NEW SERIES: MY PRISON LIFE
 
 
16th November 2006
How Museveni caused Bidandi arrest

Starting this Thursday, The Weekly Observer, your number one weekly newspaper, is introducing new series that our esteemed readers cannot afford to miss. ‘My Prison Life’ looks out for prominent Ugandans who have at one time or another been imprisoned on account of their political association [or suspicion].

In this issue, we tell the story of Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, former secretary general of the UPM, long-serving minister in various governments, founding vice chairman of the NRM, and celebrated sports administrator.

Bidandi was arrested in February 1981, two days after his colleagues in UPM who had gone to the bush to fight the Obote II regime, led by the chairman Yoweri Museveni, attacked Kabamba barracks, signalling the start of the five-year rebellion that brought NRA to power in 1986.

In his revealing, if shocking account, he tells how he was “manhandled, beaten about and kicked around”; the instant knocks on the head, and how he learnt Christian hymns in Luzira.
He recalls spending days in Luzira “sitting, gossiping, singing religious songs, expecting posh, beans and the beatings” and how prisoners exchanged meals for tobacco.

A bearded Bidandi meets his wife, Susan after leaving prison

He blames Museveni for not confiding in him (his Secretary General) ahead of the Kabamba attack, actually charging that Museveni “sacrificed” him.

How Museveni caused Bidandi arrest

In the first part of our series on politicians who have endured imprisonment on account of their political association [or suspicion], MICHAEL MUBANGIZI talks to JABERI BIDANDI SSALI, former Minister of Local Government and founding Vice Chairman of NRM.

I was born in 1937 in Banda, near Kireka, but I spent my childhood days in Butambala, at a place called Namilyango.
I studied there and then went to Kibuli Secondary School where I did a Secondary Leaving Examination, before joining Nyakasura in 1955.

In 1958, I went to Pakistan for a BSc (Bachelor of Science) course in Agriculture. I was referred back home, therefore I never finished my degree.

The roots of my political affection and later involvement almost for life date from far back.

I was involved in student leadership right from primary where I was a monitor; at Nyakasura I was a librarian, house prefect and deputy captain (of the school team).
In Pakistan, I held a number of leadership positions in the student movement.

I was president of Uganda students in Pakistan, Secretary General of all African students in Pakistan and later Vice President of the combined African students in Pakistan and India.

Those were days the African continent was [boiling] because of independence struggles. We took keen interest, following events in Uganda.

Generally, I was influenced by the political demands of the day in Africa and in Uganda.
I was UPM Secretary General during the (December 10) 1980 elections. After losing the election, we sat as a party and decided to reorganise and establish the party.

We met as UPM Executive Committee shortly after the elections. Most of us, like Museveni, Ruhakana Rugunda, Kintu Musoke, Kirunda Kivenjija, Mathew Rukikaire and Matiya Kasaija attended.

But some of our colleagues decided to take up arms and fight the government. Personally, I didn’t agree with it and I refused participate in the fighting.

Museveni was UPM president, so they went and hit Kabamba, I think it was a Friday (February 6, 1981); the following Monday I was arrested, taken to Katabi military prison and handed over to the Tanzanian army.

It was during the evening. I was in a sitting room with one or two of my children watching TV; an officer came and said Mr. Bidandi, I have come to arrest you, I am on orders.
I said okay, I am here. He handed me over to an askari who grabbed me by the waist, took me in the kitchen and made me squat.

He then went to my bedroom, where my wife was. He gave her about five minutes to [dress up]. Then went back, searched everything again.

My wife was left alone; there was no fujjo (stubbornness), nothing was touched, nobody was manhandled at home, except the askari who snatched my briefcase.

I knew what was going on, I did not resist. These were armed soldiers, I was there alone, no civilian could resist.

They drove me in a vehicle under heavy security to a place I did not know, with my briefcase. It was somewhere in Nakasero. The officer in charge was a captain; he died in a plane crash with [Maj. Gen.] Oyite Ojok.

The following day I realised there were other people detained in one of the rooms at that place. They had arrested some other seven people. We were huddled on a pick up full of blood, at first we thought we were being taken to be killed. But we were driven to Entebbe and handed over to Tanzanians.

Two Bidandis arrested

One of the people on the pick up was my cousin Katumba arrested because he called himself Bidandi.

By then, Katumba was at Sheraton; when they were looking for Bidandi [Ssali], they were told Bidandi is in Bukoto, but others said no, Bidandi is at Sheraton.

To solve that, they said those saying that he is hiding in Sheraton, go and arrest him, those who say he is in Bukoto go and arrest him. Both delegations arrested Bidandi.

Katumba was released after two weeks when they realised I was the Bidandi they wanted.
We were arrested for different reasons. The charges of other inmates were that they conspired with the people who were in the bush to topple the government. It was something to do with the arrangement, recruitment; others were as innocent as I was.

Having been Secretary General of the party whose leader (Museveni) led the attack on Kabamba, definitely it was taken that I was part and parcel. I had opposed it and was not involved at all.

In Entebbe, we were moved from the pick up, manhandled, beaten and kicked around by the Tanzanian soldiers. Some were even put in water the whole night. I was just beaten up and locked in a very tiny place with three other people.

I was introduced in Kiswahili as wakibu mukulu, meaning Museveni’s Secretary General. I was handled accordingly because Museveni led the attack on Kabamba.

We were there for about three months. No body knew where I was. Somehow I got acquainted with one of the Tanzanian soldiers guarding us who offered to go and tell my wife.

Being civilians in a military prison, life was very difficult. There were a lot of beatings and many types of torture. They would beat, mistreat us at their leisure.
We were 24 hours indoors without going out for three weeks.

Being indoors day and night was very difficult. We were given one meal a day - ugali (posho) and beans.

When one wanted to go to the toilets, there was an arrangement for one to go [at a time]. Otherwise we were indoors throughout.
I did not witness any killings, people used to be brought, beaten up with very bad sores and wounds but no body was killed in the cell.

We used to hear gunshots but couldn’t tell what was going on. Others were picked and never returned and later on we knew they were killed.

We were never taken to court. A number of people pleaded to the President [Dr. Apollo Milton Obote]. I remember in Katabi, I wrote a letter to President Obote requesting him to get me out because I had always been a civil politician, I had nothing to do with armed struggle; so there was no reason why I should be in prison.

It was more or less an official letter. A Tanzanian officer concerned offered to deliver it. But there was no answer.
We were not allowed [to meet] any visitors, even my colleagues in the UPM. Museveni was already in the bush, how could he have visited me?

In Katabi, I was joined by Rhoda Kalema (NRM/UPM founder member, former minister and Kiboga district Woman MP). The Rhodas (females) were in their room.

I remember she was also beaten, she was given slaps, but for her it was about two to three weeks, and she was released with my cousin.
I think the attack happened in her constituency, they thought she was part of those who arranged it.

Off to Luzira

After about three months, we were handed to Uganda military authorities who transferred us to Luzira military prison. Some of the Tanzanian soldiers were withdrawing.
By this time we were five in the room, not three.

They brought a lorry and made us squat on the lorry. We went squatting, eyes, faces down, until we found ourselves in Luzira. We were not allowed to look out; when you lifted your head, you got a knock on the head.

We were about 30, and were put in one hall. Inmates in Luzira included ex-minister and ex Army Commander [Lt. Gen.] Jeje Odongo. There were quite a number of young men, some of whom had military background. Some of them are big officers in the army today.

We were sleeping on the floor. There was a doctor who was allowed a small mattress, otherwise all of us slept on cement. I was lucky that the doctor was released [sooner], and he gave it to me. It was only me who had a mattress.

We continued to have one meal a day, posho and beans, being kept indoors for several months, beaten and kicked around by soldiers.
This was happening anytime the soldiers wanted; for instance if he went out, came in drunk and was the one on duty, he would start lashing everybody.

We were so docile, there was no resistance whatsoever; it was difficult for anyone to resist.

I remember an incident where two of my colleagues were picked from the hall because of a disagreement with some soldiers. They never returned. Later, we knew they had been killed.

We were not allowed visitors and interaction with the outside world. There was nothing like leisure, newspapers and radios. We were completely incommunicado.

By this time we were accustomed to some of the mistreatment and mishandling. When you live in certain situations, after sometime your body and mind tend to accept them.
Hard conditions tend to make people’s hearts remember that there is God and turn to him. We organised ourselves in prayer sessions, for Muslims, Catholics and Protestants. Each time each sect had its prayers, others respected and kept quiet.

We became very religious, that is the time some of us learnt many hymns. I am a Muslim but I learnt quite a number of Christian hymns.

From morning to morning, the routine activities were sitting, gossiping, singing religious songs, expecting the posho and beans, and the beatings by the soldiers.

We could set in jokes, tell stories, one’s life experience, what happened when, and all sorts of gossip you can imagine when people are confined in a small place, seated together doing nothing.

Escape plan

There was an attempt by the Museveni group to have me escape from prison.
I don’t know who hatched it, but one Guma told me arrangements had been made for my escape, any time I would be told when and how to do it.

It involved soldiers in charge and a soldier from out. But right from the beginning I told them I wasn’t party to that plan.

Escaping meant going to the bush or exile, both of those I had resolved not to entertain. I refused to go to exile because I felt there was no plan for me and the bush because I did not believe in forceful use of arms. I opted to wait for my fate in prison.
Guma was a fellow detainee. He was one of the NRA soldiers captured in the uprising.

Somehow they had ways and means of interacting with the outside world; for us civilians we were just there.

There was no going to court but they made us sign papers, making it an official detention, because legally the way they arrested us was against the law.

I don’t remember what it was called but we were supposed to sign letters as detainees so that they avoid the accusation of detaining people without trail. They were trying to implement a law where someone would be detained without being taken to courts of law. I signed.

It had the effect of recognising that government officially detained you.
Eventually, I also got inlets and contact with the outside world, including my home. Through that channel, I got drugs, bread, chloroquine and money.

We had guards from morning to evening and from evening to morning. The link was established through one of them who happened to know me through sports in the KCC [football club]. We established [rapport] and he offered to be sending me some drugs.
So many people got sick. I was more like the channel through which many of the drugs were obtained.

I helped quite a number of detainees who had no link to the outside world.
There was also a nurse at the prison’s clinic, when I went there for treatment, I gave her details of my home.

So she also used to get me drugs, information and money from my family. I got these things whenever I went to the clinic.

Released

They kept releasing one by one, but after some time, I think as a result of pressure from the Red Cross and other international organizations, they wanted to transfer us from the military to a civil prison in Luzira.

I think the day we were supposed to be moved, the head of Luzira Prisons at the time, one Byabazaire, came through the door which was open; I was doing the usual thing, lying down on my mattress, chatting with others.

He came directly to me and said, “Mr. Bidandi, I am under orders to release you.” He said [it was] from high authorities; I don’t know whether [it was] from the President or what.

The one arresting said he had orders to arrest me; this one came with orders to release me!

Well, I reacted coolly. I woke up and said well, thank you. My roommates shouted very loudly and congratulated me. They were happier than I was.

Because of the family hood, I seemed to have been like the head of the family, having assisted them, especially the sick. My relationship with them was good, they took me as an elder. In terms of age I was the eldest, I came to be recognised as the elder of the place.

Most of them were youth, I took them to be my sons and others brothers. We used to chat a lot, I was telling them stories of Uganda’s independence struggle. They respected me because of that and my earlier involvement in politics and football. I said bye bye to them. Eventually as I knew, they were transferred to a civil prison.

I had no belongings. I gave my mattress to the one who was next to me and walked out of prison to the main gate. I was in a pair of trousers and a simple shirt. This must have been November or December 1981.

Byabazaire had asked me who to ring, to pick me up. I told him to ring my cousin, Ahmed Katumba, the former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce.

Katumba found me at the gate and drove me straight home (Bokoto), with my beard - I had grown a very big beard and hair. There was water, we used to bathe, but the barbers weren’t there. We were in a room 24 hours, one couldn’t even think of barbers.

When I reached home, my wife wasn’t there. I have a mentally retarded child, he is the one I found there. He recognised me and was very, very happy. I entered the house and later sent a message to my wife and children; it was all festivities.

Beans for tobacco

One small thing but which was significant, there was a doctor who was also an inmate. He was lucky he had some money. Some inmates wanted to smoke tobacco and there are people who used to bring it for sale. Most of those were addicted to smoking but did not have enough money to buy it. It was something addictive that kept them settled in the mind.

The beans we were getting with our meals weren’t enough. This doctor used to buy the tobacco leaves and keep them; when the prisoners got their meals, they would exchange beans for leaves and eat their posho without beans. They were getting carbohydrates, without proteins: this doctor was selfish, for him he wanted to eat healthy.

When I started getting money, I also bought the tobacco leaves and gave them; they were very cheap. We made arrangements and each person got one leaf everyday, free of charge. So there was no longer exchange of beans for smoking.

Many of my fellow inmates remember me for that. Me I wasn’t smoking. By the time I left prison, I was making my own meals in prison - rice and Spaghetti. I had made a stove out of candles; you know you melt a candle, put it in a container, I got wicks (entambi) and found a way of getting a small saucepan in which to cook.

I got rice, sugar, spaghetti through channels I have mentioned. That was after befriending the askaris. After some time, they recognised my age, who I was and became less and less harsh. A number of them came to assist me rather than mistreat me.

Some of these things were brought by them.
I shared the food, tea with the sick.
This made my prison life quite interesting. And wherever you come across an inmate who was in a cell with me, he will remember our relationship and the way I assisted them.
Most of my friends were very happy, no body feared associating with me, there was no problem.

A number of (government) officials became apologetic, denying responsibility. “I wasn’t the one responsible, so and so was the one responsible…me I had recommended your release…” they would say, but all that did not matter.

My conscience was free because of the debate we had in UPM executive, where I refused the armed alternative. That is what kept me going. I had no worries that I would be killed for what I did.

I must confess I did not believe they would succeed. My worry and concern was how many people would be killed in the process?
I continued to dissociate myself from the armed struggle.

I sailed back into civil life with printing at SAPOBA and later sports until the (Tito Okello) Lutwa period.

I think they looked at me as a betrayer, someone timid, muwoga in Kiswahili, but I still believed it was wrong, just as I still believe today. It was at the cost of much blood.

Prison left me more resolved to pursue a peaceful political struggle. I also resolved that once I got out and the country stabilized, I would pursue UPM politics.
After prison, I had very little contact with people in the bush. Moses Kigongo one time came to my home, we talked about a private matter that affected his family when he was away.

Minister of Labour

In a way I felt isolated in UPM because of the disagreement, but I did not regret. That explains why despite being the highest ranking UPM official after Museveni, when the NRM came to power, there was a very big debate among them over whether I should be included in cabinet.

Majority said no because I had refused to join them and because I had agreed to serve in Lutwa’s government.

But I think Museveni and Kigongo prevailed on the debate and said at least let him be a minister of labour.

I wasn’t consulted, I just heard the announcement that Museveni cabinet is like this, then heard that Bidandi Ssali was Minister of Labour.

The first time I met Museveni after prison was when we were sworn in, and soon he sent for me. We never discussed anything to do with my detention, it was some matter other than politics.

Of course he knew about my arrest only that I blamed him for not having told me. I told him you almost caused my death, you made all the arrangements to go and hit Kabamba, I was your Secretary General, you cleared your family, the whole of your family went out, and families of some of your friends, but you did not say anything to me to make arrangements for my family.

That is why when you hit Kabamba on Friday, on Monday they came for me. They could have brought a bazooka and finished me.
The fact that Museveni had sacrificed me, his Secretary General, by not confiding in me so that I could be prepared for whatever outcome of the Kabamba attack!

The fact that he did not appreciate that one of the consequences would be an attack on his Secretary General! Okay, I refused to go to the bush but may be I would have taken precaution, by evacuating my family and remaining alone.

He didn’t apologise. One or two reasons here and there was the explanation he gave, which I did not accept and which I don’t want to divulge, but for the sake of the future of the country and need to rebuild, I left it at that and forgot about it.

The only regret is that it affected my family, it was a very crucial period of growth for some of my children; my wife was struggling to obtain the livelihood alone.
Only few people came to my help, like Kintu Musoke, James Garuga Musinguzi, and the late Elisha Kironde. They used to get my wife some provisions.

mcmubs@ugandaobserver.com