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Michigan University Helps Reorganize Mengo CM Court Archives
The organised Mengo Court archives

KAMPALA: The efforts to reorganize the archives at Mengo Chief Magistrate's Court have finally produced fruits. After spending more than three months at the Court, a team from the University of Michigan catalogued a total of 1,005 boxes amounting in over 77,427 files. The team organized the collection based on court categories and produced a catalogue with materials which can be identified based on court name, party names, case numbers, as well as the thematic nature of the cases (i.e. land).

Prof. Derek Peterson, from University of Michigan, who guided and supported this project from its inception, said they had equally trained a team of more than 15 people during the project in cataloguing, archival preservation and compiling. "In addition to producing a sizeable catalogue, we have prioritized sharing our knowledge, experience and skills in order that this work might be sustained and expanded by others," he said.

The project was first conceived in 2018, when Ms. Sauda Nabukenya, a doctoral student in History at the University of Michigan, made an initial appraisal of the collection while heading the High Court archival project. In January 2019, Prof Peterson made a further assessment, which later culminated in the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the University and the Judiciary in April.

This agreement enabled the two entities to work together in the organization of the Mengo Chief Magistrate's Court archive. The Mengo CM Court is one of the oldest venues for legal reasoning in eastern Africa. The court was established shortly after the year 1900, when the British government concluded an agreement with the ancient Kingdom of Buganda.

The court is presided over by a Chief Magistrate who sits in the grandiose court building. Downstairs, though, in a poorly lit and hard-to-enter storeroom, were the archives are stored. The records of the Mengo Court have against all expectation survived decades of political tumult and bureaucratic neglect. The archive also housed records of the Magistrate court of Mengo, District Court of Mengo, Coroner Court, Police inquests, some High court files, statues,ordinances books and Administrative records of Buganda courts pertaining to complaints, organization, financing and the operation of the native court system. In the basement storeroom there were thousands of files, mostly composed of Buganda Principal court records that document the operation of the court and the records that date back to 1915 through to the 1960s. Most of the Buganda court records were written in Luganda as the official language of litigation. However, when the case was appealed to the Judicial advisor' s court or the High Court, the Judgement from the Buganda courts had to be translated into English.

The Michigan team believes the study of the Court will reveal the logic by which African litigants and judges reasoned and the precedents with which they worked. Here is an archive that can actually tell us how 'custom' operated as a dynamic and contestable system of thought. "The archive will be of interest therefore not only to scholars and students of Uganda, but to political philosophers, intellectual historians, and scholars of legal practice more generally," reads an excerpt from their report.

The organization and availability of the Mengo archive is an effective retrieval system for the Judiciary for institutional records as well as for case files.Besides the sorting and cataloguing, the archive will be of immeasurable service to the judiciary: it will clear out space in the repository, make hitherto inaccessible files available for consultation by judges, lawyers, and enable therefore the smooth working of the legal process.

In 2018,a team of students headed by Ms Nabukenya from the University of Michigan,Makerere University, Cambridge University and other institutions tackled the massive archive of Uganda's High Court, kept in a basement beneath the High Court building in central Kampala. The archive consisting of 70,000 case files was relocated to a disused building on the outskirts of Kampala, and over the course of four months the team put the files in order, cleaned them, put them in boxes, and created a catalogue for the collection. The catalogue itself was over 2,800 pages long.

In June 2019, this important archive was moved into the premises of the Uganda National Archives, where it will be opened for researchers and students to use.

Posted 28th, June 2019
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