We are back in the office of Serious Crime at CID headquarters where I am awaiting whatever the state had in store for me. I was restless because the police were deliberately playing delaying tactics. I left the chair and sat on the floor to get the feel of what prison-cell life is going to be like. Kataratambi and company were shocked and asked me to sit on the chair, but I refused saying there is not going to be a chair for me in prison. Later, I lay down on the cold, dusty office floor – to taste how my night is going to be. Mental preparation is the key to success in everything we seek to do and achieve. I started anticipating the worst in jail – beatings, hunger, homosexual rape etc either at the hands of a brutal and callous dictatorship or at the hands of inmates or both.
After 6pm, the CID officers led by the Officer in Charge of Serious Crime, Senior Superintendent of Police, James Habuchiriro, began interrogating me. (Habuchiriro was later to become a friend. He was killed a few months later by an angry UPDF soldier two days after I had had a drink with him. I had learnt from him that the case of rape against Kiiza Besigye was never handled by his office. It was smuggled into court through the office that handles terrorism). He gave me a charge and caution statement. The charge was to be sedition i.e. that I had made statements, which were likely to cause public disaffection in the person of the president and the government as by law established. Then caution statement said that anything I said would be used against me in the courts of law and that I had a right to remain silent. I read both and signed on them.
The CID officers began to read me the statements I had made on radio and asked me to respond. Did you say that Museveni has totally failed to ensure security in northern Uganda? I said yes I did. For twenty years the northern region of this country has been under constant rebellion. This government, led by Mr. Museveni has failed to ensure security of person and property in that region. Did you say the president is a goon? They asked. Absolutely NO, I answered. Did you say that you Andrew Mwenda know security better than President Museveni? Yes, I said that on radio. It is my opinion that I am not just better, I am extremely better than him and I think he is a mediocre in that field.
Did you say government of Uganda killed Garang? I answered that I said that in my opinion, the government of Uganda should take political responsibility for the death of Garang because it allowed him to board a helicopter when it was already late in the evening, and was flying into bad weather, over a region that is rebel infested. That way government put Garang’s life in danger. Did you say that UPDF soldiers live like pigs? Yes I answered. I got that statement from comments made by the minister of defence Amama Mbabazi that UPDF soldiers live like pigs. It went on for one and half hours.
By this time, it was dark and past 7.30 pm. I played the game to the script, well knowing all the delay was meant to leave no time for me to go home. My destination was either CPS cells or Luzira. At 7.30 PM I was put in a saloon car where I sat in the rear seats with two CID officers – one in front, one behind with me to CPS. Throughout all this exercise, I did not want any favours from the state or anyone. If I am to be a free man, and Uganda a free country, then me, and many others must be willing to sacrifice our lives and our social and material comfort.
I knew that jail is a miserable and sad place to be – even for an hour. Yet because I know it to be part of the menu of being a journalist in Africa, I have spent seven years preparing my mind for it. I suppressed every feeling of resignation and appealed to my sense of purpose and mission, knowing that the cause for which I would be going to jail – freedom and liberty – is worth the sacrifice. Friends warned me about the cold prison floor, about the bad food, about possible beating, torture and homosexual rape – if not at the hands of the state, at least at the hands of inmates.
“African governments can be extremely brutal and inhuman,” many of my friends have warned me over the years whenever they asked me to tone down my language. I would tell them if African governments were not that brutal and inhuman, my freedom would not be under threat. To be free, I must be willing to sacrifice. “But the prison floor is very cold, and the food is very bad,” they would tell me. I am not seeking Sheraton Hotel standards in prison, I would answer otherwise it would not be prison. Then the threat: “they will sodomise you.” Well if that is the price to pay for freedom, truly it is a cheap price.
Prison breaks people’s hearts, cripples their morale and causes despair. To cope with these challenges, most prisoners tend to convert to religion, believe in the higher being called God in order to keep body and soul together. Unfortunately, I do not believe in God and have failed to have faith in the omnipotent. Pretentious Christians denounce me, but I remind them that Jesus Christ, whom they claim to follow, would embrace me. Jesus said he did not come for the righteous but the sinners; he sent his disciples to spread the gospel to non-believers like me, not to preach to the converted. But while I lack faith in God, I have it in human freedom and liberty. While Christians rely on the scriptures for inspiration, I rely on books of/on liberation.
As we drove to CPS, the words of Kwame Nkrumah in his book Africa Must Unite kept ringing in my head: “Freedom is not a commodity that is given to the enslaved upon demand. It is the precious reward, the shining trophy of struggle and sacrifice.” As a child, I had read about Mahtma Ghandhi, Martin Luther King Jn., Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Ben Bella, Patrice Lumumba, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Amilcar Cabral, and other leaders of African liberation movements.
I had read Lumumba’s letter to his wife just before his death, and could recite it word for word when I was still in primary school. “Neither brutality nor cruelty nor torture will bring me to ask for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head unbowed and my faith unshakeable and with the profound trust in the destiny of my country, rather than live under subjection and disregard for sacred principles,” he had written. As a child, I used to recite these words to my self and even cry in admiration. “They have corrupted some of our compatriots and bribed others,” Lumumba had gone on in a defiant tone, “Dead or alive, free or in prison by order of imperialists, it is not myself who counts.”
I had also read with admiration Mandela’s concluding remarks during the Rivonia Trial. “Throughout my lifetime… I have cherished the ideal of a free and democratic South Africa in which all people live in harmony. It is the ideal for which I am prepared to live, fight for and achieve, and if need be, it is the ideal for which I am prepared to die.” I had met Mandela in 1990 when he was visiting here in Kampala and recited for him his speech, and he had hugged me and kissed me on the forehead. At 10 years I would recite it to friends in primary school, as I did to the speech by Nasser to the UN General Assembly after the assassination of Lumumba, and the speech by Col. Ojwuku when he was declaring the independence of Biafra from Nigeria, and his prayer.
“And if we must die,” Ojwuku’s prayer read, “let us die in the fatal effort of preserving our identity from absorption. Let our children eat garri and die of kwashakol. Let us be pressed to the wall and topple into the grave. We are better dead than living without a shadow.” I also remembered Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire, when still a revolutionary in 1985 telling us that he would rather die on his feet than live on his knees. These words energised me as I removed my boots and prepared to go into the underground prison. At that point, there was nothing the state could do to me that would shake my faith in freedom and liberty. Neither jail, nor torture, not even murder would have changed my determination.