- East Africa
By NANGAYI GUYSON
Kampala, Uganda -There were all kinds of news stories about kidnappings of President Museven's political opponents in Uganda since 2019 that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway war-toned country.
There were families that could visit radio and television channels and others writing regularly on social media platforms telling stories about how security forces took their loved ones to unknown places. To me, this somehow looked like it was opposition propaganda planned by presidential aspirant Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, a new challenger in 2021 general elections which was aimed at unseating President Museveni who has ruled this East African nation for more than 3 decades.
It wasn't until my arrest on 21 January 2021 which led me to Uganda's Kitalya Mini Max Prison and interacted with victims of these kidnaps that I began to believe that such news stories of Kidnap were actually true- And such things were taking place in our country. While in Kitalya Mini Max Prison, I came to learn that thousands of youths belonging to opposition groups were languishing here.
The road to Kitalya
I had just returned from a massively rigged election upcountry in my home district of Mbale, in the Eastern part of the country where I contested as a member of parliament for Bungokho Central Constituency on the ticket of ANT headed by Gen. Mugisha Muntu a former ally to the country’s President.
Because of what we witnessed and the evidence we had that included Vote buying, misleading or confusing ballot papers, Ballot stuffing, voter suppression among others, we decided that we should challenge the ruling party candidate’s victory in court.
But before we could do that, just two days after returning to Kampala, three men in a Toyota primo kidnapped me from Nsambya suburb and was driven 14 kilo meters to Kira Court on the outskirts of Kampala and was immediately sentenced to Kitalya Mini Max Prison on a civil case which had been turned criminal and political.
My journey to Kitalya was quick and unexpected but it had happened and the only thing that was left was fear to endure the conditions in prison since it was my first time as a prisoner because many horrific stories had been talked about it.
It was in the afternoon on 27 February, 2021 when my journey to Kitalya Mini Max Prison started after spending 6 days in Kira police station cell despite being sentenced on 21 February, 2021. A police truck with four armed officers picked 20 of us and a long journey started until we reached Kitalya Mini Max Prison at 7 pm.
Inside Kitalya Min Max Prison.
Sitting on hundreds of acres of government land, Kitalya Mini-Maximum prison is located in Busunju County Wakiso district along Mityana Road about 55km northwest of Uganda’s capital Kampala is Uganda’s first ever real post-colonial prison. Its construction was started in June 2016 and opened in 2020, it was meant to serve as an alternative prison for long term inmates whose jail sentences range between 20 and 100 years since Luzira is overwhelmed.
However, today this prison serves as a selected safe place for the government to incarcerate political prisoners. It was meant to accommodate up to 4,000 inmates but according to the OC prison who spoke to us during the parade, the prison has more than the number required and is over congested with political prisoners.
Within the many days I was there, I realized that it was almost impossible for inmates to think of escaping from this prison. I established that the prison is secured with a high-rise perimeter wall fence measuring the height of more than 20 meters with more than 70 CCTV camera points and many others inside the facility to monitor inmates.
The prison is equipped with big sized prison wards and about 30 cells and each of them have cameras. There is a football pitch, volley ball court, basketball court and lawn tennis court, sitting platforms/concrete benches which serves pavilions for inmates but all are monitored with surveillance cameras.
On the outside part, the prison has six watch towers equipped with powerful guns. We discovered that they were powerful guns when one day we heard thundering gunshots in the wee hours of the morning after fallen (counting of inmates) and we were later told that one inmate tried to break the record and escape but ended up in an isolation cell. To many inmates, Kitalya Mini-Maximum prison is another Quantanamo Bay in Uganda.
Inmates are striped off all their Human Rights
While in this prison, I had a chance to talk to many inmates who narrated to me most of these horrifying stories which I later saw with my two eyes. On the second day in this prison, I tried to exercise from inside the ward, but I was quickly warned by one of the ward leader known as Stephen (second name withheld for security reason) who I later discovered that he was convicted to 40 years in prison for murder.
He told me that “you’re making a big mistake. when they find you doing push-ups here, you will sleep in solitary confinement in a room filled with water, for several days and you be accused of plotting to escape from prison or planning to beat up prison warders” Stephen warned.
On the fifth day I also, had chance to see and talk to NUP team, leader by Nubian Li, Eddie Mutwe, allies of Bobi wine who told me how terrible the prison was. Nubian Li said “we are here suffering because were rejected the many offers of money which Museveni’s regime made to available to us. And if you have joined us here, just be strong brother because is not easy here. We’re the people who are used to exercising and reading books but to read books political in nature is a terrible offense" he said.
After 2 week inside there, a young boy of 19 years whose name is Denis (second name withheld for security reasons) narrated to me how he was arrested in August 2020 by security men in army uniform while he was returning home from Owno market (the country’s biggest market) and he had been on remand for 6 months since he had no one to follow up. He was accused of wearing red cloths belonging to NUP.
This boy’s hope was only in God. As days passed on, I used to see him every day sitting in the corner of the prison ward praying with a rosary. His prayers were heard few days later when a chance of phone calling outside the prison became being available after 6 months. He tried the only number he had in his head for his mother and lucky enough the mother picked.
It was an emotionally day for all of us who were around. Instead of this boy and the mother talking, we heard both of them carrying and since the phone was in loud mode according to prison policy. The mother said, “I have looked for you my son in every prison across the country, where are you, I thought you are dead?” she asked as she cried loudly making some of us inmates around to also cry.
The boy replied saying “mum I’m in Kitalya Mini-Maximum prison” the boy said. The mother replied that she had come to the same prison for more than 3 times but she was told the boy was not there and they don’t allow visitors due to COVID-19.
The mother ended by saying “don’t worry my son even if it means selling everything I have, I will do it to get you out of there” the mother promised. I left a few days later when Denis was with high hopes praising God that mother was coming to get him out. Boys in the same age like that of Denis were many in these prison and stories of them not appearing before courts because no one is following up on them were common.
Away from that, there are many tales from anyone who has been in this prison can personally tell. When sentenced to Kitalya Mini-Maximum prison, as an inmate, you forget about human rights and the so called international law, because they don’t exist in there. Inside this prison inmates are subjected to psychological and physical torture.
Remembering my first day of admission, we were humiliated by prison wardens. We went going through beatings, harassments where we were reduced to almost nothing and we were told “you have no rights here. You failed your mother. You failed police and court sentenced you hear. You either follow what we tell or break your leg.” Shouted a prison warden.
All the days I was there, prison wardens kept reminding us “You are in between death and life”. We were advised to be disciplined and go back alive or be indiscipline and go back dead.
Going back to the first day, this was my first time in life to be humiliated. On this day, we were brutally undressed, checked every part of our bodies and later given one pair of very dirty uniforms full of lice. No one cared if the uniform they were giving us were torn or not. What they only told us was, “this uniform is wash and wear. You as an inmate must make it clean or make sure is not torn. Putting on an underwear is a criminal offense”.
When we reached inside the prison wards, we were welcomed by fellow inmates who also subjected us to psychological torture. Almost two thirds of the inmates within this prison have never been convicted of a crime, many of them have stayed on remand for many years and are frustrated.
In our ward, there were such inmates. The frustrated inmates poured all the anger on us. The new inmates made it difficult for them to live in there. Going to the toilet was not easy, you asked for permission from the leader of the toilet and when given chance, you had to kneel on the line to the toilet and you were allowed for less than a minute. Failure to adhere to these rules, you were pulled off the toilet.
Sometimes, that chance of going to the toilet did not even come because there was water shortage! Bathing was also a hustle- You had to compete for the little water available. At times, you took several days without having a bath or washing your uniform.
When the leaders of the ward or prison wardens came in, you were supposed to clap in unison to welcome them and thank them with the same clapping when they finish talking, failure to do that, you are subjected beatings by prison wardens. When it came to health, food and accommodation was worse.
Proper hygiene is difficult with limited government-provided soap. Prisoners face a lot of lice infestation and scabies. I saw Inmates are all day and night seen scratching their bodies. Most of them coughed, violently, night after night, but doctors tell them that there is no medicine for cough and the best treatment was to drinking water.
There is an acute water shortage, to get water, you have to ask for permission from the water tank leader who offers you a cup of un-boiled water to drink. Sometimes you are denied to drink if water is little and if you had a chance before.
Water is often unclean or unavailable. Boiled water is a commodity sold by inmates with kitchen privileges. Mosquitoes and malaria are a constant threat since prison administration has forbidden nets for male inmates because of security fears. Tuberculosis (TB) is common but to get tested, the samples are taken to Luzira prison and they can take weeks to return.
As an inmate, I witnessed something which was very new to me, we often slept on one shoulder, packed together so that we can only shift if an entire row agrees to roll at once. One ward which is less than half the size of a football pitch was packed with 270 or 300 inmates.
Shortage of food is common in this prison. Prison food is nutritionally deficient, leaving inmates vulnerable to infections. Some of the inmates complained to the doctors, how they were passing stool with blood but nothing was done. Food served in this prison is porridge, posho and beans. On several occasions I was there, food was served late and sometimes we were served with only porridge until the next day. These posho and beans are bad. Beans are infested by insects. Sometimes you just get soup with no beans. Posho is so bad.
To date, amid post-election tensions in Uganda and reports of the abduction and detention of hundreds of members of the opposition, several youths across the country continue to face arrest and were are taken is Kitalya Mini-Maximum prison.
The prison which costed the Ugandan government about 18.3 bn Ushs has attracted other African leaders. The Ethiopian government which also commonly suffers political riots has been sending its own officials to benchmark on the same. The last such benchmarking visit was made on 6th May 2019 when CGP Byabashaija hosted his Ethiopian counterpart.
NUP candidate Bobi Wine was defeated in the January 14 election, with incumbent President Yoweri Museveni taking 58.64% of the vote to win a sixth term in office after 35 years of rule. But Bobi Wine has alleged widespread fraud and continue saying citizens should reject the result. President Yoweri Museveni, won a decisive re-election victory in an election where there were no EU or US observers allowed.
The US State Department’s top diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, had said in a tweet just after the January 14 elections that the "electoral process has been fundamentally flawed".
He cited fraud reports, denial of accreditation to observers, violence and harassment of opposition members, and the arrest of civil society activists.
Even the Africa Elections Watch coalition, which deployed 2,000 observers in 146 districts, had said in a statement that they had observed irregularities, including the late opening of most polling stations, missing ballot papers and illegally opened ballot boxes.