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
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
He then went to my bedroom, where my wife was. He gave
her about five minutes to [dress up]. Then went back, searched
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
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
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
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
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
There was an attempt by the Museveni group to have me escape
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.