By Achola Rosario
A few hours after his release from Nakasongola Prison on April 27, The Independent’s Achola Rosario talked to him at his residence in the Kasangati outskirt about his tribulations in jail since he was incarcerated on April 21 and his strategy in the Walk to Work protests.
How was your incarceration?
It was reasonable by Ugandan standards. We were in fairly clean cells where you are detained with a toilet with no running water. So you had to go and fetch water with jerry cans. Of course all prisons do not provide you with mattresses, it’s only blankets. But we were able to organise our own small mattresses. We were preparing our own food. During the last three days there was no power at all, which made us worry. However prison officers did not intimidate us. They were polite and appeared to manage their work professionally. We were not allowed to interact with other prisoners- we were isolated. Of course the Uganda Prisons outlook is still punitive rather than corrective and I think that whole orientation is evidenced in how all prisoners are cared for and managed. They attempted to make us wear prison uniforms. I was not happy about it because I consider that since I am on remand I am innocent until proven guilty, the prison is only holding me until I go to court. So when they start infringing on what you wear, it becomes punitive rather than confinement. Eventually I was allowed to not wear them but my colleagues had to.
Were you incarcerated with or near DP president Norbert Mao?
No- I was not allowed near Norbert Mao. Mao was detained at a different block.
Did you talk together? What did you talk about?
We met once and shared a few ideas. We chatted briefly but outside the cells. That was not something Prisons officers allowed or were happy about. But overall, I am happy with the Prisons officers, although we were concerned about the darkness which strangely seemed to end when we were being marched out of the prison- a funny coincidence. In the darkness we were hearing some sounds that were worrying- like human movements deep in the night in a manner that concerned us all about what was going on. From the time we arrived, police surrounded the prison. So essentially the prison was also imprisoned. We were not sure who was actually in charge. The number of roadblocks also proved difficult for people to access us. The public was not informed about the visiting procedures. During Easter, a number of people came to see us and found regulations prohibiting visiting on holidays. We never even got to know they had come until sometime later. With Mao, we exchanged views about why we were there and I was keen to find out how he was transferred. We exchanged views about the government reactions to our actions.
Does this herald a new era of opposition unity for change?
Actually in the short exchange we had, it transpired that the DP leadership had been approached by the government in a manner which the DP leadership thought of as intending to undermine the united protest platform. This happened in the recent days while in prison. As to the unity of the opposition, I think first of all this issue we are involved in is not an opposition/government divide. It is an oppressor/oppressed divide. Some of the activists belong to NRM. Government is trying to deflect the contradiction in the country today to the government/opposition polarisation. But clearly the matter is not. It is about basic rights for citizens and justice; socio-economic justice. In my case, when I talk about justice, I am talking about having equal rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment within the body politick.
Tell us about Activists 4 Change
Activists 4 Change (A4C) speaks for itself. It does not need anybody to speak for it. The coordinators have been very communicative and the position they have presented is real: that it is non-partisan and non-profit seeking. It is also non-political in that it does not seek to gain power through the platform. It seeks to advocate changes that address the current crisis; the current socio-economic crisis.
Do you feel that the change in tactics is working for opposition?
That question is faulty on many levels. First of all you are saying that this is a change in opposition tactics and I have clearly said that this is not an opposition/government divide. So it is not opposition changing. It is only that this broad platform also coincides with the concerns that the opposition has been articulating for a very long time: wrong priorities, corruption, and abuse of power- all of which impact negatively on citizens.
What are the measurable outcomes and timeframe for the ‘Walk to Work’ campaign?
The outcome is precisely getting positive outcomes and responses from government. We have suggested various approaches that attend to the various concerns; we are not just complaining about change, we are also offering solutions. So the outcome is positive responses from government on issues presented. We were encouraged that government is now talking about reviewing the pricing system on fuel after claiming that it was an international matter that they could not do anything about. The fact that they have started to consider it, late and feeble as it may be, is of course very encouraging. However, we are disappointed that parliament passed the Shs2.8 billion to be spent on ceremonies of swearing in when the country is really suffering. And remember also the Shs1.7 trillion supplementary budget to buy fighter planes, which are again areas we consider misplaced responsibilities and therefore wrong. We are suggesting are: one, reduce the size of government costs and public administration so that resources go to the needy. Therefore we shall be monitoring how money is allocated and spent. Two, policy framework: institute policies that address the fundamental issues of food security and efficient affordable transportation within the country. Three, stop the theft of public funds that are desperately needed to provide services to the population. And four, stop the application of public resources to wrong priorities, such as buying fighter jets instead of grain reserves.
Has taking the campaign online helped or hindered your initiative?
I don’t know if it has helped but it certainly has not hindered (our campaign). Any campaign conducted in the conditions of Uganda has an important challenge of communication. This is because the media is largely controlled by the State. Since the campaign began, there has been momentum. So all forms of alternative media would certainly be helpful. We have a growing population that is accessing the Internet so communication through that channel, I consider, is very important- more so for Ugandans in the Diaspora and the international community.
Do you feel redeemed in the eyes of the public by your actions?
I do not have to redeem myself in any way. The election was a sham and I don’t think the public feels any differently. They do not need me to impress on them on the illegality of the elections. Nobody failed to see the opulent use of public resources to manipulate the outcome. Nobody could have been blind to the numerous military deployments meant to intimidate voters. Nobody could have missed the confusion that the voter register was, that led to many people being disenfranchised. So the people of Uganda knew from the get-go what type of elections we got. All election observers, local and foreign, in spite of very little or no access to the most problematic areas, saw enough to make them conclude that the elections were not free and fair. No single observer qualified it as free and fair. So in terms of the election, we have nothing to prove, it was something that was very clear to the rest all along. In fact, the violent and excessive response of government towards our mundane and harmless acts, precisely show a government that has lost their legitimacy to govern. It can only govern people on fear.
The following day (April 28, 2011) Dr Besigye was brutally arrested as he drove towards the city to work. He had been barred from walking by the police and court. This time he was driving when police stopped him at Mulago roundabout, an entry into the city centre, and security operatives crashed his car’s window glasses using a rifle and a hammer and pulled him out. The state operatives sprayed tear gas and pepper liquid directly into Besigye’s eyes before they pulled him out, beat him up and bundled him onto a police pick-up truck. He later lost sight due to the pepper and tear gas spray which also impaired his hearing and ability to speak. He is now undergoing intensive treatment in Nairobi.