John Sanyu Katuramu is escorted by warders at Luzira Prison was contemplating my next move while grazing our cattle when my cell-phone rang. It was the voice of the Voice of Tooro radio station manager back in Fort-Portal.
They needed me without fail the next day. The same day when my elder sister Elizabeth was having a marriage introduction ceremony (Kwanjura) at home! President Yoweri Museveni was in town and was scheduled to speak on radio. They wanted me to interview him. Back then that was a big thing considering the fact that Voice of Toro was the only rural-based FM station in Uganda.
I co-hosted the president with the current Fort-Portal Municipality Member of Parliament Alex Ruhunda. The biggest issue then for the people in that region was the slow pace of the construction of Kampala-Fort Portal road. Many people had written their questions earlier which we read out and others called in live to the show. For two hours the President was on the show until he said he was tired and promised to come back.
On getting out of the studio, I saw that Lugard Street was jammed up with people. They had come to catch a glimpse of the head of state even though the president’s security detail kept them at a distance.
Later that evening his convoy snaked out of Fort-Portal back to his home in Nyabushozi County.
Two days later the station hosted motor mouthed Maj. Okwir Rabwoni and another of opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye’s supporters a gentleman called Achaali Kawamara. They practically watered down whatever the president had said and promised the people. Maj. Okwir was a brother to Museveni’s then-ADC the late Brig. Noble Mayombo. He was also a gifted orator and swayed the people to the opposition.
Immediately after their program, President Museveni said he wanted to counter their words or, as they say, “detoxicate their toxins”. I was asked by my supervisors to immediately head to the president’s country home in Rwakitura to record his message in response to what the Okwiri’s had spoken. To the station managers this was good business because the politicians were buying airtime.
I got a special hire driver in Fort-Portal and we drove through Kamwenge at night, to Bihanga, Ibanda, Ishongororo and in the morning we were in Rushere town near Rwakitura.
We reached the President’s country home at 7:30 and we were ushered in by his security detail through the many gates and by 8am we were in the vast compound of the home.
On a normal day in Rwakitura there are so many people who come around for all sorts of reasons to see the head of state. From relatives, to public servants, ministers, business people and foreign envoys they all make the trek.
But because he wanted his message recorded and aired on radio, I was meant to see him first. Before long he was out in the compound.
“Omutooro waija,” he said. He was refereeing to me and where I come from.
I remember when he asked for his notes and nobody seemed to be in a hurry to move. Astonishingly he stood up and went to pick the notes himself from an adjacent house. I realised that there is a degree of ease and normal life when the President is home, he can walk about pretty like any head of family in a home.
Here I was with my Marantz tape recorder on pause as the president was getting ready to answer my questions and also give his message. Out of panic I realised after five minutes that my recorder was just on pause and not recording anything. You can imagine for five minutes and I am recording nothing yet the President is talking! I was confused by headphones because I could hear him and even see the meter levels move. But alas, the tape was not rolling – it was on pause!
I switched to “record” and without his knowledge that I had not been recording, I paraphrased the question and asked it again.
“Kamara… ,” he shot back, “This is what am telling you!” He started all over again and this time I made sure the tape was rolling.
What astonished me was to find him with a transcript of the radio talkshow on which Maj. Okwir Rabwoni had been hosted as a guest.
Whoever did it for him had recorded everything, including the phone call conversations and then transcribed them. He kept on referring to that talk-show and even to what people had asked Maj. Okwir especially those who did not agree with him. I did not have those details even though I worked on that particular radio station. Museveni wanted to set the record straight. It was some kind of a rebuttal, to trim Maj. Okwir to size.
I asked him a question that perhaps did not go down well with him. It was about his expensive Gulf Stream V presidential jet.
“Does it make sense for you Mr. President, to fly around in this expensive Gulf Stream V private jet when Uganda is ailing in poverty?”
But he answered the question. He said he would not mind boarding a commercial flight if it was not for the fear of putting ordinary civilians in danger. He reasoned that anyone targeting him could end up jeopardising the lives of other hundreds of passengers. And that since he could not be responsible for the security of a commercial flight, a presidential jet was ideal.
He told me how he can’t take security lightly. For example if he travels with a minister to a foreign destination and that minister happens to get gifts or presents, he will not allow him on his plane. This is how he put in three languages: “Tewali… Hakuna… No way.”
Meaning you cannot come on board with your presents. You either leave them or stay behind as well. “You see that’s why some of us have survived… and I am sure we shall continue to survive,” he said.
I asked whether he was considering resigning soon.
“Look around” he showed me, “Kanyina emirimo mingyi aha.”
He was speaking in Runyakore and pointing to his vast farm. He told me he had a lot of work awaiting him at his home. In fact for him leading Uganda was like a sacrifice. Frankly I did not buy that.
I think Museveni is a man who will always want to know the people around him in detail. So after the interview he asked me about my home and my father. Of course he did not know my father, but had a rough idea about the sub-county where I come from.
He also knew my elder brother Stephen Magezi who at one time hosted him in Nairobi in the seventies. He would always go to Nairobi where they were coordinating their fight against Amin. Since the other Ugandans in Nairobi were prominent, he was aised not to sleep at their homes. Apparently Nairobi was awash with agents of Amin’s intelligence service, the deadly State Research Bureau and it would be risky to expose himself. So he would come to the apartment of this almost unknown Mutooro student and spend days there while working at night.
Stephen Magezi is the most apolitical person I know. All his life he turned down all the opportunities to join politics and worked as a civil servant until he retired. It was not unusual while at the level of a commissioner with so many cars at his disposal to see him walking from Crested Towers in Kampala, through the golf course back to his home on Elizabeth Avenue in Kololo where he stayed for many years. So Museveni remembered my brother and started asking where he was. I told him he was in the civil service working.
Immediately after this interview, he walked to his waiting helicopter and was headed to Kumi district in the East where a political campaign rally had been scheduled for him that evening. I also walked through the gates up to where I had left my driver to start our treacherous journey through the farmlands of Nyabushozi, Kazo and the hills of Ibanda back to Fort-Portal via Kamwenge district. Running the President’s interview on radio that night was my last assignment on Voice of Tooro.
I will never forget the day I visited the former prime minister of Tooro kingdom, John Sanyu Katuramu, at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala.
Getting inside Luzira to visit an inmate in the condemned section is not an easy thing. And since my identity card showed that I was a journalist I was thoroughly checked to ensure I did not have a recording gadget or camera. On top of that, Katuramu was asked for his consent to meet a journalist. He obliged. Luzira is a sprawling facility and inside it looks like a village of sorts with children going to school and people going about their work within the prison walls.
I was led through the high raised perimeter fences by prison warders who would lock themselves inside with you upon passing one gate after another. I reached Murchison which is the name of the condemned section after walking through a long corridor. In these corridors the walls are so high that the sun can be seen only at midday and disappears at 3pm!
Even in prison and on death row, Katuramu still has that aura of big man. When I reached I was told to wait as the message was sent to him that I had arrived. I sat on a bench in a small room facing a wire mesh. Katuramu sent an aance party to check me out. I saw a gentleman who greeted me from behind the wire mesh and told me “chairman” was in his way. I waited for a few minutes before Katuramu’s nephew one Kwezi who by the way had been arrested with his uncle appeared with a high raised stool. I failed to recognise him because he had gained on a lot of weight.
Finally Katuramu appeared. He still wore his expensive cologne that I smelled from a distance. He had his Golden parker pen in shirt pocket of his cream prison uniform that was meticulously clean.
I could not believe it the man was in good spirits!
“Good to see you Kamara” he said.
I said I was happy to see him too.
And then there came an unexpected question.
“What can I offer you to drink?” I hesitated to answer.
“Are you scared that you could probably contract a disease from prison… come on there is nothing to worry about,” he encouraged me. I felt challenged. I told him that as a free person, it should have been me to bring him what to eat and drink.
“Don’t worry, my wealth followed me here in jail… what will you have?” he insisted. I asked for a coke. And there it was and, yes, chilled even. He had asked a fellow inmate to get it from a small fridge in the corner who handed it over to a prison warder and then to me.
And there was another shock. There were about eight people seated on a bench and I later realised they had all come to see Katuramu on that day. Among them was his second wife. He called out her pet name.
“Abwooli… I have something you like most,” he said. He gave her a chocolate and said he would talk to her after everyone else. I was left imagining what more could happen here.
A part from increased grey hair and a little weight loss, Katuramu had not changed much. It is only when he started talking to me as I sipped my coke that I noticed he sounded like an evangelist. He was convinced that his arrest was a divine intervention intended to get him out of a dangerous world. He was still pretty much in control of his business empire although it was shrinking. He could still hire and fire staff. There are stories in Tooro when one manager would fire a worker but when the fired employee visited Luzira such a decision could be reversed.
“From this very chair… right here where am seated… I have clinched deals my son… worth millions of dollars,” he told me. “I have done things that I could not have possibly done in the free world.”
“God saw that the world was dangerous for me and he said… .John, my son, come here,” he told me.
He gave me some words of wisdom and asked me to become a born-again Christian like he had become. He asked me about my private life and told me how he had followed my talk-shows on TV and watched a couple of the documentaries I had done. He was up to-date with current affairs. I left telling him that next the time we meet it should be in his home after a presidential pardon that many people were talking about. That was 10 years ago.
Source : The Independent