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

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.

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