early February 2017.
QN: Is it true the former Head Bar Course came under pressure from
external forces trying to arm-twist him to admit some unqualified
students on the Bar Course? The claim is that you as the Director
didn’t come in to help him fight off these fraudulent orders from
above. That you left him to fight alone without any institutional
FNO: It is not true that I have not given the former Ag. Head Bar Course personal and institutional support – he has always had my full support as Director and that of the institution whenever he has requested for it. He can attest to that. The issue of “pressure from external forces” is one of the matters raised in the Petition to the Management Committee. I am sure it will be addressed by the Management Committee that will take appropriate action.
QN: Some have made morally very indicting claims accusing lecturers of
being sexually engaged with female students. Is this something you
have heard about? Do you as LDC have a policy on sex harassment? When
such allegations come up is there any institutional way victims get
helped? The so-called marks for sex: how often do you get complaints
as Director from your students?
FNO: Some of these accusations are repetitions of old allegations from several years back made against lecturers who are no longer teaching at LDC. But of course this being Red Pepper I would be surprised if there wasn’t some sexual angle to the interview. LDC has a zero tolerance policy towards any form of sexual harassment of students. We have a sexual harassment policy and the Deputy Director heads a committee that deals with complaints/cases of sexual harassment. To the best of my knowledge we have not had any complaint during my tenure as director. The best people to ask about this would be the students themselves – I would strongly advise you to interview them and I would be very interested in knowing if you find any complaints. Sex for marks is unheard of at LDC. Our oral exams are marked by a panel of 3-5 examiners including both males and females. The written exams are marked by teams of 2 examiners per subject, again both men and women. To exchange sex for marks a student would have to engage all the various examiners! LDC has grown beyond sex scandals involving lecturers and students.
QN: There is also talk that the standards are rapidly declining at LDC
because the Director sidelines senior and more experienced lawyers in
favor of the less experienced ones? Is it true
you have vendetta against some senior lawyers?
FNO: That is completely false. I have explained to you the recruitment process for part time lecturers. You cannot be appointed lecturer at LDC without substantial professional experience. We are interested in both competence and commitment. We have had to let go of some lecturers who have been too busy with their other work at the expense of teaching at LDC. I am interested in attracting the most senior and committed lawyers. We have also interested the most senior judges to come and address our students as guest lecturers.
QN: In fact critics say this is part of the reason why Mr. Wambuga, the
former head Bar Course, is in trouble. That he is the man who has
correctly been favoring seniority and experience when recruiting
lecturers for LDC. Could it be true that he is being witch hunted for
insisting on the right thing?
FNO: Mr. Wambuga is not being witch hunted at all. In fact he chairs the LDC Contracts Committee and is an integral part of the LDC top management. You should have a chat with him.
QN: You recently reshuffled lecturers and humiliatingly moved Mr. Wambuga
from heading Commercial Transactions. How far will this vendetta go?
FNO: Following the retirement of a head of subject and elevation of another to the position of Head Bar Course, we recruited two new heads of subject. This necessitated redeployment of heads of subject and I transferred Mr. Wambuga from head commercial and corporate to head civil. This is a normal transfer from one subject to another to face new challenges and is not humiliating in any way. Mr. Wambuga remains Deputy Head Bar Course and has expressed happiness at the opportunity to take on the new challenge as head civil proceedings.
QN: Basing on all this and the congestion problems, some critics say its
high time LDC’s monopoly is broken and we liberalize this area of
legal training in Uganda. Are you worried?
FNO: I am not worried about breaking LDC’s monopoly and liberalizing professional legal education as long as there are mechanisms and safeguards to ensure that we maintain high professional standards. We are happy to participate in this debate.
QN: Talking about space constraints what are you doing as Director to
decongest the Center? You recently unveiled a new building but space
constraints have remained…it seems your efforts haven’t been good
enough…Also talk about proposal to introduce evening programs to serve
more Bar Course students…
FNO: The new auditorium has greatly enhanced our capacity in the short term but in the long term we need to open up regional centers upcountry. We have developed a proposal for an evening/weekend Bar Course programme to serve the needs of our working students. We are in discussions over this with our regulator, the Law Council. We have agreed with government in principle to open up regional centers upcountry for all our courses including the Bar Curse. We have the support of all key stakeholders – HE the President, Ministry of Justice & Constitutional Affairs/Law Council and JLOS. We will start preparations for this in 2017/18.
QN: Also tell us about the infamous whistle blower allegations regarding
the pre-entry exams. That some people paid hundreds of millions to
pass pre-entry. How true could this be? And also tell us about the
whole thing: regarding pre-entry. Is it your exam as LDC management or
it’s for the Law Council? Who is responsible for what?
FNO: I was served with a copy of the allegations. However, the Bar Course pre-entry exam is conducted by the Law Council. It is only the Law Council that has the authority to speak on matters relating to the exam.
QN: We have also heard of some big man calling the former Head Bar Course
ordering him to make sure his child passes pre-entry. Shouldn’t that
make all of us as a country embarrassed assuming it were true? Isn’t
this the reason critics are saying this is not the highly rated LDC of
the some decades back? These things were in the national newspapers
being attributed to your former head Bar Course. Did you as management
engage him to get more information to enable you institutionally
respond to that situation?
FNO: This complaint is before the Management Committee which will evaluate the evidence and take appropriate action.
QN: Also tell us about the massive failure rates including in the latest
LDC exams where less than 100 students qualified for the March/April
graduation. Is it students with the problem or it’s the way they are
being taught? There are some who say you maliciously set very hard
FNO: There has actually been an improvement in performance. Last year only 20% of the Bar Course students passed the final exam outright. This year about 25% passed outright. Most of those who failed will do supplementary exams and qualify to graduate in April 2017. Our exams are peer reviewed and moderated. They are of the standard expected of a Bar Course student.
QN: You have headed LDC for a number of years as its Director: what can
you say has changed in the years you have been at the helm? Any
achievements? Have you made any mistakes that you regret in your
tenure as LDC boss?
FNO: There have been very many reforms and achievements in my time as Director. These include introduction of a new course, Diploma in Human Rights, improved academic performance, staff restructuring and increased remuneration, increased use of ICT in teaching and other processes, new and more fair rules for passing the various courses, curriculum review and introduction of new subjects e.g. Management Skills and elective subjects to mention but a few.
QN: How many more years do you still have as Director LDC? What are some
of your future career plans for the next 5-10 years after the LDC
FNO: I have been Director LDC from 1st May 2012. I have about 3 ½ years as Director LDC – my current 4 year contract expires 30th April 2020. I have many options open to me when I leave LDC both in the private and public sectors. I have options locally and internationally. By sometime next year I will have a clearer picture of what I plan to do after LDC and will happily share with Red Pepper. My biggest satisfaction is knowing that I have been able to spearhead important reforms and bring positive change to LDC and the knowledge that there are many competent staff to whom I will hand over the baton to continue with the process.
QN: Last but not least you may speak to us on any other things you
consider important that we may not have brought out in our questions
above. Do you have any last word?
FNO: LDC needs to position itself as a modern institution ready to face challenges and embrace opportunities. We need to adopt international best practice and position ourselves as the leading legal training institution on the continent. LDC needs to respond to the growing demand for legal training by urgently setting up regional centers upcountry. We call upon the media and all stakeholders to support us in all our ventures.