NEW SERIES: MY PRISON LIFE
 
 
January 18, 2007
Museveni ordered my arrest-Okumu

President threatened to arrest Okumu during night meeting at State House

In the nineth part of our series on politicians who have endured imprisonment on account of their political association [or suspicion], MICHAEL MUBANGIZI talks to Aswa County MP and Shadow Cabinet Foreign Affairs Minister RONALD REAGAN OKUMU:

I was born on July 25, 1969 in Gulu district. I graduated with a degree in Social Sciences from Makerere University in 1994.
I worked in Adjumani district as Coordinator for Research and Documentation with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

On January 2, 1995 I was appointed Investigation Officer in the IGG’s Office. Towards the end of 1995, I got interested in politics and contested in the 1996 parliamentary elections in Aswa County, Gulu district and won.

We wanted to bring the issue of the war in northern Uganda to the national agenda. Apart from a few newspaper reports, there was no debate about it even in Parliament. Government did not want the truth about the war told.

In 1996, government started sending our people to camps and [Maj. Roland] Kakooza Mutale started preparing people for an eminent war different from Kony’s. Mutale taught people the likely difficulties and how to take cover in case it started.

That drew me close to a clash with government. I couldn’t stand and see. We petitioned the President about Mutale’s activities.
I was the Secretary of the Acholi Parliamentary Group. I was also at the forefront of fighting human rights violations by the army. They were killing, raping people and doing all sorts of things.

I clashed with many people, including Division Commander James Kazini. He was very atrocious. We raised delayed soldiers’ salaries and ghost soldiers much earlier, in 1996. Soldiers walked barefoot or in slippers.

Okumu the father with his two sons

We publicised the misery, humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda worldwide to diplomats, Congressmen, State Department and Commonwealth offices. We lobbied Americans to do parallel investigations about the conflict in northern Uganda.

USAID appointed Prof. Robert Glasson who investigated and published a report, ‘The Anguish of northern Uganda’. We pushed a parliamentary hearing about the conflict. Parliament in 1996 formed the Defence and Internal Affairs committee to investigate the war.

The committee held public hearings and people gave testimonies of atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government forces. The most interesting was the testimony by [Lt. Gen.] David Tinyefuza who was on kateebe (un-deployed) at the time.

He said that the war should end militarily within a certain time frame. If government can’t end it militarily, he said, it must swallow its pride and talk to the rebels.

And that if government refuses to talk to the rebels, the leadership must pack their bags and leave State House because they would have failed state management.

It caused him problems, but his testimony helped us politically. Because of our [effort], we gained prominence in the North.

Kizza Besigye
During the 2001 elections, Dr. Kizza Besigye appointed me his campaign agent. I became his northern coordinator. We trounced President Museveni. He was extremely annoyed, more so with me for undermining his victory there, publicising the truth about the war and penetrating the diplomatic community that he feared more, compared to the local opinion.

I wrote a letter to President Museveni after the 2001 elections, explaining why he lost and why people would never vote for him [in the North]. When he refused to reply, I leaked the letter to the papers and it was published. Intelligence reports started classifying me as rebel collaborator.

When the rebellion started in Lango, there was the Citizen Army. My name again came up, it was alleged that I was recruiting people into it.
Brig. Henry Tumukunde was the Chief of Military Intelligence.

I wrote to him to clarify. I said I am informed that I am a rebel collaborator, recruiting people in the Citizen Army, can you clarify to me why you haven’t approached me to ask [about it]. He never wrote back.

We formed Reform Agenda (after the 2001 elections) where I was Vice Chairperson and Secretary for Foreign Affairs. They thought I was linking LRA with Besigye.

State House meeting
It became a big problem for me to the extent that the President, I think in 2002, invited me to State House through the Speaker of Parliament, Edward Ssekandi.

I was driving to Entebbe to receive some guests when Ssekandi called at about 5:00p.m. “Please come back,” he said. I said “I am in Kajjansi, the plane is landing.”

He insisted, “please turn and come back.” I turned and arrived at his office at about six. He said, “The President has been looking for you since morning. You sit down, I call him.”

The President told him to go with me at 8:00p.m. At 8:00p.m., I went to State House with Edward Ssekandi. He (Museveni) started quarrelling, throwing files at the table, saying, “I am going to arrest you (Okumu).”

He would tell Ssekandi, “He (Okumu) is a rebel collaborator.” He talked for about 45 minutes, threatening me with arrest and all that. We were only three; the Speaker was quiet, he was just an observer.

I turned to him and said, “Your Excellency, if I am a rebel collaborator, then I think you are the problem. Because how could you allow a rebel collaborator to walk free?”

“You could have taken me to court or asked Police to take a statement from me. You have done none of these!” I told him it was all ‘intelligence gossip’. He got up and said, “If this is the case Mr. Speaker, I am going to arrest him, I am going to deal with him. He is misleading people in the North. He is a mis-leader.”

I stood firm and said, “Mr. President, I am misleading who? You arrest me if you have evidence and we go to court.” Later, he picked a phone and called [Brig. Noble] Mayombo and Aronda [Nyakairima] who was in charge of ‘Operation Iron Fist’ to get clarification on the report written about me.

Change of heart
Then he turned to me, “Reagan, you know these people (Mayombo and Aronda) are young, they don’t know how to work. I am sorry, you know sometimes they make mistakes, but I am sorry, but I want to work with you.” That was his first apology to me. We talked up to midnight when we left.

The following day at 7:00a.m., he called me on my landline at home. I picked the phone, “This is State House, the President wants to talk to you.”

He (President) said, “Reagan, I am sorry about yesterday but I want to work with you. I want to listen to you. I am leading this country; I will leave it to you, young people. We politicians ours is life on earth. So don’t listen to religious leaders, theirs is life after death.”

I understood that to mean that I was being misled and pushed by the religious leaders in the North. I told him that it was not the case. He asked me, “How do you think the war in the North can be ended?”

He was going to Gulu that weekend. He said, “You come to Gulu and we continue with the dialogue.” I said, “Your Excellency, I can’t just follow you. Make an appointment, I will come. I don’t refuse to meet you.”

I never followed him but sometimes he invited me and I had several engagements with him. I visited him in Gulu Barracks about two or three times, talking about peace [in the North].

Rumours of arrest
I was arrested in 2005, but I started hearing rumours of treason charges being framed against me in 2003. Somehow I had allies telling me what was going on.

The diplomats were also friendly to me, they were told a lot of things. One time a diplomat told me the government had told them that I was a rebel collaborator. They wanted to arrest me.

Another one asked me, “Reagan, why don’t I get you a scholarship and you go for your PhD abroad?” My wife also knew, wherever I was travelling she asked me, “Reagan, be careful.”

She would call me every time asking, “Reagan, where have you reached? Have you reached safely? Are you okay?” They penetrated my office in Gulu through my political assistant, Tony Kitara, who was paid and enrolled as an operative [I think in CMI] to monitor me. I threw him out of my office when I found out. Surprisingly, he came as a [state] witness in court when I was arrested.

So when the fateful day in March 2005 came, Oulanyah Christopher, an LC-1 chairman in Gulu, Gulu Municipality MP, David Penyto, then a councillor in Gulu, and Ochan Laryang, an ordinary man from my constituency, were arrested for alleged attempted murder and later murder and taken to [Gulu] Police.
At 3p.m. that day, the army took them to the Gulu Barracks.

I wrote to Internal Affairs minister Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda and Amama Mbabazi, then Minister of Defence, protesting why the military were getting interested in Police matters.

The three suspects were asked to implicate me in some charges in return for their freedom but they refused. That added pressure on me to fight for them, but it created enmity for me from the government.

Charges change
They were later transferred to Kampala CID headquarters and charged with attempted murder of a former RDC of Gulu, one Ochaya. Ochaya was killed in a rebel ambush in 1997. Surprisingly, the charges changed when they were taken to Buganda Road Court.

They were charged with the murder of this Pabbo man, [Alfred] Bongomin!
I told them accept, we shall fight it in court. I started an aggressive campaign, getting them lawyers, calling for a speedy hearing, visiting them in Luzira Prison.

All this created enmity for me in government. It was a matter of time. The idea was to arrest and intimidate many people for them to win the 2006 elections in the Acholi sub-region. The fear was that Museveni would not get any vote in Acholi if I was around. I should be in prison by the 2006 elections.

On March 17, 2005, around mid-day, while in the Parliament Library, the Speaker of Parliament, Edward Ssekandi, called me. He said, “Reagan, the CID was looking for you. This is her number, call her.”

Around 1:00p.m., I called the CID Director, [Elizabeth] Kutesa.
“Madam Director, I understand you were looking for me,” I said.
She said she wanted me in the morning. The (Parliament) session was about to begin, I told her I would get to her at about 3:00p.m.
I had a lot of work, I had not even taken lunch.

I confidently went to talk to her. We chatted. Then an Assistant Commissioner of Police whose name I don’t remember came in and she (Kutesa) said, “Reagan, you go with this officer to his office.”
I said “what is the matter?”

“There is some thing, we will explain,” he said. When we reached there, the guy said “I want to take your statement.”
I asked, “Statement on what?”

“About the murder.” I said “murder?” “Yes,” he said. I repeated “murder! Murder of who?” He said Alfred Bongomin of Pabbo.

I laughed and asked, “Who told you?”
He said “Reagan, I am just doing my duty, I am not the one who got this information.”

I said fine, but this is political propaganda, intimidation and harassment because we are heading for elections. It will not stand the test of time.
I was not surprised at the arrest, only the charge. I thought they would charge me with treason.
After the statement at 4:30p.m., I asked to go.
He said “no, you wait.” I said I left my office open but he insisted that I wait.

MP Ocula in
I did not know that the Speaker had also communicated to Michael Ocula. He came after me and also made a statement.
Somebody came in with a huge file, a walk talkie, looked around with telephones and what have you. I could see he was restless. I noticed he feared telling me the next step.

Finally, he said “Reagan, we are going to court.”
I said “to court? Over what?”
“Over this matter,” he said.
I asked, “Officer, if you wanted to take me to court, why didn’t you tell me to come with my lawyer? Who do you want to represent me?” He said, “you have a mobile phone, call your lawyer.”
I called [the chairman of Acholi Parliamentary Group and Chua County MP], Livingstone Okello Okello. He called other lawyers who rushed to court with some MPs.

In court
We were driven in a grey double cabin pick up truck by plain clothed people. They had walk talkies and were very busy on mobile phones. The Assistant Commissioner of Police sat in front.
We arrived at Buganda Road Court at 5:05p.m and moved into the dock.
The magistrate came in and read the charges. When she said “Reagan Okumu, 47 years,” I said “I am not 47.” I was 36 then.

But she said she was reading what was written.
The magistrate said the court had no powers to try us; we were remanded to Luzira Maximum Security Prison. We were not handcuffed. I was in a suit. I removed my watch, wallet, phone, car and office keys and asked somebody to give them to my wife. The same vehicle took us to Luzira.
As we were going, [former Bugweri County MP] Abdu Katuntu gave me about Shs 40,000. He said go with it, the prison people might take it or you could buy something.

We passed via Nile Avenue, Garden City, joined Jinja Road.
We moved in three vehicles, one patrol car in front and another behind us. I said to Ocula, “I did not know we were so powerful and important like this.” I was laughing, but Ocula was tense. He never expected to be arrested. He almost slapped a Police officer.

In Luzira
It was approaching 7:00p.m. when we arrived in Luzira. We were handed to an officer who I think was a military not a Police officer. We were ordered to remove shoes and belts.

People were locked inside except the East Wing, the political wing for political prisoners where we were taken. They call it a high profile place where they accord VIP treatment and allow prisoners to cook.
There are two other wings; the condemned section, where people like Chris Rwakasisi live, and the general prisoners’ ward.

People who received us were mainly treason suspects, Dr. Kizza Besigye’s co-accused. They were perturbed when they saw us.
One of them cried, “But Reagan, it’s you who has been fighting for us, now you have joined us?”

We felt at home because people we found there knew us. They were suffering, but very sympathetic to us. The first day was a learning process. We asked basic questions, what takes place, and needs of the place. There was no food, only inmates supported us. They gave us a bucket to urinate in and a flask for tea, sugar and bread.

I was locked with Ocula in a high walled room, about 2 metres wide, 4 metres long and 15 metres high. They (PRA suspects) threw us some blankets. A prisoner warder locked from outside and walked away.

Comforting Ocula
Ocula thought that was the end of the road, he couldn’t believe that he was in Luzira. He did not take tea until around 11:00p.m. I tried to comfort him. We talked through the night and slept a few hours. Ocula told me how his plans had been interrupted.

At 6:30a.m., they (treason suspects) opened and called us to go and watch WBS news. There was a TV in that wing. They told us that when going to court, you wake up at 6:00a.m., board the bus and spend the whole day at Buganda Road Court where relatives bring you food.

The other prisoners cooked for us and ate with us. The officers also told us to ask our people to bring us shorts so as to play football.
Ocula, my roommate, was a friend but all those people in our wing became my friends.

We were in the same wing with [Joseph] Musasizi, Dr. Kizza Besigye’s brother. He is punished for nothing. Unlike Besigye, he is not a politician. Living and interacting with him, [I discovered] he is instead a business-minded person.

One of them, Simon Toolit, now Omoro County MP, gave me his shirt, another gave me a trouser. I used the money Katuntu gave me to buy slippers for myself and for other inmates.

Later that day, we watched a parliamentary debate about our arrest.
[Internal Affairs minister Ruhakana] Rugunda was defending the un-defendable. “We have evidence, investigations are complete,” he was saying.

Wife visits
My wife visited me with our two children, one five years and the other two and half. She was so tense. When I hugged my wife, they said this is not allowed here. My intention was to console her, tell her what we needed.

So many people visited and brought me money. I remember the first lot was about 20 MPs, then seven. I spent three quarters of my money helping other people.

I met them in the OC’s office. The next day I was told to see my visitors through (iron bars). I refused. That day they really sabotaged me. They sent people to call me to meet my visitors. When I was about to enter the OC’s office, they would direct me to the wire mesh to meet them there. I would walk back. That happened on three invitations.

The forth time I told them, “Go and tell the OC that I am not going to see my visitors in that place, if he doesn’t want them to see me, let the visitors go.” Even Ocula refused. The visitors were many. They crowded the place.

Death in prison
I wrote a letter to the OC, objecting to seeing visitors through iron bars. I also told him to allow me basic things like medicine, my own food, mattress and blanket, and complained about things prisoners had told me; the overcrowding, bedbugs, healthcare.

In the first week, I saw three dead bodies taken outside. I asked “what is that being carried on stretchers?” They said dead bodies. They had died in the prison health centre of stomach problems - cholera. They weren’t killed. It was poor sanitation, poor food, and more especially poor medical care.

The food for the prisoners was so bad, it could cause sickness. That death rate was very dangerous. Prisoners got posho in the morning at 9:00a.m. and posho at 4:00p.m.

The OC, one Bananura, was very furious. He called me in his office, “Who do you think you are? You are now a prisoner, no longer MP.” I told him look, “I am on remand, not convicted. I am entitled to my rights, you can’t treat me the way you treat the convicted.”

He continued, “you want to cause a strike here, why don’t you talk about yourself, why talk about other people?” I said “no, I am an MP, I have to talk. I can only save myself by saving the rest.”

He got tense, his logic seeing my reasoning, but his job couldn’t allow.
“Reagan, I also have a family to feed, children to pay school fees for and a duty. I am not just going to listen to this. I know we were at campus at the same time but I have a duty to do,” he said.

Eventually they accepted. I met my visitors in one of the rooms, and my wife was allowed to get me medicine, food and a mattress. But it caused me problems. They started limiting my interaction with other people. They don’t allow political prisoners to mix with the rest. They fear you can offer leadership and mobilise them into a strike. The idea is to isolate you so that you don’t plan.

We were only allowed to walk out at 4:00p.m when others were locked in. But when other prisoners learnt that I wasn’t allowed to talk to them, we changed tactics. They started inviting me for church services to preach.

I go to the Catholic Church but since they wanted me to talk to them, they scheduled time for their prayers at different intervals so that at least once a week, I was able to attend both [Catholic and born-again services].

Refusing to squat
At 6:00a.m. the day we went to court, prisoners were squatting in a line, two by two. They (Prison authorities) read names, counted and then separated you in pairs; going to Buganda Road, High Court, Mengo, Nakawa courts.
Ours was Buganda Road.

An officer told me to squat. I told him I am not going to squat. Why should I squat, Is it law or what? That was an abuse. That was my second rebellion in Luzira, after refusing to talk through the bars.
He insisted, “You think this is Parliament?”
I said “I am still an MP.”

The bus was overcrowded; over 160 people, some standing.
By the time we reached Kitintale, I was almost suffocating.
People were many at Buganda Road Court. You were supposed to squat as you got out of the bus until they told you to walk. I remained standing.

We walked into a cell in the court. People came, shook hands and talked to us through the bars. I wasn’t familiar with these court procedures. They took us upstairs. The door was made in such a way that from the cell you entered the dock.

I saw many diplomats, FDC supporters, some of my relatives, my mum in the packed court. She had travelled all the way from Gulu.
She was really paralysed. I am her last born. She came and greeted me. Then the magistrate whose name I don’t remember read the charges - murder of Bongomin.

Surprisingly, the prosecutor told court that investigations were still going on, yet the previous day Rugunda had told Parliament that investigations were complete!

We were immediately taken back to Luzira at 10:00a.m. contrary to what we had been told. I had told my wife to bring us food. But we weren’t allowed to eat it.

Bishop Odama visits
I received many high profile visitors who touched me, like Archbishop [John Baptist] Odama and Bishop Ochola. It meant a lot when diplomats, an archbishop, bishop visited.

The rest weren’t visited and psychologically they got frustrated.
Diplomats from all European countries, America, Japan and others visited me as a team.

I was shabbily dressed, in slippers, when I met them.
I did not know the people I was meeting when I was invited.
I left my slippers out on entering the OC’s office. It shocked them.
Some of them asked the OC, “You mean you don’t allow him to wear shoes?”
He said “no, he is allowed.”

I was very frank when they asked me. I repeated what I had written to the OC. The guy was just sneezing. He said “Reagan, this is very bad.” They thought being under them, I would fear revealing these things, but I told them the condition of other prisoners is even worse.

Three quarters of the about 2,600 prisoners were on remand for an average of four years, some had never been taken to court. Then they asked something unusual, “can we go and see where Reagan sleeps?”

They were surprised. The PRO looked at the OC and the OC looked at the PRO. Ordinarily they would have wanted to clear with their bosses, but now it wasn’t easy. They succumbed.

I was told to go in first. A prison warder was sent in advance to clear bad things, heaps of rubbish, and clean the toilets. The diplomats saw how squeezed we were, where we were urinating, the water, food, the toilets near where we slept.

One diplomat told me as she walked out, Reagan, it’s a bad situation but don’t mind, you won’t be here long. “Reagan, it’s a bad situation but don’t mind, you won’t be here long.”

I was ready to spend a year in prison. I wasn’t worried of losing an election, my only prayer was for them to allow me get nominated in absentia. I was sure of winning. In fact, I was telling friends that I would [embarrass] the government by defeating them in absentia.

Getting bail
We were given bail after one month. Our relatives wanted to grab us, but the prison authorities took us back to the court cell to sign forms and finish some formalities.

We matched to Parliament. FDC supporters hired an open roof vehicle that took us. Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, was in the chair; she stopped the session and welcomed us. FDC also organised an impromptu party at City Hall before we went home.

When we visited Gulu, a crowd of over 10,000 people received us about 10km outside Gulu town. We entered Gulu the way Jesus entered Jerusalem. People carried us on their shoulders, women threw mats for us to walk on.
This infuriated government.

In my constituency, again thousands of people received us. My lawyer Sam Njuba, FDC MPs; Prof. Ogenga Latigo, Odonga Otto, Christopher Kibanzanga and former Workers MP, Martin Wandera, accompanied me. I remember Njuba told me, “Reagan, FDC will sweep this place.”

People organised that I address them at Kaunda Grounds. It was a big crowd but as we matched, the army, Police deployed mambas, buffalos and tanks. We arrived at about 4:30p.m., people started cheering but mambas stopped them. You must have read that story.

No torture
I wasn’t [physically] tortured but you are tortured by denial of basic facilities like the day I did not see my visitors.
But I was told of and saw many torture victims. I took their records and [details of] their torturers. Many complained of torture by CMI and VCCU (Violent Crime Crack Unit) operatives. I disclosed this information to human rights organisations.

I never planned to escape, but the way I saw Luzira, if they had continuously kept me, despite calling it maximum security, I would have had the capacity to escape. First of all, the prison warders are poorly paid. I could connive or even escape with anybody on duty.

Being hopeful kept me going. With my innocence, I knew justice would prevail. There were also many people fighting for me in FDC, diplomats and human rights organisations. Besides, I put my hope in God.

I also read Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, the difficulties he went through. It gave me confidence that I was neither the first nor the last to be imprisoned.

I took time in Luzira as a retreat to plan politically.
Some of my plans succeeded. For example, I plotted to throw out all Movement MPs in the North. I encouraged councillor David Penyto to stand in Gulu Municipality. Four of us MPs from Gulu were in Luzira; myself, Penyto, Ocula and Simon Tolit.

But the imprisonment damaged my reputation. When I came out, I fed my name into Google and got some newspaper article in South Africa where the headline was, ‘Murder MPs’. The people who read that may not have read the ruling.
But the most frustrating thing in Luzira is not food but detention without trial. People are on remand beyond the mandatory period of detention. The good thing is the learning experience, it energised me to fight for innocent people.

After my release, I received many calls from Prison authorities, warders, congratulating me. I wrote a letter to the OC thanking them for the time I was with them; the good things they did, their protection and co-operation, and apologised for the inconvenience I had caused them. I also forgave their shortcomings. I don’t take those people as the problem.

Museveni’s order

I am reliably told that President Museveni ordered my arrest.
He was under pressure from Betty Aketch and Col. Charles Otema who created wrong reports about me to remain in his good books.

But there are some people I still find difficult to forgive.
The witnesses, including my two assistants who testified against me, I can forgive, but I find it difficult to forgive the NRM system.

I also find it difficult to forgive President Museveni because if you are a president who stoops low to fight flies, an elephant to fight a fly! I think I am just a small fly compared to him. They could have persuaded me to support them.

I remember after I was released in May, in June Museveni was opening Parliament. I went to greet him and he said, “But you Reagan, I have been running up and down, but I always hear you are in this controversy, controversy, why?”

“I here you are in Luzira, why? Why all that?” Of course he was just sarcastic. He was the chief architect; the man who ordered. Eventually he said, “Okay, don’t mind, we shall sort it out.” I smiled and said, “Your Excellency sir, don’t mind, the courts will sort it out.”

The court made its ruling in January 9, 2006 and dismissed the case, describing it as “a crude and amateurish attempt at creative work.”
The ruling was devastating for government, no single ground was taken. The judge belittled all the witnesses.
The Prime Minister, Prof. Apolo Nsibambi, told me in front of Parliament: “Now you cool down, stop making noise, don’t make those statements as we sort it out.”

Hon. Jacob Oulanyah, the former MP for Omoro County, also confronted me. “Don’t talk, we can talk to government, to the DPP, to withdraw that matter.”
That is why I find it difficult to forgive government. They frame you, then after you are embarrassed, mistreated, they come and say, “okay we can withdraw.”

mcmubs@ugandaobserver.com