KAMPALA – The Late retired Principal Judge Jerimiah Herbert Ntabgoba passed on on 12th April 2020 .
For one that became Principal Judge when I was a student ,I am least qualified to write about the Late Justice Ntabgoba, one of a different generation and a judicial officer that he was and I am not. But he was exceptional and I will exceptionally pay tribute to him unqualified for the occasion as I may be for the disclosed reasons.
Born in Kisoro District in July 1939, his public service life started in 1966 as a State Attorney. He rose to become the Registrar General during which time he worked in Australia for one year on secondment as an Inspector of Trade Marks. In 1978, the Late Ntabgoba was appointed to the Bench as a Judge of the High Court.
True to his name, Ntabgoba [loosely translated – fearless], he stood fearlessly tall as a Judge. This attribute manifested itself many a time one of which was a habeas corpus order he issued in 1981 that did not amuse a big person in and with a lot of authority. That saw Late Ntabgoba confide in a top government official that everyone would have expected to come to his or anyone`s aid on account of office and position but on listening to the source and the threat that Ntabgoba narrated, that official agreed with him that he should leave the country and indeed facilitated him so to do. The Late Ntabgoba who had driven straight from his chambers to the office he thought would quell the threat, with Hollywood flavour ended up in Nairobi on the same day.
With support from the same office that did not quell the threat he was to become the first Director General of the Africa Regional Intellectual Property Organisation [ARIPO] based in Harare. That same office that could have but did not reign in the threatening person in 1981 was to assist him with country endorsement for renewal of his contract and leave of absence as Judge. He served at ARIPO until 1989 when he returned and was appointed Principal Judge – a position he held until July 2004 when he retired. Upon retiring he joined Kampala Associated Advocates as a consultant. He stepped down from that role on account of illness in 2019.
As a Principal Judge he was steadfast, predictably firm with time for presiding over cases without leaving his duty as the head of the High Court unattended. He did not hesitate to and he did displease many. What mattered was the conviction of doing what had to be done when it had to.
He has passed on at a time when Christians are celebrating Easter. A time when death and the faith as well as hope that come with Easter are more significant in a world that is Covid 19 humbled. In remembering the Late Ntabgoba at this unique Easter his own uniqueness comes to mind. While Jesus often taught and preached in parables, the Late Ntabgoba said it all in plain language so much so that on different forums of the legal fraternity there is out pouring of tribute laced with nostalgia of the great Judge that he was with so many of his momentous decisions being referred so much so to that an attempt to select which ones to include in this inadequate tribute has left me with only one choice ; to describe the Late Principal Judge Emeritus Ntabgoba thus;
He was a pillar of courage. In The Late Ntabgoba you did not only have an advocate for the independence of the Judiciary and the rule of law; You had a warrior.
We cannot eulogise or even bury him befittingly. The least we can do is join the family in prayer and always remember that when you look after the law it will protect you.
Let the perpetual light shine on the soul of Jerimiah Herbert Shambya Ntabgoba. Rest in Peace.
Mr. Alex Rezida, is a renowned Kampala based lawyer