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 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.


Frank T Zimula said...

Andrew Mwenda!Someone told me something about the name Andrew, which I strongly rejected. But after reading your full blog, am soon to accept what he said.
Am only lost for word. I wish I could comment on each and every part of this breathtaking and wallowing episode (Prison Notes). Since I finished reading it, I returned to the words of Franklin Roosevelt "The biggest problem of ourselves is fear for fear!!"
But I also asked myself, how much of such endurance and sacrifice can we sustain before we succumb?
Do you remember when Museveni one time said that in Uganda is next to God? For me its from that time when I realised that no sane person would deny the notion that the 'gods' had signed a pact with Museveni to rule for life and, or as long as he wanted. If only those words do not make him a superconscious speciesist character, then hell is bent on us Ugandans. What trully amazes me is the continuously escalating abuse and flagrant erosion of peoples rights by his government that has gone unchecked by the west. There is a lot more I could write, but some bit of it may instead be offensive.
Thank you very much for this blog, its such an academic collection.

F T Zimula
London Met. University.

Bail Agent said...

Great story.....I can not imagine being locked up right now at this stage in my life. Godspeed my friend.