Thursday, July 2, 2015

Nakasongola Prison

25th April 2011 was a Monday and should have been a day to walk-to-work but since it was Easter Monday, a public holiday; that would not make sense. Instead I hitched a ride with UPC president, Olara Otunnu to Nakasongola prison to visit IPC leaders Kizza Besigye and Nobert Mao who were on remand for offences related to their participation in the protests. Ken Lukyamuzi leader of the Conservative Party had been to visit his colleagues at Nakasongola the day before so we anticipated no problem with accessing the jailed leaders.
Nakasongola is just over 110 kilometers from Kampala and the drive took us approximately two hours. On the road we discussed the on-going crisis and I listened to Olara’s ideas about building a structure that was more inclusive and drew in the participation of NGOs, eminent persons, religious organizations and other member of civil society. He had definitely given it some thought and it was refreshing to talk to someone who was thinking in a structured manner when everyone else was on an emotional high. He had even figured out a leadership structure for this loose alliance which would be all-inclusive and remove focus and attention from a single opposition leader. Olara Otunnu was Uganda's Permanent Representative to the UN, served as Foreign Minister in Okello Lutwa’s short-lived regime, he once presided over the International Peace Academy and was Under Secretary-General at the United Nations before returning home to join politics and the struggle for change. In that context everything he was saying and his structured approach made sense but I knew that he was talking of something that would happen in the distant future because in the present context there was not the slightest possibility that the government would give us the space to formalize our dissent. In fact the government was determined to frustrate every effort.
The attempt to block every possible channel of communication and association amongst activists had recently extended to the media and journalists had become targets of police repression and brutality. On 19 April 2011 the Tuesday after Day three of the protests, Edward Echwalu, a photojournalist with the Weekly Observer was a guest blogger on the blog of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and he wrote:
‘Freedom of the press in Uganda hit a new low late last week when the government, in response to a decision by opposition figures to demonstrate against the escalating price of food and fuel by walking to work, banned live coverage of the protests and issued a directive to Internet providers to block two popular social websites for 24 hours.
The ban on live coverage came after television stations showed horrific images of the police force's high-handedness in arresting opposition politicians on the first day of the demonstrations. Footage of the police firing teargas canisters into homes, schools and hospitals, was also shown.
Security forces prevented journalists reporting from the scene from approaching some opposition figures who had been arrested, and several reporters were roughed up. At least eight reporters were injured during the demonstrations: Ali Mabule and Dismus Buregyeya of the daily New Vision, Francis Mukasa of WBS TV, Ronald Muyinda of Radio One, Michael Kakumirizi and Stuart Iga of The Red Pepper, Yunusu Ntale of CBS Radio FM, and Isa Aliga of Nation TV.
As the police battled peaceful demonstrators, and the army intervened in what was one of the most brutal crackdowns on peaceful protests the country has seen, the state-run Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) blocked Facebook and Twitter for several hours. The UCC first denied knowledge of Facebook and Twitter being blocked. However, a letter confirming UCC's directive was later leaked to the public. "We have received a request from the security agencies that there is a need to minimize the use of media that may escalate violence to the public in respect of the ongoing situation due to the demonstration relating to 'walk to work,' mainly by opposition in the country," read an April 14 letter signed by Quinto Ojok acting executive director of the UCC.
"As a stakeholder that has communication infrastructures that host media such as Facebook and Tweeter, the commission wishes to request for your indulgence in this matter," the letter went on. "You are therefore instructed to block the use of Facebook and Tweeter for 24 hours as of now that is; 14th April, 2011 at 3.30 p.m. to eliminate the connection and sharing of information that incites the public." Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in relaying news of this year's February general elections. Millions accessed updates regarding violence, vote counts, winners/losers throughout the country, and reporters continue to use these social websites.’
So, Olara’s grand plan against this backdrop of increased clamp down on opposition activities did not sound like a plan for the present. As if to confirm my thoughts when we arrived at Nakasongola Prison, the officers at the quarter guard, who had been reinforced by the police and the military in recognition of their eminent residents; refused to let us in. We had travelled two hours to see the inmates so when they told us to turn around and leave we refused and staged a small protest, demanding to talk to the Officer in Charge of the prison. After hours of arguing or quietly defying the orders to leave the highest-ranking prison official on duty came outside to talk to us. We were told to go back to Kampala and get a letter from their Commissioner General in order to be granted access to the imprisoned leaders because we had visited on a public holiday. It was easy to tell that the official was getting ‘orders from above’ because for every question we asked him he would pause, step away to make a call on the phone and then return to explain himself. He appeared to be under a lot of pressure and unable to make any decision without referring to a higher authority who was obviously not at the prison. After three hours we turned round and started the two-hour journey back to Kampala without seeing the inmates.
When Olara dropped me off at home in Bugolobi I promised him that I would talk to KB upon his release about the proposal on organizing structured dissent. That is exactly what took me to KB’s house early in the morning on 28 April 2011, Day 5 of the protests; giving me a front seat view of the most violent arrest of Kizza Besigye by Ugandan security led by the infamous Gilbert Arinaitwe.
At 50 I know that in a struggle for freedom it takes all sorts to move the scales of justice in the right direction, however there is a time that calls for diplomats and a time for street activists and walk-to-work was not a time for round table discussions.

feeling pissed off

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