NEW SERIES: MY PRISON LIFE
 
 
February 8, 2007
I feared being poisoned while in Luzira Prison

FDC president COL. (RTD) DR. WARREN KIZZA BESIGYE KIFEFE has been twice detained, the latest being in November 2005, days after his return from four-year exile in South Africa. Earlier in 1981, Besigye was detained at a Police station at the now refurbished Serena Hotel (then International Conference Centre) for four weeks. In his story about his prison experience, as recorded by MICHAEL MUBANGIZI, Dr. Besigye talks of torture and death at Nile Mansions; mosquitoes in Luzira, and much more:

I never set out to be a medical person. I never set out to be a soldier, and certainly I never set out to be a politician. My childhood ambition was to be a business person like my father. After my O-level, I wanted to do commerce related lessons.

Besigye waves to supporters as he boards the prison bus

So I applied to Nakawa for Chartered Accounting but in Nakawa they wanted me to do a diploma in business studies, which I found frustrating. I had already covered all information contained in the syllabus. I was disappointed to study things I already knew.

I abandoned Nakawa and rejoined higher education. I had done Science subjects better than Arts, so they said that the best thing to do was [joining] a science class. Even at that stage, I wasn’t sure I would join university or do a professional course.

But towards the end of S.6, I had to make a choice from Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics which I had studied. It was only rational to select medicine. So I ended up in medicine completely persuaded that it’s what I wanted to do.

When I finished medicine, I was hoping to be a medical practitioner, but then I was arrested, put in prison, tortured for absolutely no reason.

Arrested in 1981
We had just gone through an election [in December 1980] where I actively campaigned for the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM).
Like many others, after the elections I was resigned. I went back to Mulago to continue with whatever I had been doing. I wasn’t in any way whatsoever involved in subversive activities. So the arrest came as a complete surprise.

I was supposed to travel to Nairobi that day, at 3:00p.m. I think it was a Monday. So I went to Kimathi [Avenue], got my ticket and put it in my brief case.

Then I went to Apollo Hotel or what is now Sheraton Hotel to see a friend who was staying there. It was now about 11:00a.m.
When I reached the hotel, there were some lobby phones (intercoms). So I picked the phone and I was calling the room. Before I got any response, some two fellows dressed in civilian clothes ambushed me, “Put down the phone,” they ordered. I said, “Who are you?”

They said, “We have just ordered you, put down the phone.”
I laughed and said, “This is stupid; you have no capacity to stop me doing what I am doing. We have just gotten rid of Amin and Aminism, I don’t expect whoever you would be to behave the way you are.”
At that stage, one of them pulled out a pistol and pushed it on my cheek and held my collar.

Kicked, punched
Of course I put the phone back. They started kicking, hitting me in the middle of the lobby, [as] people scattered.
They herded me outside the hotel. There was a Land Rover where they put me and drove at very high speed to the International Conference Centre (now Serena Hotel) where I found out for the first time that there was a prison just at the entrance. There was a police man and a small sign post: ‘Police Post’ written with a pen.

When I reached there, these fellows pulled me out of the Land Rover, brought me to that police post and instructed the policemen, “Huyo ni mfungwa. Mueke ndani” (That is a prisoner, put him inside).
There was one room where they kept prisoners. The police men told me to get off my shoes, belt and belongings. They also took my briefcase. Then they opened the door and threw me in a very dusty room; it wasn’t big.

There were about 30 or 40 other prisoners. I did not recognise any. They weren’t excited about anybody coming in. But some tried to establish a conversation with me, asking: “What is the problem, why are you here?”

All along, I believed this was a serious mistake of identity. I suspected they mistook me for somebody else. I believed sooner or later they would realise their mistake and let me go. I was anxious to travel to Nairobi that afternoon anyway.

The whole place was dirty. So I remained standing near the door, hoping that any time somebody would get me out. The other prisoners told me to sit down and I said: “No, it’s okay”.

As time went on, it became midday, one o’clock. I realised I was going to miss my flight. I started banging the door. “You know, I am supposed to travel.” The policemen laughed. I told them, “Can’t you call the other people and tell them…?” The other inmates were just observing.

Anyway, my agitation did not help. Of course I was getting hungry, tired; so at around 3.00 or 4:00p.m., I cleaned a small patch of the floor. I first squatted but by evening I had comfortably rested my buttocks on the ground.

At about 8:00p.m, some two drunken looking people came in and asked: “nani anataka chai?” (Who wants tea?). I hadn’t had anything, so I stood on my feet and said: “Yes, I am here.” Others laughed.
Given ‘chai’.

These people went behind some boxes, pulled out some wires which looked like electric cables and immediately descended on me, and started beating me, not caring where they were striking.
That was the tea they meant.

They beat me up very badly. I was only able to protect my face. And they were enjoying themselves. There was an old man, who pleaded that I should be forgiven. He was just sympathetic, saying “leave the young boy”.

They abandoned me and went for him. Eventually they closed the door and went away. There was generally silence after that but some people were [softly] complaining. I knew I was in very serious trouble.

At about midnight, we were all told to get out in a single line, holding each other’s trousers. We went underground where there was a kitchen with big stoves (sigiri). It was so dirty, with water and charcoal on the floor. We were told to eat from one of the big saucepans.
Inside the saucepan they had mingled ugali.

Then on top, they would pour some beans. But they would be few beans which would settle on the top of the posho. There were no plates; everybody had to eat from there. You had to pass your hand through that hot water and grab something for yourself.

It was very hot, so I failed despite being extremely hungry. By the time it calmed down a little for me to somewhat pass my hand, they were already herding us back to prison.

But other people seemed to have gotten used. They would congest around and push their hands there, bringing out a very big chunk [of food] and eating from there. We were taken back after eating. I don’t think I slept at all that night mainly because of anger.

I was extremely angry about what had happened throughout that day.
I stayed the whole night thinking of what to do, but that seemed to be the beginning of the routine, of how days were subsequently spent.

Infamous 211
We would be seated the whole day, sometimes new people would be brought, others taken out, normally at night. We wouldn’t know where they would be taken. Generally people who were taken never returned. But some would be taken for torture at the hotel at around 2:00a.m. and brought back.

After a few days, they took me to Nile Hotel Room 211 which was a notorious torture chamber. This was a terrible room. The walls were splashed with blood. There was a brownish or reddish carpet which you could see was wet at certain places with blood.

I had not known why I was arrested. Who could I ask? I never saw the people who detained me. We were just there, detained by these police men.

There were only two people and one civilian being beaten in Room 211. One of them asked me to tell them without having to be forced.
“We want you to tell us what you know about the rebellion,” he said.
I told them yes, I was active in UPM, but that was it. I knew absolutely nothing about the rebellion and that I had no contact with any of the people in the group.

They also asked me if I had attended a meeting at a certain place in Mbarara which I was hearing of for the very first time.
At that stage they became very unfriendly. They said: “okay, if you can’t co-operate, you will tell us anyway.” They tied my hands with those wires and started beating me again. After that, they took me back. We went through that about three times.

A few days later, 10 people were brought from Mbarara as prisoners. They were brought by a short, stout man, Katabazi. These were the first ones I was able to identify. Kabazaire was a magistrate in our village in Rukungiri. He was rather old; looking frail.

Another gentleman Mbiringi ran a restaurant in Mbarara. There was also an old man, Rwanchende who was a farmer in Mbarara.
And a young man called Karuhanga and Kananura who had been a diplomat.

There was a girl with a very young child, I think the child had been two days old. That girl turned out to be a sister to Jovia Saleh, one Mabel or something. After a few days, the baby got unwell and actually nearly died, so they took them away. I think for treatment or something. The old man Rwanchende was quite religious.

He liked to pray and he would pray many times a day but most of us were just listening. Rwanchende’s son also came at the police post all the way from Mbarara looking for his father.

A military officer asked him what he was looking for and he said: “I am looking for my father.” The officer ordered that he should also be put in prison, so he joined the father.

The 10 stayed with us for a few days until one evening when coming from underground for supper, we found a gentleman. He said he was looking for the group from Mbarara.

They separated that group of 10, less the woman who had gone earlier and drove them away in a Land Rover. Nobody has seen any of them up to now.

Out of detention

We were never taken to court. So we stayed there until one day a Tanzanian military officer came. He had also brought some prisoners.
He recognised me because I had interacted with him before. I think he had a medical problem. I had some Tanzanian friends who introduced him to me and I worked on him.

He said “What are you doing here?” I explained to him exactly how I had ended up there. He was shocked that such a thing could happen. He said he was going to find out.

That was in the morning, around 10:00 a.m. When he left, I forgot about it. I knew he would do nothing. But later in the evening, towards 7:00p.m., he came back with another soldier.

They picked me from the prison and took me to the hotel; I think Room 223. We found there a UNLF major, one Agwa. He was courteous. He had a file in front of him with sheets of paper. He asked me whether I knew anything about the rebellion. I said “frankly, I did not know anything.”

He told me that I was a young man, with a bright future ahead of me, so I shouldn’t mess myself up by getting [involved] with rebels, and so on. After counseling me, he said that his colleague, the Tanzanian, had pleaded for me and on that basis they were going to release me, but that I should report to the same office everyday at 3:00p.m.

That is how I left. The Tanzanian gave me a lift to Nakasero where I was staying. We must have left the hotel at 7.30p.m. or so. I left with a lot of turmoil in my head. One thing I was sure about, even as I left the hotel, was that I wouldn’t go back to report for any reason.

I was determined not to subject myself to that kind of situation again.
I contacted some friends and told them how I had been in prison. One of them suggested that he was in position to give me transport to the Busia border although he eventually took me to Nairobi. This must have been March or early April. In total, my detention took about four weeks.

Joining NRA

I was forced to run out of the country. That forced me into rebellion. I joined rebellion because I was completely infuriated with the abuse of power and violation of human rights.

When I joined the army (NRA), my objective was limited to seeing the removal of the dictatorship and establishing democratic governance in which each of us would peacefully thrive.

I had therefore hoped to leave the army by the time of the making of the new constitution in the early 1990s to do my own things.

But then, that is the time things started going seriously wrong. We went to the Constituent Assembly (CA); it was manipulated and really sabotaged by NRM leaders, in fact by Museveni himself. Things have since that time moved in some kind of un-controlled manner.

By that time I had actually applied to retire from the army, which retirement wasn’t guaranteed. So I hang around the army until 1999 when I wrote a criticism of the NRM and was to be court-martialed.
Even in 2001, it wasn’t my intention at all to join politics. My intention was to go into private life outside government.

I had however hoped some of our colleagues, in the circumstances, would take over the challenge to challenge the regime. But as it turned out, they did not consider it the right time. Many of them said we should wait since Museveni was serving his last term. But I felt strongly that it was the right time to challenge him because any day that he continued unchallenged would be compounding the problem.

But even then, may be I wouldn’t have intervened myself if a decision hadn’t been pushed against me by their plan to arrest me. The day before I announced I was going to challenge President Museveni in 2000, they tried to arrest me. The court martial had already been disposed of. But they tried to arrest me because they thought I was mobilising, which I was, but I wasn’t mobilising illegally.

I was mobilising that people should indeed go ahead and challenge President Museveni. I was talking to many people, saying “please let’s have a challenge against this.” I think they did not want me to continue doing that, so they planned to arrest me.

Fortunately, they did not find me where they thought I was. They came to arrest me from Speke Hotel where we were supposed to have a meeting. The next day, I rang the editors of newspapers informing them about it. Then I was faced with a dilemma; either I had to run away if I did not want to be arrested or I had to confront them head on. I chose the latter.

Second arrest
Of course after coming back [from exile in South Africa] I was conscious that I was likely to be arrested at some stage. Indeed as you know, Museveni had written about it even before I came back.
Apart from that, I had heard from friendly forces within the system of the preparations that had been going on to create cases over which I would be charged. So I was expecting to be arrested; the question was when. But I expected to be arrested much sooner than it happened.
We came from Rukungiri rather late. My intention was to drive all the way to Kampala that night.

But on the way from Rukungiri to Mbarara, FDC Treasurer and former Rukiga County MP, Jack Sabiiti and FDC Organising Secretary and former Army Commander, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, who were in a car behind mine stopped us and advised that we stay in Mbarara.
I did not quite agree with them but they were very strong and insistent that we stay in Mbarara for the night. I wasn’t persuaded and we drove on.

Towards Mbarara, they again pleaded that we should stay a night in Mbarara. They were obviously worried about all kinds of evil plans of the regime against us which could take the form of anything.
The argument was that whatever the regime was planning, it was better to confront it during the day than at night.

There was also worry that at night there were plans to use trucks to crash into our vehicles Ayume style (former Attorney General Francis Ayume died in a road accident-ED).

Any how, I decided to go along with their suggestion and we stayed in Mbarara for a night. I think in Classic Hotel. We left Mbarara in the morning, around 10:00a.m. and drove straight to Kampala. There are always people following me, but I didn’t stress myself [over] it. It’s just like now, there are always people following me, but I don’t pay a lot of attention to them.

Drama at Busega
When we reached Busega, I saw a Police vehicle parked across the road. Then there were other Police vehicles around it with Police officers. We were stopped. I knew that this was the arrest.

They first talked to people in the front car, the Sabiitis. They told them that they were there to arrest me. At that stage, I told the person who was driving me to just lock all the [car] windows and we see how they got us out of our vehicles.

Some negotiations ensued between the Sabiitis and the Police. They told them that if the idea was to have me arrested, we could drive to the Police station ourselves.

Initially, they insisted on taking me out of the car into their cars, but they realised they were in for an uphill task. Eventually, they agreed that we drive ourselves to the Police station (CPS). We drove off towards the city centre.

Along the way, we called a few of our leaders in Kampala to tell them what was taking place. Of course the radio stations had been talking, indeed some radio stations called me and I told them what was taking place. I also called some members of the diplomatic community to tell them about what was happening.

When we were I think somewhere [near] Mengo, some of our supporters from the city joined us. In the convoy, some of our people were telling other people where we were passing what had happened. But the large Police presence itself was causing a lot of attention.
Well, the military was always involved even in the group we found at Busega. Some of them were military intelligence officers. I recognised some. They were in civilian clothes. I think there was only one who was dressed in military clothes.

As we continued to the city centre, they wanted us to take a route which they had decided on their own - through Old Kampala and I don’t know where. We insisted on the nearest route to CPS, so we branched off, going to the park. They were forced to [follow us]. I told Sabiiti who was in the car ahead that for us we were going this way.

By the time we got to town, the teargas had started. It actually started in Mengo where the Kampala people found us. I heard the first tear gas at Bakuli. By the time we got to town, it was by far more chaotic. I did not expect that kind of strong reaction from the people. We went to the CPS amidst that teargas.

At CPS, we were taken to third floor where we found everything, the files, lined up. They asked me to make a short statement about PRA, which I made. Then they walked us to the rear part of the Police; there is an exit connecting to the Buganda Road Court. That was about 6:00 or 6:30p.m.

The magistrate was there, and so the charges -treason and rape - were read. That was where I first heard of rape. At CPS, they never talked about rape.

But I had heard of their intention to do so while still in South Africa, but I couldn’t believe that they could go ahead with that kind of thing.

Alone in Luzira
After charging me, they took me to the truck to Luzira Prison. I got there when it was already getting dark. They had evacuated a whole wing of prisoners where I was to stay. That was the East Wing where the other PRA people had been. I was the only prisoner there.

They first told me to undress to inspect the body. That is one of their procedures. I don’t know what it’s meant to do. I accepted and they inspected. Of course they had taken my shoes, wallet, belt and what have you. And then they took me to my prison room, locked and went away. It was fairly small. There was no mattress, radio. I accepted that this was one of the things that had to be endured if the struggle for a decent Uganda was to be advanced.

That night was of course like the first night in the conference centre. There was no food. I was told that the prisoners eat in the afternoon. I had gone late. Not that if they had given it to me I would have eaten it anyway, but it was not there.

The anger that builds up through that process is such that there is no way one can sleep that night. So I spent a lot of time turning things over about the whole situation in the country. For me there was a sense of a complete cycle going back to the Nile Hotel where I had started from. There was a lot of that - to see the injustice [whereby] the people who should be in prison are the ones herding you into prison; it’s very frustrating.

In prison, one has a lot of time. That time is used to indulge in all kinds of thoughts and analyses. But on that first night of course there was added discomfort because of the room which was tiny, extremely hot and poorly aerated. There is only a vent somewhere high up.

The lights were on up to a certain time, then they went off and came back later. The switch was not there, so you don’t control the lights. They are controlled from outside. So it becomes very hot and there are many mosquitoes. That added to the discomfort. I never closed my eyes that night. On the second day, there was a lot of activity.

My lawyers came and I protested the solitary confinement and the manner of how I would get food.

Poison worry
My biggest worry was being poisoned. Again, that is what my own intelligence sources [had] told me. I had been getting independent information of the intention to poison me using either food, gases; to gas me in the room from wherever. I anticipated that could happen but I was fairly comfortable because in spite of knowing all that, I still believed I was doing the right thing and that if death comes, it will come to everybody. It could as well come to me doing something that I believed in.

Although I was worried about such eventualities, I wasn’t regretting the situation in which I was. I also was able to get a small mattress and a blanket from home the following day.

After complaining, they brought back the other PRA prisoners on the third day. I knew some of them, like [George Tumwesigye] Owakukiroru, Katabazi and of course my brother, Joseph Musasizi. Others I got to know them while there.

Once we sorted out how we would cook and protect our food; somewhat, I was allowed to stay in the room with my brother, so that if I am not in the room there was somebody to look after whatever, say water.

I think there was generally a feeling of optimism and expectation among the PRA suspects that their dilemma would be sorted out in one way or the other. We were all there, with a lot of publicity around my imprisonment.

The prison warders were quite respectful, sympathetic. Others were just scared. Of course the whole prison was ecstatic. I wasn’t allowed to have contact with them. But whenever I would be taken to the offices, the whole prison would make noise.

Everybody is locked in his room at night but in the morning, they open the rooms and everyone goes to a fenced off open ground within the east wing.

There is a place for rooms, cells and an open ground in front. That is where we all sat and got the sun. Of course you are watched over, you couldn’t get out and it’s locked anyway. We could stay there and chat the whole day.

Of course the other uncomfortable thing is that at night they lock the room at 6:00 or 6:30p.m. and leave. They open in the morning, I think at 7:00a.m.

There is no arrangement at all what happens when you get a problem during that time. It’s a big problem. About going for short call, well, everybody has a pail; anything you want to do, you do it in the bucket and take it out in the morning, which of course is more inconvenient.

They lock the door of the cell, then the main door to the cell and then the door to the wing. There is also a prison for the keys where they (keys) are locked up, then the key to the keys is kept by I think the OC. It’s a long process and if you got an emergency at night, you would definitely die there because there is no system of alarm that you can make.

In fact, there is a time when one of our colleagues got a serious problem, I think with his canal. He shouted and shouted, and we joined him in shouting, but it was not until after some hours that somebody heard us and opened.

It’s one area that definitely needs urgent improvement. I can’t say there was torture. The rest was routine, the nights are more or less the same. We were allowed to do exercises in the evening, others played football. I didn’t join them but if I wanted I could have joined them.

Justice Ogoola visits
The first visitor I got, I think, was the Principal Judge, James Ogoola. He shocked me. He came and told me he had been to State House. He had an idea; he was suggesting that I should accept to be locked at my house. That while in the house, we could work out amnesty arrangements or something.

It did not make any sense to me and I dismissed it outright. First of all, I did not see any need to treat me differently. I was jointly charged with the others, so why would they want to charge me separately? And even more frightening, why would you want to take me from an illegal process to an illegal one? What would be my status in the house? Would I be under the prison authorities? I was remanded by court, but in my house surrounded by the military, who would be in charge of my imprisonment?

I was contented to fight within the prison whatever was brought up against me. I wanted to be subjected to the due process.
But I continued to get visitors like all other people on visiting days - Monday, Wednesday and Friday - when they fell on working days.
Public holidays are not visiting days.

Bishop Orombi
My visitors ranged from family members, party colleagues, friends, institutional visits from organisations concerned about prisoners and human rights organisations.

I got visitors from Red Cross, Commonwealth Secretariat, church leaders, priests, nuns, Anglican Archbishop, Henry Luke Orombi.
I think Cardinal Wamala did not come. I also did not get visitors from the diplomatic community.

I met my visitors in the OC’s office of course, in the presence of prison staff. They wouldn’t allow any exchange of documents or anything with whoever was visiting.

But of course we had to find ways of overcoming those restrictions. We would smuggle documents to the outside world (like the letter to my supporters that my wife Winnie Byanyima read on nomination day at Nakivubo Stadium).

One time a journalist came as a relative and we talked. But when they realised that he had been a journalist, they tightened the process of getting visitors. I had to confirm before someone is allowed at the main gate. They would bring their identity cards to confirm that they are not journalists. I would also tell them the relationship I have with that person.

Newspapers would have to be what they called censored and stamped. My friends brought me a number of books and you had to give it to them (prison authorities) to satisfy that it was material right for the prison, and they would stamp it once they were so satisfied.

Daily life
On waking up, everybody would be lining up to ease themselves early in the morning because there were no toilet facilities in the rooms.
And I think like myself, even the others did not use the pail. Then we would go to the open quadrangle outside our prison and use the toilets, wash up and brush our teeth.

Sometimes you walk around the quadrangle for exercises. Then we would just sit down and chat amongst ourselves. We had breakfast at around 10:00a.m. We made the meals ourselves. We received fresh foods from our relatives.

For breakfast we would have tea [with milk]. We had a gentleman who was an expert in making chapatti. So breakfast was very nice with chapatti I can assure you. Then may be by 11:00a.m., newspapers would come. We would read them and generally continue chatting. It was partly politics and normal life discussions, or social events which you have read in the newspapers.

From time to time I would be called to office, maybe there were lawyers who had come to see me over something. Those (lawyers) need not come on visiting day but they had to get permission from the prison authorities. Even special visitors got permission from prison authorities.

We would have a meal at 4:00 or 5:00p.m. It was one meal combining lunch and dinner. It comprised various fresh foods; potatoes, matooke, cassava, beans and meat. Whatever we brought they wouldn’t stop us.
Some of our colleagues also enjoyed playing Omweso (board game). I wasn’t part of them but I enjoyed watching. So I spent time there.
I went for prayers on Sundays. Some times I prayed in Protestant, Catholic chapels, and attended Muslim prayers.

However, prison authorities were jittery about my attendance of prayers because that was the only place where I met the rest of the prisoners.

I wasn’t allowed to interact with them. At some stage, they wanted to stop it (attending prayers). Obviously we protested. Then they said that when I go, I shouldn’t talk. But the people always requested me to greet them.

Nomination in jail
I must say I was rather surprised that the Electoral Commission took the decision that I get nominated while in prison. I expected it to follow the disgraced Attorney General, Dr. Kidhu Makubuya’s advice not to nominate me. And I believe that was part of the plan anyway. But I have since heard that there was tremendous international pressure on the President and that it was he himself who authorised [EC] to go ahead with my nomination.

As for Christmas and New Year in jail, frankly I have never been a person of celebrations even in my ordinary life outside prison.
I never indulge differently on those occasions. I am not a person mobilised by the spirit of those days; to that extent I did not feel unduly depressed that I was spending special days in prison.

The feeling I had on Christmas could not have been different from the feeling I had on being in prison on any other day. Though on Christmas, and I think on New Year, we had some entertainment with some drama groups of prisoners coming to perform for us.
We also had some special cooking and eating - a lot of meat and so on.

Getting bail
I was again surprised because I was convinced that the government was determined not to accept it. Just the same way, they have done everything illegal to keep my co-accused in jail. I did not expect that they would relent and allow me to have bail.

But I was also aware of tremendous pressure. The fact that I was already nominated, campaigns had started, Museveni was out campaigning and people said, “How can you campaign when your opponent is in jail?”

What kept me going in prison is still what keeps me going - determination to see change in this country and the fact that we have already committed a better part of our lives to the struggle for those changes.

So whatever it takes to push on that struggle to its logical conclusion is a matter which I can never feel that I am discouraged from for any reason. I think it’s a life commitment to see that the changes we have been fighting for all these years ultimately take place. I may expire before they take place, but I will never be discouraged until they take place or until I can’t struggle any more.

Reflections
I was touched by the religious groups which came to minister to the prisoners. One never gets to appreciate that kind of selfless service as much as one does in prison. And to that extent, I believe most people who pass through prison get out spiritually stronger or richer. I interacted with people like Rwakasisi a number of times who has been on death row for over 20 years.

I was moved by the strength, confidence he exhibits on the basis of his spiritual attachment.

mcmubs@ugandaobserver.com