NEW SERIES: MY PRISON LIFE
 
 
March 1 , 2007
Luzira was 'forced holiday' for Obwangor

86-year-old CUTHERBERT OBWANGOR was a lawmaker in the protectorate government under Governor Sir Andrew Cohen, before becoming a member of the first political party, Uganda National Congress (UNC).

He held various ministerial posts in Dr. Apollo Milton Obote's first reign, was a member of the Odoki Commission that from February 1989- December 31, 1992 sought people's views on the making of a new constitution.

A principled politician, Obwangor was arrested after the December 19, 1969 Lugogo incident when an attempt was made on Obote's life.
He was arrested alongside politicians such as Prof. Dani Wadada Nabudere, Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere and the late Ben Kiwanuka.
In 'My Prison Life' Series this week, Obwangor reveals to MICHAEL MUBANGIZI that his arrest stemmed from Basil Bataringaya and Felix Onama's suspicions that he masterminded the assassination plot.

I was born on November 1, 1920. I started school when I was 12 years in a place called Magolo and later Soroma in Katakwi district where I was baptized on March 20, 1933.

I joined St. Joseph Primary school in Ngora up to third class, and Nyenga Seminary in Mukono later. For secondary, I was in Namilyango College for five years. I was paying Shs 380 annually and we got free food, accommodation and uniform.

Our teachers were missionaries; they were very good. While at Namilyango, I went to England. I was lucky I got a friend, a Catholic father. He was writing a book and wanted somebody who knew how to write Ateso.

I went there purposely for that and wrote a draft for him. It took me one year. The title was Ateso Vocabulary. After that, I came back to finish my programme at Namilyango.

I worked very hard, passed my examinations very well, got my certificate and went to Nairobi. I joined the railway transport and economics of transport in a traffic school in Nairobi.
I passed my exams there also and was sent to Mombasa station to learn traffic deeply.

I continued to work in the railways until I left Kenya in July in 1952, and came back home to Soroti where I had built and ran a restaurant.
I had earlier studied a diploma in accountancy at London School of Economics.

In 1953, I was luckily nominated to Soroti District Council and later became its vice chairman. Luckily, I was again nominated to represent people of Teso in the Legco. I got 75,000 votes. That was the time of Governor Andrew Cohen.

Why politics?
UPC became my first political party. I was a nationalist. I joined politics for purposes of discarding and destroying colonialism. In Nairobi I was a member of the KANU executive committee with the likes of Jomo Kenyatta. The Tom Mboyas came later; they are the children we produced [politically].

Our work involved mobilising and talking to people on any subject involving politics, preparing them for independence. In 1953/4, I joined UNC that Obote later merged with [William Wilberforce] Rwetsiba of Mbarara to form UPC.

I was its founder member with people like Grace Ibingira, Felix Onama, Mathias Ngobi and Edward Rurangaranga.

Uganda House
I was UPC Treasurer until 1967. It was during my tenure that we built Uganda House at Shs 24m. I was the chairman of the construction committee. I chased the policemen who were guarding the shops there.

I am the one who got the name Uganda House. It was easy because of the Uganda Congress connection. It was Uganda House, representing the party. It signifies the house of Uganda People’s Congress. UPC was nationalistic not individualistic; that is why I never gave it a person’s name.

We worked very hard. On May 1, 1960, I was again luckily elected to Parliament. I also served in various ministerial posts in Obote’s government; minister of Cabinet Affairs, Economics, Regional Administration and Justice and Law.

Quarreling with Obote
[It was during that time] in July 1967 that I quarreled with Obote on a new law that had been brought for purposes of arresting people and taking them to Luzira without trial.

I was anti-non trial by court of people arrested. I opposed that move…It meant there was no real independence if people were arrested at pleasure rather than reason and thought.

On December 19, 1969, [assassins] nearly killed Obote in Lugogo.
They thought that it was us politicians who had organised the plot. So Ben Kiwanuka, [Paul] Ssemogere, [Mathias] Ngobi, Wakukulu, myself, and others were arrested.

I represented Teso in Parliament then and was campaigning and mobilising people in Teso. But I was picked from my home here [in Soroti] where I was running a shop. I was in the shop in the morning, writing something.

Three policemen came. They had their small sticks but weren’t armed. They said they wanted me to go to the Police station; that there was something I was needed to discuss.

I refused. I asked them to tell me why. They said, “It’s political, we don’t know, but we are told to arrest you.” I left somebody in the shop and they took me to Soroti Police station where they put me in Police quarters, not in a prison. I remained in my clothes, shoes and belt.

I stayed in that room alone for three days as they were making arrangements to take me to Mbale. I did not ask why I was arrested; this was Police.

I was getting food from my home which is near. Water was also there and I was not mistreated because I was a high profile person. The Police were also disciplined. They couldn’t beat me.
After three days, policemen took me in a vehicle to Mbale where I found Nabudere and Wakukulu.

I knew Nabudere, we were both politicians, but I was surprised to find him there. He was also surprised, but I said this is a changing world. Nabudere was a good man, properly behaved as an educated man.

To Luzira
The three of us; Obwangor, Nabudere and Wakukulu did not spend a day in Mbale. On the same day, we were driven through Jinja to Luzira where we spent one year and two months.
We weren’t badly received in Luzira.
We were each put in separate rooms.
It was a normal room – 8x8 (square metres).

We found there mattresses and blankets because we were politicians. We were eight political prisoners, including Ssemogere and Kiwanuka, but there was no interaction among the inmates. [Besides], Ssemogere and Kiwanuka were in a different wing.

Even those in the condemned section were in their separate rooms.
Electricity was also there in plenty; the prison authorities regularly switched on and off. They switched on, say when we were eating or when you were about to wake up.

Concerning routine activities, they opened for you at 6:00a.m. to do exercises. They made you run around the compound for about 20 minutes then you would go back to your room.

Then they would bring you tea. There was no trouble about food for us, who were political prisoners. Prison authorities gave us prison food served in the morning and evening daily.
We were served matooke, potatoes, meat, tea with milk and sugar, and some bread.

When this wasn’t enough, you could wait for another serving.
On the fourth day, we were put in the same room with others. Generally, the relationship with fellow inmates was good. You could either be one or two in the room. I was lucky [in that] I befriended some prison officers; Iteso and Baganda.

They often found me reading a book everyday and they would say, “You like books.” I said “Yes, you give us more books.” They gave us books on Law, Economics, Science, Biology and modern science.
We actually formed a library using those books. Reading books became part of our routine activity.

I am a man of books. We were the first to introduce reading there, so I enjoyed reading while in prison. (This writer found Obwangor reading newspapers in his home library with a lot of books around).

Political case
Ours was a political case; there was not even record of our arrest. They arrested us without warrants of arrest, we were not told why we had been arrested, it was purely for political reasons. When I found there DP founder Ben Kiwanuka, Paul Ssemogere, Nabudere, William Wilberforce Nadiope, I knew it was political. All these were politicians. So I never asked why I had been arrested.

But it was generally suspicion by Basil Bataringaya and Felix Onama.
[They feared] that if we-Ben Kiwanuka, Nabudere, Akena (Adoko) and others had stayed out, we would have [overthrown] government through the army. They knew that the policemen, army, were good to us.

Onama and Bataringaya did not like Obote; they are the people who engineered the December 19, 1969 assassination at Lugogo.
It was alleged that I was part of the people who planned the assassination, but it was just a concoction by Bataringaya and Onama. It was baseless, unfounded.

It was just political envy; they feared our good names, the votes we had got. So they picked those who were prominent from various areas.
We were allowed visitors on Saturdays and Sundays, not everyday. The only bad thing in prison is when there was shortage of food and water, but it wasn’t rampant, [though] it occasionally happened.
About leisure, we were allowed daily exercises in the morning and evening for slightly more than an hour. One could run, pull a few things and sweep the place. We were also allowed to meet inmates from other rooms outside the shed.

We also meet and talked about various things about life, but we did not discuss why we had been arrested because we knew it was politics.
Spiritually, the churchmen came on Sundays and we gathered in one place and prayed together. In terms of health, there was plenty of medicine.

No mistreatment
There was no mistreatment; I have told you we were reading books.
There were no killings. That would be against the law for the government to do. Killings were only by law, those that had been decided upon by courts of law.

Those who were [to be] killed, we could hear some of them crying. This was done every six months. [But] I did not fear for my life. How could I fear when there was no case in the courts of law? How?

To kill me without the courts of law? Maybe outside the law, but not according to the law. That time government ruled by law; prison officers who guarded the place were good, properly disciplined, working according to the law.

Leaving prison
We left prison on February 2, 1971, very early in the morning, after spending one year and two months in prison. This was after Amin had taken over and chased Obote away.

Amin ordered the release of all political prisoners (Point number one of the 18 reasons given to justify his coup was the unwarranted detentions without trial of large numbers of people).

It was a government order; only politicians had been arrested during that time. The policemen came and said they had been ordered by Amin to release us. One left the prison’s clothes before [being] released, so we put on our clothes.

Prison officials brought us in a bus from Luzira to Kololo Airstrip. There were so many people gathered. It’s there that Amin officially released us; he just condemned our arrest and said we were free to go. Oh, it was very exciting!

From Kololo I went to Mengo Social Centre, west of Kisenyi in Kampala, a place I knew very well. It’s a place for visitors where they are given accommodation. I stayed there [trying to find out why I had been arrested].

[While in Luzira], I never planned to escape. What for? I knew there was no case, I would get out quickly. I had only gone there as a punishment. It never crossed my mind to escape.

We were only praying that either the courts of law release us on no case to answer or any other intervention leading to our release.
We thought government was trying to spoil our good names in our constituencies.

Still a politician
After my release, I went back to UPC and continued with my politics until today. I am still a politician. I am still alive, so I must enjoy life.
I have been in all political parties; DP between 1982 and 1984. I left DP because the presidency lacked leadership, he wasn’t liberal, a good leader to manage; that is why I left it. DP needed to get liberal, according to me, which it wasn’t.

In the NRM government, I was appointed on the Justice Odoki-led Commission in 1989 to collect views from people for making of the constitution. I was with people like [former minister Miria] Matembe. It was about 21 people.

Later, I joined the Movement. I was thanking [President] Museveni for electing me on that commission. But I am now a UPC man.
I left them after I think four years in 2001. Politics is like wind, you move with the current affairs and temperature of the time.

Meeting Obote
The first time after prison, I met Obote in Kampala. We did not talk about the imprisonment. He said nothing, not even “sorry”. There was no need. Of course I continued to meet Obote even after prison when he came back [from exile in Dar es Salaam].

He often invited me to Uganda House wherever he wanted to talk to me. Other times he came here (Soroti). There was no enmity among us, just political differences.

Imprisonment affected my economic development. I have told you of my shop; instead of being out making money, I was in jail.
I however did not lose weight in prison; we were political prisoners, not ordinary prisoners who were made to work and things like that. It was like a forced holiday, because things were not bad there to shame the devil.

No freedom
On comparing the environment then and now, I should say in our times, the chiefs, policemen were trained. Presently, they arrest you on petty cases.
For Dr. Kizza Besigye there was enmity between him and Museveni.
Museveni was a friend of Besigye’ wife Byanyima; haven’t you read it in papers?

I think that is what caused it, it was not political. There is no harmony, no freedom in the proper sense.
Looking back, I don’t regret having been arrested. It’s an experience in life. There was no sin by me; people were envious of my goodness, and that happens in life.

Government should respect human rights and work for people in economic and social activities, providing medicine in hospitals.
Hospitals nowadays don’t look after people like us old men because there is no medicine.

They tell you to go to the clinic, yet services are not there except for those they know. It should be open to all.
There should particularly be special programmes for the elderly, orphans, children, women’s organisations and businessmen.

mcmubs@ugandaobserver.com