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

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.

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