About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Museveni hates local business

I argued last week that there is a small but very vocal group of Ugandans who have taken their legitimate anger against the regime of Yoweri Museveni into a condemnation of the Ugandan society generally. This trend is beneficial to Museveni and company because a cynical political class that despises its own people cannot be a vehicle for progressive change. This lesson was vividly brought to me during a lunch discussion with a Western diplomat about our nations major challenges.

Monday, November 24, 2008

When Uganda arrests its most prominent journalist

By Andrew Rice

Being the most prominent journalist in Uganda is a little like having the best arm in the New York Mets' bullpen--the honor is a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. But in a country where reporters are customarily bought off, threatened, or shunned by public officials, Andrew Mwenda is someone unique: a figure larger than most of the people he covers. Mornings, Mwenda's byline appears in Uganda's main independent newspaper, where he routinely exposes stories of government skullduggery and scandal. Evenings, he conducts a rollicking political talk show on a popular radio station, hosting everyone from shady generals to exiled presidents to Western visitors like foreign aid activist Jeffrey Sachs. In the hours in between, Mwenda can be seen holding court beneath a shady tree at an outdoor Indian restaurant in downtown Kampala, attired in a tailored suit, trading gossip and spouting opinions. Imagine Bob Woodward and Chris Matthews wrapped into one diminutive, thirty something, hyperactive, pipsqueak-voiced package, and you start to get the idea. When the Ugandan police came to arrest Mwenda last week, on charges of sedition, a lot of his friends wondered, "What took them so long?"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Uganda soars even if its leaders sink

A few weeks ago, a Western diplomat invited a couple of us to lunch to discuss the major challenge facing our nation and what the West should do(I would have preferred should not do) about it. As I listened to Ugandan colleagues speak, I got worried. They denounced our lack of good leadership and poured scorn on the quality of our government. Here I agreed with them entirely. Then they moved beyond this to a more generalised attack on Ugandan society as being ignorant, lazy, complacent, cowardly, and more. This failure to separate the failures of the Yoweri Museveni regime from the wider Ugandan society concerned me deeply.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 1: Background to my arrest

The Chinese have a saying that a wise man looks for an opportunity in every problem while a stupid person looks for a problem in every opportunity. Thus, when Criminal Investigations Department (CID) officer, Charles Kataratambi, called me at 3.30pm on Friday August 12, 2005 to report at CID headquarters, I knew that the trouble I had been anticipating had finally come – but that also, here was an opportunity. What was this opportunity to be? I will return to this later in this series.

Two days earlier, on Wednesday August 10, BBC news anchorman, Robin Lustig and producer, David Edmonds came to my office for an interview about media freedom in Uganda. They had many questions: Is Uganda democratising? Are the media free? I told them I couldn’t give one answer since the political terrain in Uganda is a meeting ground of contradictory movements.
The media has two elements, I said: one is political, the other juridical. At the level of politics, President Yoweri Museveni personally and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) generally have demonstrated commendable respect for freedom of the press. If you listen to some political talk shows on private FM radio stations, I told Lastig and Edmonds, you would know that Uganda’s media are as free as, or even freer than, in the United States or any other democracy. People even call the president a killer, a thief and walk home sure that no one will follow them, I said.

And???? The expression on their faces was eagerly asking. I told them that at the juridical level, i.e. if you look at the statute books in Uganda, the legal regime governing the media reads like it was drawn by a committee of five eminent men – Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. Over the years the NRM has never repealed even one anti media law. On the contrary, it has reinforced them. However, I hastened to add, the government has been very restrained to use the Stalinist legal regime to clump down on the media.

Why????? Their facial expression again seemed to ask me. I told them that once in a while, the government does appeal to these laws to lock up a journalist or drag them to courts of law. The purpose, I said, is not to prosecute the case and win it, but to intimidate journalists so that we can learn to censor ourselves. The bad laws therefore hang on our heads like the sword of domiciles, I said. How about the future? They asked me. I said that President Museveni seems hell-bent on clinging to power. As some of his close colleagues are opposing him, he will increasingly act like a wounded buffalo. The future of freedom in Uganda is very bleak as an intolerant and extremist faction has taken control.

And how about yourself? Do you feel safe? You are an outspoken and critical journalist, they asked. I told them that I have spent the last seven years of my career as a journalist preparing myself for any eventuality – jail, torture, death, and the possible planting of evidence against me in order to frame me of all sorts crimes or just humiliate me. I always convince myself that Uganda is a dictatorship, I said, so that when it strikes, I am not taken by surprise. Yet, I am also part of the contradiction because many times I tend to act and behave as if Uganda is a free and democratic society. Possibly I instinctively feel so.

Later that same day, President Museveni sounded out his warning at Kololo during a funeral of those Ugandans who died with former Sudanese Vice President, Lt. Gen. John Garang. “These newspapers,” the president said while the audience cheered him in loud admiration, “I am the elected leader of Uganda, I therefore have the mandate to run their affairs (sic). I will no longer tolerate a newspaper, which is like a vulture… I will simply close it! Finish! End! Gasiya tu!” To me this sounded like former dictator Idi Amin, not Museveni.

But the president was not done: “I have been seeing this young boy, Mwenda, writing about Rwanda, writing about Sudan, writing about UPDF, he must stop. Completely!” Again, the use of the words “stop” and “completely” each as a sentence is a very common Idi Amin expression if you have listened to the former dictator. The president went on, “He is an expert on SPLA, and he knows the minutes which took place where… he must stop.”

Two things struck me from the president’s speech. He was announcing a new law arrogating himself powers to close newspapers. But Uganda has a constitution which gives law making power to only one institution – parliament. There is no law in this country that gives powers to the president to close newspapers. The last president to rule by decree in this country was Idi Amin. To his credit, Amin’s actions were at least legal since he had suspended the constitution upon taking power and declared that he would rule by decree.

If you live in a country governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of a man’s ego, you would sleep safely and shrug at such a statement. This was not to be. I was determined to resist this attempt to establish an Aminist regime in Uganda. I was willing to die the next day than live under such tyranny. On my show that evening, I hit back saying Museveni has no legal power to close a newspaper, and joked that if he closed Monitor, I would run for president. To prove his point, the next day government shut down KFM radio – illegally. To demonstrate his paranoia about someone even joking about seeking his job, he threw me in jail.

President Museveni had claimed in Kololo that because he was elected president, he has “the mandate to manage” affairs of newspapers. Really? He then decreed what journalists can write or not write about. Although I know President Museveni’s propensity to disregard the rule of law, I still felt that he would respect some minimum standards. I was wrong. He closed KFM and threw me in jail. Possibly he and his handlers thought this would scare me. They were dead wrong. I have always held the view that democracy is not a gift from rulers. It is a result of struggle by the ruled. Indeed, most democracy movements have been struggles, not for power, but to create a self-limiting power.

My discomfort with opposition leader, Dr. Kiiza Besigye, has been to equate his struggle for power from Museveni as a struggle for democracy in Uganda. However well intentioned he may be, the trappings and imperatives of power can corrupt Besigye too. I was therefore certain that my role as a civil society person, located in the mass media, is to stand in firm, very firm defence of my right to free expression and to liberty. Museveni and his coterie of political hangers on were not going to scare me at all – not even by closing the KFM or even Monitor.

It was clear to me that Museveni and his group underestimated the length to which I am willing to go to defend my right to be a free human being. I had once had a meeting in 2000 at Nomo Gallery with Sunday Monitor’s acting editor, Charles Odoobo Bichachi, and two UPDF generals – Elly Tumwine and David Tinyefuza. They wanted to know my source of a story I had written about what had transpired in a High Command meeting chaired by Museveni. They wanted me to reveal my sources. They cajoled, tried to convince, and finally they blew it – they tried to threaten me. “You could be arrested for this,” Tinyefuza chipped in. I told them to organize a firing squad at Constitutional Square and promised to drive myself there for it in defense of the principle of not revealing my source. Possibly they thought I was joking. I wasn’t!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 2: Preparation for jail

My sources at state house told me that on Thursday August 11, 2005 President Yoweri Museveni’s handlers had taken him the recording of my show of the previous evening. I was told that Museveni had raged about it baying for my blood and that of Monitor Publications Limited, the publishers of Daily Monitor, Sunday Monitor and owners of KFM radio. Although a lot of what I said on radio was in jest, Museveni and handlers wanted action. They wanted me in jail. The perfect day to achieve this is Friday so that I could stay in for the weekend.

On Friday morning August 12th, I called my girl friend Fifi then in Los Angeles, California, and told her I was sure I was going to jail. I had spent the previous three years preparing her for such an eventuality. Since I have sounded the alarm many times and it has not materialised, she still held hope that it would turn out to be like “all the other times”. “Honey,” I told her, “this time it is serious.” Though she sounded worried, she still seemed unconvinced. “Be careful,” she said. Fifi is the most culturally refined and calm human being you can meet. She has largeness of mind to see the big picture, and amplitude of comprehension.

The second person I worried about is my mother. She would be devastated. I knew how much pain it would cause her. She is a supporter and admirer of Museveni. “Baitu omusaija tomuleka?” She has always warned me in Rutoro meaning “why don’t you leave the man alone?” My mother thinks Museveni is a good man who brought peace to Uganda. She has remained oblivious of the crisis in northern Uganda where Museveni’s rule has been characterised by devastation for nearly twenty years now.

It has never been my intention to seek to change her views since many in my immediate family are Museveni loyalists too. We are a very liberal family and our political differences have never been a basis of any friction among us. On the contrary, they have deeply shaped our acceptance, tolerance and love of intellectual diversity. I always tell my mother that I criticise Museveni in order to correct him because he needs others to tell him when he does something wrong. “I am therefore his strategic allay, always letting him know his mistakes where many around him are afraid to tell him,” I tell her.

That morning I dressed in my cowboy boots, a black pair of jeans without a belt and a KFM shirt. I left my wallet, credit and debit card pack, keys and all at home. I told my neighbours that I was going to jail – most likely for four months, but if things are good at the very least for a weekend. I had a German television crew to interview me that morning on the politics of Africa’s development crisis. I told them that I was going to jail later in the evening for disagreeing with the president and that if they need me later, my address would be CPS.

“You don’t look worried?” one of them asked me. “Does David Berkam look worried when he is going unto the football pitch?” I asked ironically, “Jail is the home of any journalist in a dictatorship.” We laughed it off and they wished me “good luck” and left. I had spent almost seven years of my career as a journalist preparing for jail, but the government of Museveni had restrained itself. As my friend Andrew Rice was later to write in The New Republic, a New York magazine, when the police finally called, the question was: “What took them so long?”

At exactly 3.30pm on Friday, I was in the office of our Managing Director, Conrad Nkutu discussing the closure of KFM when a call came in. “Andrew, this is Charles Kataratambi,” the voice said after I had identified myself. I burst out laughing. Kataratambi sits in the “Office of Serious Crime” at CID headquarters. For the last four years, I have been severally summoned to CID to answer questions and/or record statements regarding articles I have written in Monitor or statements I have made on radio. Each time it is to Kataratambi that I report. And each time I leave with a warning to “watch my mouth”. I never have!

Over the years, a relationship of mutual obligation has developed between the two of us. When he called so late on Friday, I knew what the game was. Go to CID, be taken to court when it is late to get bail and then be sent to Luzira for a weekend. I informed everyone at my office that I was going to spend the weekend “at the beach”. By this time I was receiving calls from my friends in all the major western embassies asking me: “what can we do for you?” “Nothing,” I would say, “I am not planning to go to exile.” African embassies never seem to care.

The journey to CID HQ
I had spent the entire morning and afternoon on my computer in my office communicating to the outside world about the closure of KFM. Over the years, I have established vital networks with media organisations, academic institutions, think tanks and government bureaucracies across Europe and North America because of my constant interaction with academics, journalists and bureaucrats, aid experts and activists from these countries.

I sent an email to all those whose addresses I could find with one subject: “A new Mugabe emerging in Africa.” I told them about the closure of KFM, but did not refer to my impending arrest.

By mid morning, I was besieged with responses – phone and email – from BBC, CNN, Channel 4 Television News, The Economist, The Guardian, SABC Africa, Washington Times, Washington Post, New York Times, Newsweek, etc friends at western embassies, in academia, international organisations to protect journalists etc. I cannot recall how may interviews I gave to media organisations in Europe, North America, South Africa, the Middle East and even East Asia on that day. I learnt that the EU was meeting in Kampala to discuss the closure of KFM, the Americans and British were “concerned,” etc. But I knew that western governments have historically proved ineffectual in such situations in Africa.

The most important constituency were the people of Uganda whom I was confident were appalled by this action. They may seem quiet and even some may feign support for repression out of opportunism, but their sense of moral outrage, the desire to resist etc were all there. There is considerable demand for democratic rule in this country. What is lacking is the supply of political leadership and organisation. Individual and organisational agency is everywhere difficult to come by. Our people are not passive. Rather, they lack the supply of effective leadership and organisation to catalyse their spirit of resistance.

Thus, when Kataratambi called me to CID headquarters at 3.30pm, I had spread word on KFM closure to the international media – and world. “I will spread this to the British media,” Michela Wrong, former Financial Times Africa correspondent and author of the classic – In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz, possibly the best book ever written by a western journalist on an African dictatorship wrote to me. “We do not have white farmers in Uganda to attract western attention,” I told my friends in media abroad, “But we can still do just a little.”

I drove from office to home with Simon Kasyate and a KFM car behind me. I packed my car and entered a KFM car to CID headquarters after calling my lawyer, James Nangwala, to find me there. At home, my neighbour Dina looked deeply worried and was in tears. A pretty young lady, Diana who was visiting me could not believe that I was leaving her in the house alone to go to jail. James was on the way to teach a class at Law Development Centre (LDC) but cancelled his journey there. At 4pm, I was in Kataratambi’s office. “Here I am,” I announced myself to the CID officers in Kataratambi’s office, “I am all here for you to bite, to chew, to swallow or to spit.” With that, the game began.

At CID headquarters, I was joined by our company lawyer, Ann Abeja Muhwezi, Nangwala and Kasyate. The police asked Kasyate to leave the room and join other reporters and photographers who had gathered outside to witness the event. I was taken to a nearby office where I waited for nearly two hours. At one point, our Managing Director, Conrad Nkutu came and asked to sit with me but was stopped by the police. I was becoming restless.

African leaders still hostage to Stone Age politics

Presidential pledges in Uganda today stand at a record Shs 120 billion. These are promises of assistance the president makes to different groups, individuals and institutions and are paid for by the state. They have been accumulating over the years, some for over a decade. Intended beneficiaries have waited for years only to see their hopes frustrated.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 3: Playing mental games at CID headquarters

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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 4: Entering the cell

The thick metallic cell door slammed behind me. I had the juggle of the keys and the snap of a locking padlock as the police officer that had taken me to the underground cell at CPS locked it behind me. For a moment, my mind went to the first sentence of Arthur Koestler’s classic novel, Darkness at Noon. It is written in bold letters thus: “THE CELL DOOR SLAMMED BEHIND RUBASHOV.” The second sentence says, “He remained leaning against the door for a few seconds and lit a cigarette.” I do not smoke, I was not alone.

We are back to that fateful evening of Friday August 12, 2005 when the government of President Yoweri Museveni threw me in jail accusing me of daring exercise my right to liberty and free speech. Apparently, as we arrived at CPS, we found electricity had gone off. The police officers driving me in the car cursed the evening. “Do they load shade you regularly,” I asked. “No,” was the immediate answer, “This is the first time electricity is off in a long time.”

For a moment, I suspected foul play but I was keen not to let the police officers know my anxiety. Why the darkness? On the day I come to jail? Again, I appealed to my sense of purpose and mission and braced for the worst. As the thick metallic door to the underground cell at CPS was locked behind me, I met two young men. I could not even recognise their faces. It was dark outside; that should give you an idea of how dark it was in an underground cell. They asked me for money, and I told them I had none. “Let us check his pockets,” one said and I told them to take anything they found.

Meantime, my mind was telling me this is only the introduction. For all I could suspect, these could be thugs hired by the state to give me “hell” in jail. One young man asked his colleague: “take him to my place; I will deal with him later.” I walked down the dark staircase. My head was throbbing. I had spent the previous night speaking to international media organisations about the closure of KFM, had gone to office without breakfast, did not eat lunch, had not taken dinner and had not rested for nearly 28 hours. Fatigue was now begging to take its toll.

Along the staircase, I stopped and told my young escort to sit with me. “I have a bad headache,” I said, “I need to sit down and relax. After sitting for a while, the young man insisted that I go to where his “boss” asked me to be taken. I obliged. We reached the end of the staircase and I landed on a place with a mat, a pillow and blanket. “Mnh!!!???” my mind said, “Am I being prepared for sodomy?” What did “boss” mean that he would deal with me later? I was too tired to even think of a response to any provocation they meted out.

I had been on that comfortable place for a few minutes when another guy came and asked who I was. As my “escort” tried to explain, he just waved him to silence and asked me to follow him. By this time my headache was running out of control. I desperately needed to sleep. I followed the guy into a large hallway and there I could see dim images of groups of prisoners sitting talking to each other, courtesy of a fire in the cell. I walked to the first group, bent and greeted them and asked if I could join them. They welcomed me with open arms.

Joining inmates

I was later to learn that because I came amidst darkness, prisoners did not recognise my arrival to raise a hue and cry. A gentleman in his mid 40s asked me to introduce myself. “My name is Andrew Mwenda,” I said. “Andrew Mwenda Live!” Many prisoners roared back in chorus, and then there was silence suggesting disbelief. Then a guy who had come in only the previous day, unfortunately I forgot his name, told them that he had heard KFM had been closed because of what I had said. The situation changed dramatically.

In ten minutes, word spread through the cells that I was among them. The vast majority of the prisoners knew about me. The others who did not were told that I am a journalist. Intense competition ensued whereby every prisoner with a problem now wanted me to interview him, to tell me his story so that I can tell it on KFM. “He also writes for Monitor,” another prisoner said; then all the others wanted me to write about their plight. Then something struck me: many prisoners, some of them do not speak English at all would tell others that “Ono omusajja alwanira obuyinza (this man fights for freedom).”

My headache just disappeared, as did the fatigue. For the next one hour, I was locked in intense discussions. Prisoners wanted to know why I had been arrested. I told them I had disagreed with the president. Many were happy that they could be in the same jail as someone whose crime is to disagree with the president. “Eh, pulezident namuvuma ku ralle,” they would say, “kati nono Mwenda navuma pulezident ku KFM radio. Nze mbimanyi, kyo kyebamukwatira.” Meaning: “the president insulted this guy at a rally and this guy insulted him back on radio. That is why he has been arrested.” It was interesting how prisoners understood the issues.

I told the prisoners it would be better if they told me their problems rather than me telling them mine. I want to hear your stories so that I can write about them. A new comradeship had been born. In a few minutes, prisoners had brought a pen, others pieces of paper, and I began recording their names. Many told me they had been dumped into the underground cell at CPS by an organisation called Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU) or the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI). Some had been in detention without appearing in court to be charged for over five months, others had never even written a statement. Several prisoners had been tortured by VCCU before being dumped at CPS where the police did not have power to release them or take them to court.

“This is a goldmine,” the journalist in me said. And that is when I was called upstairs. “Andrew Mwenda,” someone called out, “you are needed upstairs.” Jesus Christ, I said to myself, who is interrupting this sumptuous dinner of prison tales? I wondered. I went up only to find our Managing Director, Conrad Nkutu, had brought me food, juice, a blanket and pillow, a T-shirt to change into, toothbrush, toothpaste, a deodorant, towel etc. I almost collapsed of laughter. “Listen,” I told Conrad, “I am in jail and please let me be in jail. I do not want Sheraton Hotel standard meals and beddings here. I want live the true experience of an African jail.”

After exchanging a few pleasantries (Conrad looked really worried about me), I realised it was impolite to reject the things he had brought as that would tantamount to disregarding his care. I took the things and asked to be allowed to re-join my fellow inmates quickly. The conversations in the go-down were animating. Somehow, I had fallen in love with the cell. I ran back down, dumped the things given to me in a corner and told prisoners that I was going to sleep and eat “like” them and “with” them. I had not settled to listening to all the prison talk when I was called again, this time it was Salaam Musumba. She told me Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, David Pulkol, James Musinguzi, Jack Sabiti had all come to see me, and were supporting my cause.

We exchanged a few words. I cannot even remember what Salaam brought me. I now told the police that I was very busy and did not want more visitors. “Busy doing what?” the police officer asked me and I answered, “This cell is a journalist’s goldmine,” and the police officer locked the door, smiling reassuringly. The Uganda Police force is a pro democracy institution and the police officers at CPS treated me with great respect. Many told me they shared my views and looked to me with admiration. Did anyone else come to see me that night? I would not even remember. I called a few prisoners who had become close to me and gave them the food and juice brought to me.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 5: The first night

Then there was a young boy of 14 years who had been arrested as an idler. I worried about him, as he looked angry, miserable and lost. I gave him food too. The police officer in charge of the prisoners had come downstairs and asked me to sleep in a room, which had mats and blankets in it. It is reserved for the elderly and the sick. He had been told that I suffer from acute asthma allergies. I told him I wanted to sleep with all other prisoners on the cold floor. Later, I was to use that room to keep things brought to me, which I would distribute to prisoners just like President Museveni distributes patronage to politicians.

By the time I went to bed, it was past 1am. I had not eaten anything in 35 hours. I had not rested over the same period and was completely exhausted. The result is that I had the most comfortable sleep in a long time. I slept without the usual violent dreams, sweating and turning as I often do. On my side was a robbery suspect, near my feet a petty thief, then a pick pocket slept with his arm on me, the gun dealer was snoring near my head while the rapist had his leg leaning on my tummy.

I was rudely woken up from my deep slumber at 7am on Saturday morning by a loud banging of the metallic door in the underground cell to find all prisoners lining up for the morning parade. I sat down on the floor with fellow inmates and listened to the roll call. We sat on the western side of the hallway, and each time someone’s name was read out, they would cross and sit on the eastern side. When my name was read, the police officer signalled me to remain at my sit. I refused – again to be treated like any other prisoner – and walked across the hallway and sat down in a queue with other inmates. The police were very polite to me.

I found that prisoners had woken up as early as 5am and had been cleaning the cells. Somehow, they did not bother me at all. I also discovered they have leaders in jail. “Boss” was actually a young 17 years old boy from Bushenyi called Brian Mugabe who was the chairman of the prisoners. He was brought to CPS by VCCU and had been there for two months now. He told me he had never recorded a statement, or signed a charge and caution statement, or appeared in court. So why are you here? I asked him. I do not know. He answered. One day he told me he was accused of robbery. Later a police officer told me that he had been brought to CPS on allegations of murder. Jeez!!

But why don’t they take him to court? I asked. The police officer told me that his case was handed to CID headquarters by VCCU. “We at CPS are not responsible for taking inmates to court,” the officer told me, “That is the work of CID. Our job is to keep people.” I was to discover that contrary to claims in the media, police at CPS do not torture prisoners. In fact, I found a relationship of mutual respect and accommodation, and in some cases even mutual trust, between the prisoners and the police. If there is credit to give to the Museveni administration at CPS, it is the civilised manner in which police treats prisoners.

Below “boss” was a team of other leaders selected by him, some by the prisoners and others by the police officers depending on circumstances called RPs. I never came to know what that means. However, I suspected it to be Regimental Police – a status used in army barracks for those soldiers who handle some administrative or disciplinary responsibility. There were about six of them: one in charge of food, another for cleanliness, etc. All were friends to Mugabe. Somehow, Mugabe was afflicted with a problem of money. All the time he was asking for money. I wondered what business this 17 years old boy had to require cash inside police cells.

Receiving visitors

At 8am, I was called upstairs. I found KFM Program Manager, Peter Kaba, had brought me breakfast, a meal CPS prisoners are not served. There was tea with sugar, bread, juice, biscuits, etc. He had also brought me a bottle of hot water. I found my nephew Patrick Kwezi there – in tears, in company of other friends and relatives. Patrick hugged me like he wanted to attach himself to my body and I was somehow overcome with emotion – seeing him so devastated when I was actually feeling at my very best of spirits. I was anxious to conclude talking to visitors and return to the cells to continue my interviews with inmates.

I had been down for less than 30 minutes when I was called up again to find my sister Margaret, an aunt and cousins. They had brought me sumptuous breakfast of flasks of tea, eggs, sausages, baked beans. They had also brought me shirts and T-shirts to change into, a cardigan pullover, a warm jacket etc. I almost collapsed out of laughter. I told them I was in jail and wanted to live that way. I was not ready for Sheraton food. That is what I eat daily. I was also not ready for good or warm clothing. I needed to live the hard, true life of Ugandan jail.

Margaret was almost convinced I was mad, and that my asthma allergies would kill me. She pleaded, cajoled and finally even threatened. “When you fall sick I will not come here to see you,” she threatened. I knew it was an empty threat. She would be the first. I became even more defiant and refused to be pampered. I did my best to demonstrate to Margaret that I was okay, that I had good company in the cells; that the journalist in me had fallen into a goldmine etc. My aunt Keturah could not believe me. Margaret’s daughter Yvette was looking at me in silent wonderment and left without saying a word.

I ran back down to the cells, telling them I could not wait to be re-united with my fellow in-mates. In the cells, most prisoners spoke Luganda. I understand Luganda perfectly but have never become fluent in it because I never speak it. In jail, I had to speak it. Practice, the saying goes, makes perfect. Within those hours, I discovered I was mastering speaking Luganda! A few minutes later, I was called up again only find Monitor’s Simon Kasyate, New Vision’s Robert Kabushenga (just before he went on the Capital Gang program), my friend Robert Kasango and Blake Lambert etc among my guests. “Thanks to the NRM government,” I told my pals, “Now I can perfect my skills in Luganda.”

Blake had brought me a book by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad titled The Bookseller of Kabul – a typical Mzungu attitude. Ugandans brought me food, warm clothing and beddings – things that provide material comfort, certainly a very kind and generous thing. Blake brought something that would improve my knowledge and occupy my mind. It tells a lot about how differences in the levels of development bring differences in perception of people’s challenges. As fresh graduates from a peasant society which lives on the margin of subsistence, we Africans tend to privilege material comfort over intellectual pursuits. People from industrial societies tend to privilege mental health over physical health because physical wellbeing is taken for granted.

I kept running up and down the staircase to and from the underground cell. I divided my time between meeting visitors upstairs and listening to the experiences of inmates in the cell. Many inmates competed for my ear so that I could listen to their difficulties, some hoping that somehow I had a magic solution up my sleeve. I went upstairs sometime before midday where I met with my brother Isaac, nephew Chris, and Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu. Isaac made me speak to my mother. I knew she was devastated, but I wanted to assure her of my good health. “Police are treating me well, and I am having a good time,” I told her, “you should not worry.” I knew there was no amount of words to console her. I also spoke to my dad who was as hopeful as ever. He has seen me grow from one crisis to another – always coming out even stronger than before. Later, I returned up stairs to meet with a host of people from the media fraternity led by my former boss and mentor, Wafula Oguttu. Waf (as he is popularly known at Monitor), is a man of great integrity and moral values. “There are many more Ugandans who cannot wait to join you in jail if that is what it takes for us to be free,” he told me. It was a great encouragement. I also talked to my mother and father on phone for the second time, courtesy of my sister Margaret. My brother in the army, Kayanja, called and we charted. Later, I was so happy to talk to my lovely girlfriend Fifi – always calm and kind. She encouraged me to be strong and to keep warm. “I love you very much,” she told me.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 6: Taking time to contemplate

I mentioned in the last article that Canadian journalist, Blake Lambert, brought me a book by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad titled The Bookseller of Kabul. Later that Saturday, I informed the police that I did not want to receive visitors for a few hours. I wanted time to ponder on the obstacles to democratisation in Africa. Back inside the cell, I also cancelled all engagements to interview inmates – mainly those suspects arrested by VCCU, tortured and dumped in the cells several months without as much as recording a statement, leave alone appearing in court. I sat down in the private room for the elderly and the sickly for an hour of philosophical contemplation.

In the cell, I pondered about how our democratic process in Uganda has been crippled by bread and butter issues: Members of Parliament are bribed to change political positions for as less as Shs 5m. Imagine! Some trade values in exchange for a ministerial job. What a shame! And what is the ultimate aim? To drive a good car and live in a good house! The price: destroying any possibility of sustaining progressive change in our countries and therefore the future of our children. Here is the problem of Africa: in other regions and periods, democracy was a product of middle class struggle. In Africa, however, the middle class has failed to provide the impetus for democratic struggle. Why?

First, I thought it is because of our peasant background – a background of poverty and deprivation. Catapulted into the middleclass by education and a job that comes with it mainly through state employment, we find ourselves with material objects of modernity like a BMW car, a beautiful house in Bugolobi, a fancy mobile phone, dinner at Khana Kazana, a trip to Europe and North America etc. We come to worship these objects so much so that we are even willing to trade our countries, our values, our future and that of our children just to gain or retain possession of these objects. As a class, we need some soul searching.

Yet this is not new to our continent. Pre colonial African chiefs traded the most energetic of our people into slavery for trinkets and sweets thus depleting the most important resources for social and material advancement of our societies – healthy human beings. At the morrow of colonialism, most of our chiefs sold our sovereignty to protect their privileges as the colonial state was constructed on the platform of collaboration. Collaborators were given jobs as a clerks or chiefs in the colonial administration. The benefits of modernity engendered by the colonial state – a government job, a modern house, education for children, a bicycle, etc went to those who collaborated with the colonial state.

This colonial structure left behind a legacy – a political culture so to speak – where most Africans pursue education to gain government employment in order to access the benefits of modernity. Consequently, the most critical part of our educated middle-class is a professional i.e. a consumer rather than a productive middleclass. Employment by the state to earn income to access the objects of modernity is the basis of social advancement in our countries. Thus a culture of privileging material objects over social and cultural values took root – we lost our souls.

Many, with so much love and care for my well being, have told me about sleeping on the cold floor, eating bad food, and the fear of homosexual rape! I agree all these are bad things to happen to someone. But isn’t the right to be a free person much more important? Isn’t the enjoyment of this right worth such a sacrifice? “We prefer self government with danger to tranquillity in servitude,” Kwame Nkrumah had said when the British argued that independence should be delayed because Africans had not mastered the art of self government. “We prefer complete freedom in poverty to riches in slavery,” Sekou Toure had said in opposition to the proposal by the French president, Charles De Gaulle, to give limited independence to their West African colonies so that they can remain under French dominion and receive French assistance.
These words had inspired many across Africa. As a child, I would sit in our home library to read biographies of Africa’s independence leaders. True, they later turned out to be as bad as, or even worse than, the colonial masters. Africans were to witness the cruel parody with which post colonial states dashed their hopes. But the founding fathers had been driven by a great idea – freedom. They spent years in jail; they endured hardship, insult and deprivation in determination to achieve freedom. The tragedy of Africa is that few colonial rulers unleashed the kind of barbarity and violence against Africans that post colonial African dictators themselves like Idi Amin, Samuel Doe, Mathias Nguema, Jean Bokasa were to unleash. The people of Acholi were better off under colonial rule than under Museveni’s rule.

After spending an hour in philosophical contemplation on Saturday morning, I decided to devote my afternoon to three things: discussions with inmates to hear their perspective on life, receiving visitors upstairs, and doing manual work in the cells. Saturday was possibly the most exciting day for me. I went back to the cells and joined fellow inmates. It was time for general cleaning. The leader of inmates, Brian Mugabe, was finding it difficult to get prisoners to clean toilets. Everyone was in the mood of resistance. I told prisoners that we are the ones who use the toilets and sleep on the dusty floor. If anyone suffers because the cells are dirty, it is us the inmates. So I grabbed a mopping rug, called the chairman and other inmates, and began to scrub the toilets.

Inmates were completely surprised to see me do the work. In fact I told the RPs to supervise me, almost forcing them to give me orders like saying “make that place better, repeat that place” etc. When other prisoners saw me bend and mop the toilet floors, their attitude to their work changed completely. All of them enthusiastically joined in the work. The next two hours were fantastic. We all worked together scrubbing walls, the floor and cleaning toilets. Then we began to fill water in containers and taking from one side of the cell to the place where we sleep. The communal and energetic way we did our work turned the entire exercise turned into huge fun – it became like playing soccer. I asked the police not to allow anymore visitors so that I can take time with prisoners. After that, I divided the prisoners into two teams – Manchester United and Arsenal to play soccer. The tournament was to be called Kisanja league. We asked the police to allow us have a football made from dry banana leaves to signify the Kisanja League. They never did.

Late that evening, I was called out of the cells again. This time, I was surprised to find CID officer in charge of “Serious Crime”, Charles Kataratambi as my visitor. I was not sure whether he would come to see my in jail, so I suspected he had come to interrogate me. However, as we walked to an adjacent office, I could guess who had quietly come to see me – Maj. Muhozi Keinerugaba, son of President Yoweri Museveni and a good friend. He was in the company of Capt. Johnson Namanya, also from the PGB. My relationship with the Museveni family and government has always been a confusing one.

I am always critical of the president and his government. Yet Museveni personally has always given me audience to talk to him – one phone or going to see him at state house. Even in our meetings, which are always of an intellectual nature, we disagree a lot but sometimes find areas of agreement. Museveni’s young brother Salim Saleh is a close friend to me. Indeed, my love of Saleh is my worst disease as a journalist. I always pray that something doesn’t happen to him, yet Saleh has an incredible propensity to stir up trouble for himself. Possibly it is because we share this common trait that we are close friends.

We hugged with Muhozi and laughed at each other. We were supposed to have dinner that weekend. Now we couldn’t! He said although he totally disagreed with what I said on radio, and thought I had run mad, he still felt as a friend he should come and sympathise with me. He called Saleh on phone and I talked to him. I had thought Saleh would say “be strong.” Instead he acted uncharacteristic of him and expressed profound anger with me. This is the second time Saleh expressed his anger to me in spite of my many provocations; the first time being when Museveni delayed to meet me at State House on a scheduled appointment and I stubbornly walked away in protest – only to find my phone in the car ringing. And who was on the line? Maj. Gen. Joseph Kony!

The last visitors that evening were Capt. Francis Babu, then minister of state for housing, and later Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire. Both wanted to discuss with the president the possibility of my release. I told them I wanted the law to follow its course.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 7: Talking to inmates

Sunday Morning, August 14th 2005, was my third day in jail. I got the Sunday papers early, and was disheartened to read that Chelsea had beaten Wigan one goal to nil in the dying seconds of injury time. This was the opening march of the English Premier League, and champions, Chelsea, had been billed to run over first time Premiership entrants, Wigan. However, Wigan had held Chelsea at bay for an entire 92 minutes, and in the dying seconds of the game even hit the crossbar. As fate would have it, Chelsea was rescued by a 93rd minute goal from Crespo. I almost cried reading the story. I brushed, showered and prepared for another busy day. Family and friends continued to come to visit me. My sister Margaret never gave up hope that I would accept home food and warm clothing, both of which I refused in spite of her persistence.

Later that day, I sat with inmates to listen to their experiences. One 17 years old boy called Benjamin Muzungu had an intriguing story. He was in jail because he defrauded his father of Shs 13m. A kid from a rich family, Benjamin stole his father’s cheque leaf and forged the old man’s signature to get the money. He wanted the cash to bribe some guys in town who were supposed to help him get a visa to the United Kingdom where he wanted to go and do God-knows-what. Colluding with some people in the bank whom he paid about Shs 4m, he got the Shs 9m, gave it to the visa guys before his father caught wind of the scam and had him thrown in jail. Benjamin had been the cell for two weeks without going to court. Somehow, he kept promising to apologise to his father, but never seemed to realise the gravity of his action.

The person I talked to most was a guy whom prisoners called nicknamed RDC – Resident District Commissioner. I suspect this nickname was due to his size and the dignity with which he carried himself. Otherwise, his real names were Ochieng Oketcho. He was descent guy who was in jail over some business disagreement with his associates. We read newspapers together and discussed politics. There were also four Tanzanian businessmen arrested by VCCU, robbed by CMI and dumped in CPS by God-knows-who and left there for two weeks – no appearance in court. One was a respectable doctor. He kept wondering why Uganda has so many security organisations – CMI, VCCU, ISO, SRPS, JATI, CID, SB, KAP, etc – all of them with powers of arrest. Uganda was later to witness yet another organisation – the Black Mamba Urban Hit Squad.

Another interesting prisoner was a middle aged man from Masaka. He was in jail over a land sale that had gone bad. His story gave me an insight into the challenges to land reform in Buganda. Two people have claims to land in Buganda – the mailo title holder, and the kibanja tenant. Under the 1998 land act, the kibanja tenant has a certificate of occupancy which confers upon them security of tenure. When buying land in Buganda, the purchaser has to contend with this double layered ownership. In this particular land dispute, the kibanja tenant sold at Shs 24m. However, this sale needs the consent of the mailo title holder.

According to the inmate, the title holder was given “a kanzu” (tunic), a token payment of about Shs 150,000. The new buyer, however, wanted title to his new possession. To achieve this, he paid an extra Shs 1.5m to the mailo title holder. At the end of the transaction, the kibanja tenant got Shs 24m while the owner of title got a paltry Shs 1.65m. Two things intrigued me in this transaction. First, the kibanja tenant got 1500 percent what the title holder got – what then is the importance of the title to one’s land in Buganda? Second, the buyer incurs higher transaction costs of seeking permission from two different owners of one piece of land. By privileging tenancy over title, the land act has devalued land ownership in Buganda. In future, I intend to do better research on this subject.

A more interesting inmate was Cyrus Sebuliba who was in jail on accusation of murder. His story had been covered in the press widely. He had been accused of killing a rich businessman named Wanje in downtown Kampala. Press reports claimed Sebuliba had spent an entire afternoon looking for his victim, whom he accused of tormenting him. After finding him late on the evening of Monday, August 8th, Sebuliba has grabbed Wanje and sliced him like a piece of bread – a gruesome murder. However, Sebuliba was deeply injured on the forehead, the press claimed he was injured by his victim when the later was defending himself. In prison, in mates told me he had been brought while bleeding profusely.

Sebuliba intrigued me greatly. He was always calm, and carried himself around in jail, apparently without any feeling of guilt or remorse. I concluded that this must be one of the most brutal men alive. I kept looking at him with undisguised disapproval and hostility, and I am sure he noticed it and returned the same favour. While other prisoners threw themselves at me like bees telling their stories, Sebuliba kept a distance. However, the journalist in me insisted I should talk to him. The first attempt was a disaster as he waved me off. The second was less discouraging, and the third was a success. We even shared food on one plate.

According to Sebuliba, he used to work near Mini Price Bata along Ben Kiwanuka Street where Wanje had a shop. Sometime in late July, a Murundi businesswoman lost her goods and Wanje accused Sebuliba of stealing them, and had police arrest him for a week. When released, Sebuliba returned to his place of work, only to be chased away by Wanje. Grudgingly, Sebuliba shifted to a place across the street. On the fateful day of August 8th 2005, Wanje had packed his car near Sebuliba’s new workstation. At 6.20pm, Wanje came to pick his car.

Sebuliba claims that when Wanje saw him, he beckoned him to come near, whereupon the businessman grabbed a machete from his car and struck at Sebuliba, cutting his forehead. Sebuliba claims that he grabbed Wanje and the wrestled to the ground. Wanje fell on top of Sebuliba, with the machete in his hands facing upward. Sebuliba pulled Wanje down, the businessman’s neck rammed into the machete, causing a deep cut. He was rushed to hospital from whence; Sebuliba was to learn later, Wanje died a few hours later. We shall wait to see what the courts will decide since Sebuliba’s story, if true, takes the case to self defence – at the very worst (if the case holds) from murder to manslaughter.

In many ways, Sebuliba’s story was instructive for me. After reading in the press the macabre way in which Wanje had died, I had already formed an opinion of Sebuliba that was very negative. However, staying with him in jail, watching his demeanour, sharing a plate of food with him, and taking time to listen to his story, I was able to reaffirm the importance of that principle of natural justice – never condemn someone without listening to their side of the story. Indeed, I was able to learn why Sebuliba remained calm, and kept a clear conscience and never seemed to feel any guilt whatsoever for the death of Wanje.

Inside the cells, I met many prisoners who pleaded innocence but were in jail for months on trumped up accusations. Some had been framed by their business rivals, others by those who desired their wives or girlfriends, while many by people who had historical family grudges. Yet, I was also able to meet prisoners who confessed their crimes to me, and I promised never to reveal their secrets. They needed my “advice” on how to beat the law. I told them that first, I was not a lawyer; second, my advice is that they confess to the police and seek forgiveness from the state and/or those they wronged. The last advice would bore them. I remember one gun smuggler who tried to plead innocence and upon tough cross-examination by me, admitted he had been colluding with soldiers and policemen to steal guns from armouries and selling them to robbers.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 8: Testimonies of government torture vistims

Sunday was also as hectic as Saturday as I continued to receive visitors upstairs and interview inmates down stairs. I had suddenly realised that my days at CPS would come to an end very fast, so I had to work around the clock to finish my interviews. On Saturday night we were joined by many more prisoners, the most interesting one being a UPDF lieutenant (now I cannot remember his name) and another young man (whose name I cannot remember). The second young man is a son to a one Dr. Seezi, and has a gist to retain humour and keep his smile even in the face of adversity. They had been arrested at Garden City after a bar brawl. Those provided my Sunday morning with interesting tales.

Later that day, my employers came to see me led by Nation Media Group Chief Executive Officer, Wilfred Kiboro. They were brought by our Managing Director, Conrad Nkutu, and included NMG board members Okello, Abdulla, and Editorial Director Wangethi Mwangi. At NMG I hold a reputation for being always the source of trouble for Monitor. Somehow, I replaced Charles Onyango-Obbo in this field. They expressed their sympathy and support and debriefed me about their discussions with government. They wished me well and promised to do everything legally possible to get me out of jail.

Jail is a challenging experience. It must be terrible when you are detained for rape or murder, and you know you are guilty, it should be worse if you have been framed under those charges. However, jail can also be a great honour if you are a journalist who has is jailed on the accusation that you are fighting for freedom and defending liberty. Here, as in my case, jail becomes lighter. I had a job to do, to write about jail. I spent the whole of Sunday entertaining guests upstairs, and taking notes from the victims of VCCU underground in the cells. Jail for me was a great opportunity to do many things mainstream journalism needs to do: to study the conditions in our prison system; to see how police treats prisoners; to learn how ordinary people relate to the state; to get information about illegal detention and torture of citizens, and really to be away from my intrusive mobile phone. This Sunday was likely to be my last day in jail. So I took off time to do as many interviews with in mates as possible.

Victim No. 1

Jelia Katwesigye. “VCCU picked me from my house. They attacked my house. I heard firing of bullets outside and people shouting “fungua mulango” (open the door). They entered my house and instead of coming directly to me, they first picked my music system, television, mobile phone, shoes, clothes etc. Then they beat up my wife and when I complained, they pounced on me and gave me a thorough beating. They asked for a gun. I told them I did not have a gun. Then they took me to VCCU torture chambers in Kireka and threw me into a small room called sauna. It is a very small room and we were packed like sardines.

“They beat me with batons and wooden bars. First they heat me on my ankles, later knocked out my elbows before cracking my knees. They also pulled my ears and nose. At the end of the beatings, the ears were bleeding, my nose was bleeding, and my head of all drenched in blood. They called in a dog called Tycoon. It is used to torture people. After a week under intensive torture, I could hardly stand up or walk. I was virtually lame. I would only walk with two aides each holding me on either side, and practically lifting me from point A to point B. There was an old man from Busoga also arrested by VCCU. I think he was a medical assistant. He is the one who helped me survive to tell this story. He treated me from the cells. Now I have slightly recovered. The beatings would take place everyday and would be inflicted on all prisoners.

“Each time a new VCCU soldier comes, he wants to whet his appetite by beating prisoners. Those people there are sick. They are drunk with torture. They take pleasure in inflicting harm on innocent people. I would see my tormentors wearing my shoes and clothes. One of them was using my mobile phone. After one week, the torture greatly subsided. I had not been told what they wanted from me. A month later, VCCU people went back to my home and asked my wife for Shs 100,000 as ransom. She gave it to them but I was not released. Throughout all this time, I did not receive any visitors. My family were not allowed to see me. I could not see a lawyer, a doctor and was not taken to any court. One of the VCCU soldiers who went to my home and extorted ransom from my wife was called Byona. The soldiers who took my property are Sankara and Karevu.

“After four months in illegal detention in Kireka under VCCU, they just put me on an omnibus and brought me here to CPS. My wife does not know where I am now. I have never been visited by anyone. I have now spent a month in this place. My people at home possibly think I am dead. I want you to help me Andrew. You have a voice. When you get out of this cell, please let the outside world know about our plight. Here at CPS, the police cannot release me, or take me to court to me charged because I am a VCCU detainee and the police is afraid of VCCU. I have been in detention without trial for five months now. I have been denied all rights guaranteed under the constitution.

“On my way to these cells, VCCU took my two passports; one for Uganda, the other for East Africa. They also confiscated my driving permit. They also confiscated my letter of appointment to work with Omni-Vision. They also took my academic documents – certificates in motor mechanical engineering. I was working as a driver and motor mechanic. They also took my Senior Four certificate.”

Victim No. 2

Yassin Kajubi (18) “I spent one month in Kireka and have been here at CPS for five days. I was a conductor for an omnibus, and later became a driver. One day, a driver of an omnibus left me with his van for a day. I got a deal to transport children from a nursery school at Kyagura Rd to Entebbe Airport. I found someone to drive the van and we packed the omnibus at the school but before I picked the children, I decided to have lunch. When I came back from lunch, I found the driver had disappeared with the van. I went back to the stage at Owino but did not find the van. When I reported the matter to one Kiyemba, son of the van owner, he insisted I should do everything to find the omnibus. The van owner is called Hasfa Mwanga from Namasuba.

“Seven months later, we had not found the van. So one day, a stage guide at Owino arrested me and took me to police. They called in the van owner and took me to Kireka instead. I was detained by VCCU. They started beating me. They used electric wires to whip me. They knocked all my joints – ankles, knees and elbows with batons and whipped my body with these electric wires. After one day of beatings, I was dumped into a small room called sauna. It has no windows or any ventilation. It is small but we were many of us packed into that one room. Every morning they would pick people one by one to take them for beatings. Later they brought me and dumped me here. My family do not know where I am. I have not been charged in any court of law. I do not know my crime.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 9: Prison testimonies continued

We continue with the interviews I had with inmates in the underground cells at Central Police Station on Sunday, August 14th, 2005. All these were victims of the Violent Crime Crack Unit (VCCU), an almost illegal para military group that acts with impunity in this country.

Victim No. 3
Robert Muhangi (34)

“I am a boda boda rider. One day I was at the stage where I work at Container Village. VCCU people came and put me under arrest. There were six men with guns – two rifles and four pistols – driving in a car with tinted windows. They accused me of taking a female passenger on my bike. True I took a man on my boda boda to Namungona. When we reached there, the man called a woman on phone. The woman came and they entered a fence. After ten minutes, the man came back and we rode back to town. Six months later is when VCCU arrested me asking about a man called Moses that I took to Namungona. I could not easily recall the incident. They took me to VCCU torture chambers in Kireka.

“I spent a whole day seated. At 8pm they brought the man, and I now recalled him. I told them what had happened and they asked me whether he picked a briefcase when he went to the fenced house. I told them I did not see it. They began beating me again with batons on my ankles, knees and elbows. They recorded a statement from me where I denied seeing the briefcase. I spent one month in detention. Later a man called Kasumba in charge of discipline at the cells accused me of being big-headed. He said he would cane me ten times on the buttocks, insisting that I should not touch my buttocks as he whips me. If I do, he would cancel the entire count and go back to zero. He would whip me seven times, and under pressure of pain I would forget and touch my buttocks. He would cancel the count and begin from zero. He ended up caning me 120 times.

“After that I was brought here to CPS where I have been for one month. In all I have been in detention without trial for two months. I do not know any case they have against me. Once they asked me for a gun. I do not know of any car. I have a wife and two children – one in primary one and another in primary four. They are suffering here in Kampala, in Kibuye.

Victim No. 4
Shaban Kazibwe (28) hawker.

“I was at Arua pack on July 4, 2005 when a policeman came and asked me to identify myself and I complied. He accused me of stealing a mobile handset from a woman. We went to the woman’s place, and she accused me of stealing her phone. The woman called her husband Mamelto Mugerwa, Kiira Rd Town Council LC 111 chairman. The man took me to Kiira Rd where he personally beat me and kicked me on the head and slapped me. He was joined one Kawere and the two continued to beat me, accusing me of stealing their phone. I spent one month and one week in jail and I have not been charged in any court of law. I have a wife and three children who have no one to look after them. My wife learnt only yesterday (August 15th) that I was here in detention.

“When she came to see me yesterday, she told me that robbers entered our house and stole everything. I cannot be taken to court because I am under detention by VCCU. I am told my files are in Kireka. Mugerwa asked me for Shs 500,000 if I want to be released.”

Victim No. 5
Daudi Jingo (53) Tailor, Nansana

“I was arrested on May 31, 2005 at 10am. I was sleeping when I heard a knock on the door. A friend told me he had a problem. When I opened, I was put at gunpoint. There was a soldier from CVVU called Ibra Jingo, and an informer called Ntare. They asked me for motorbikes I sold in Jinja and said they wanted to know whom I sold them to. I told them I sold two bikes in Jinja – one in the name Fred Mulwana, the other in the name of Zareno Mukasa. I sold one on December 18th 2004, the second in February 2005. The card for the first bike had been stolen from me and I had reported to the police. The VCCU guy accused me of having stolen the bikes and took me to Kireka.

“I told them I could take them to Jinja – Bugiri – where I sold the bikes. The first bike belonged to a friend who was ill and wanted me to sell it for him. The second belonged to a friend who wanted me to sell it for him so that he can buy a car. We went to Jinja and failed to find the guys who bought the bikes so I was returned to Kireka. That day they beat me thoroughly using batons and hit all my joints, legs, arms and feet. Two weeks later, we went back to Jinja and they put me in Nyalusenya VCCU detention facility for two weeks. I was returned to Kireka and after one week I was brought here to CPS. I have never been taken to court. I have been here at CPS for three weeks. I have a wife and four chidren – two in senior two and one in senior one. The last born is in primary three. They know I am here. They have no one to look after them.
“I have never recorded a statement.”

Victim No. 6

Ronald Seguya (39), farmer in Kakitoma, Nakasongola

“I was arrested on May 22nd, 2005 and brought to CPS on 26th. After one week, I was taken to the VCCU detention facility in Kireka where I was tortured for four days. They were asking me for a gun and a gunman. The background is that I was arrested by police in Nakasongola who were accusing me of possessing a gun. However, someone with a gun came and stayed at my house for a night. Some people had seen the gunman at my home. So police came and asked me where he was. I told them where he went. The problem was that I had not reported the gunman to the police. I spent one and a half months in Kireka. When I complained of torture, they brought me here to CPS where I have been since. I have never written another statement since the one I made in Nakasongola. I have not been taken to court. I have a wife and four children who are in school. They do not know where I am. Possibly they think I am dead.”

By the time I am through with Seguya, time has really run out. I have more guests to me, I need time to rest. But there is one interesting bit in the cells – the testimonies of people who had been arrested and detained in CPS who wrote their experiences on the cell walls. One was by one Anthony Raja Colombo from Sri Lanka. He wrote on the cell walls: “I spent three years in Machison Bay prison in Luzira. Then I was transferred to Jinja Rd Police for five months because of deportation. I was again transferred to Wandegeya Police for another five months. After than I was brought to CPS cells in Kampala on February 26th, 2003. Today is October 23, 2003 and I am still in jail.” What an experience!

Sunday night, I again went to bed late, having distributed my time between interviewing inmates, receiving visitors, and trying to find time to think through this experience. I was certain that the Yoweri Museveni regime would seek to send me to Luzira. Although I would have wanted to regain my freedom, I refused to entertain the thought because I was acutely aware that I should not try to create false expectations. As I went to bed that Sunday night, I prepared my mind for a the long haul a couple of months in Luzira.

If America doesn’t change Obama, he will

On November 4, Americans go to the polls to elect a president in what USA media has been calling a historic election. Of course, there is nothing historic about it except for the fact that one candidate Barack Obama is referred to as African American (used interchangeably with being black) although he is of mixed racial heritage. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Prison Notes - Part 10: The last day in Jail

I woke up early on Monday morning, August 15th 2005 and went through the morning roll call. I was entering my fourth day in jail at the Central Police Station. It had been a hectic three nights and three days. My time had been very busy. Although I had deliberately tried to avoid the temptation of hoping that I would be released soon, I had been working overtime to do as many interviews as possible with inmates. By this time, I had interviewed many inmates who had been victims of torture and illegality at the hands of informal and former state terror machines. But I had also expanded my interests. I was also listening to stories about peoples’ experiences with the state.

Thus, I deliberately made myself upbeat about this possibility of going to Luzira, because I knew I would continue my work of studying prison conditions, interviewing inmates and thinking. I had started writing a book in May 2005, and I felt Luzira would provide me the atmosphere to think more critically, and in a less disturbed environment. The book deals with the crisis of the state in Africa with specific reference to Uganda and Rwanda – the former as a case of a failed reconstruction process, the latter as a case study of genuine post conflict reconstruction and the evolution of a strong and effective state.

I was informed at 9am that I was supposed to go upstairs. Upon reaching there, I was told to go back to the cells and carry all my belongings with me – I was going to court. The news of my impending appearance in court and the possibility of bail were exciting, but also distressing. The prospect of regaining my freedom was exciting. However, in those few days I had developed a strong attachment to the people I stayed with in the cells. A whole new world had opened to me. I was living mostly with ordinary people. They told me refreshing stories about their lives, their families, their beliefs and hopes. It was a great experience.

I rushed down stairs to pick my belongings. Then something hit me! I was leaving these people behind. I was privileged. My constitutional rights were respected because I had a name. Many of the other prisoners who were in jail for crimes they did not know were going to remain behind without possibility of bail. All the prisoners came to see me leave. It was an extremely emotional moment for me. I hugged each and every prisoner as the police guard insisted I hurry up. I looked in each person’s eyes as I hugged them goodbye, and there was both pain and celebration. They were happy I was regaining my freedom, but sad that a friend was leaving them. Many still wanted to tell me more of their stories so that I can write them in the newspapers.

The police officer insisted that I had to go – NOW! I picked my belongings and turned to wave goodbye to inmates. Everyone was looking at me. I felt so sad, and all energy ran out of me. Then I started to cry. Tears just rolled down my chicks. It is difficult to recapture the emotional tone of that moment. The policeman who was pushing me to leave the cells urgently was taken by the emotional tone of that moment and stopped pushing me to leave. Some prisoners cried too. Others came back and hugged me. I was leaving my new family. How does one describe that moment – excited about rejoining your friends, yet sad to be leaving others? Somehow I found the strength and walked away.

Upstairs, I was given my cowboy boots back. Then the police took me through a dark corridor to the rear court yard where I was put in a pick up and driven at break neck speed to Buganda Road. As I looked behind, I saw a large crowd of people around both Buganda Road Court and at CPS. Somehow, journalists had gotten news of how police were smuggling me out of jail, and had braced themselves for the chase. Photographers on boda boda and others in cars chased the police car. As we drove through the crowded streets of Kampala on a Monday morning, people would turn and watch, shocked at photographers chasing a police 999 pick-up. I was taken to CID headquarters.

At CID, I was joined by many opposition politicians among them members of parliament Aggrey Awori and Ken Lukyamuzi. My sister Margaret, a die-hard NRM person was unhappy that opposition politicians were coming to see me. She interpreted their concern as a strategy to use me to win political capital and practically asked them to leave me alone. Margaret seemed very agitated about this. I asked her to leave my visitors alone. I told her that my arrest was not a family matter but a political and therefore public issue where my family would have very little say. I had not been arrested for raping or stealing. I was arrested for defending freedom and liberty. Every Ugandan therefore had a stake in my arrest and all should be free to come and see me.

Margaret seemed to back off her threats to opposition politicians, but she is not one who gives up a fight. She stayed with me all morning, still trying to chase away opposition politicians. My dad had threatened to drive himself all the way to Kampala to come and plead with Museveni. At 78 years, he would be putting himself in danger. In many ways, many in my family tended to treat my arrest as a family feud where Museveni would be approached to show his magnanimity by releasing me. I firmly resisted this tendency because it plays into Museveni’s psyche where he pretends to be the kind father punishing his children. I wanted (and still want) him to continue with the case in the courts of law so that I can use the court as a platform to expose his dictatorial tendencies.

At CID, the police took me into a laboratory where they took pictures of me as a criminal. They took my fingerprints, took my ex-rays and all. Later I was whisked off to court. I thought I would be taken to Buganda Road Court. I was wrong. I was instead taken to some village in Nakawa in the middle of nowhere. I learnt from the policemen who drove me there that a huge crowd of sympathisers had crowded Buganda Road Court. Museveni and his handlers were feeling guilty and cornered by the public’s response. So they could not confront the public reaction to their political machinations. They took me to some remote place.

At Nakawa court, I was again put in yet another jail where I met other suspects – pick pockets, drug dealers, idlers and other petty criminals. Many were waiting to be taken to Luzira. I immediately fitted in this company. I posed for pictures with inmates, discussed politics with them and began to train them on the skills to survive in small prison cells. One of the tricks I picked from Arthur Koestler’s famous novel – Darkness at Noon. The main character, Nicolas S. Rubashov used to walk five and a half steps to the door, and five and a half steps to the window. Each time, he turned on a different side – to avoid becoming dizzy, and each time he stopped on the third black tile.

So, the prisoners joined me in the walk inside the cell and it turned out to be great fun. Rubashov used his walks to contemplate on vital issues concerning “the revolution”. I had limited time to do that. It appeared to me that I was heading for bail. It was both welcome, and unwelcome. Welcome that I would have gone home a free man, and my mother and girlfriend and other family and friends would have been relieved. It was unwelcome because I wanted to go to Luzira, stay with more inmates and listen to more stories about how prisoners are treated in Ugandan jails. I would have loved to stay in Luzira maximum prison and hold lengthy discussions with people like Chris Rwakasiisi – a man I always considered a semi literate thug until I met and had a four our conversation with him in Luzira. He is an extremely intelligent fellow.

Later, at 4pm, I was taken to court, charged with sedition and given bail. Although New Vision was later to report that I looked worried as my bail application was being considered and that I was relieved to be given bail, the truths is that bail was an anti-climax for me. Immediately after getting it, my energy disappeared and my asthma allergies took a better hold of me. I drove from Nakawa court directly to hospital before going home. The five day stand-off with Museveni was over.