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

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.

No comments: