Free again, Cheeye wants to thank judge who convicted him: he was doing God's bidding
Imagine going to prison only to find a guy you helped to dispatch there many years ago! Now, imagine that guy welcoming you with a Bible instead of a hot slap!
Well, that is exactly what happened when the former director for Economic Monitoring in the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), Teddy Sseezi Cheeye, arrived at Luzira prison to start his 10-year sentence, following his conviction on corruption charges in 2009.
Cheeye, of the defunct Uganda Confidential fame, is back in town, having fully served his sentence. And boy, he has not lost his trademark acidic tongue and pen (as he plans to revive Uganda Confidential next month)!
Apart from more grey in his hair, more God in his words and a few more wrinkles on his face, it’s the same old Cheeye, raring to start from where he stopped seven years go. One of the prominent inmates the veteran journalist found at Luzira was Johnson Kamya Wavamunno, who was convicted and sentenced to death for aggravated robbery committed in 1996.
Two Barclays bank staff, a police guard and a driver were riding in the bank’s vehicle back to Kampala after collecting $500,000 (approximately Shs 1.8 billion) at Entebbe airport on February 29, 1996. At Kitooro trading centre, between the airport and Entebbe town, a few gunmen in army uniform lay in wait.
The police officer was shot dead while the bank staff and driver fled the scene, as the armed gang helped themselves to some $240,000 (Shs 860 million) of the cash in transit.
With police closing in on key suspect Wavamunno, he fled to Germany. He would be arrested in Kenya two years later. Cheeye’s Uganda Confidential had reported extensively about the case, identifying Johnson Kamya Wavamunno as the key suspect.
“When I exposed him, CID boss Chris Bakiza picked it up till he was arrested in Mombasa,” Cheeye tells me when we meet at his home in Najjeera.
Kamya Wavamunno has been in jail since 1999. His sentence was commuted to life in prison following a Supreme court order that all inmates on death row have their sentences adjusted to life if they have not been hanged within three years of their conviction.
Now a reformed and religious man, Wavamunno took fellow inmate Cheeye by surprise when he offered him a Bible. Wavamunno even confessed in a prison church that he attempted to have Cheeye killed but failed.
Cheeye himself has grown closer to God during his six-and-a-half- year stay in Luzira, so much so that he read Wavamunno’s Bible twice, from Genesis to Revelation. The first time was in 2012; it took him six months. The second time was in 2013; it took him eight months, as he was now more reflective, taking notes and matching related verses.
“In prison, people are prayerful, especially those who want to get out and be better [individuals],” Cheeye says.
Of Wavamunno’s disarming gesture, Cheeye goes biblical again, the umpteenth time he does so during our two-hour conversation.
“When you do something that pleases God, he makes your enemies friends,” he says, paraphrasing Proverbs 16:7.
Indeed, Cheeye says going to prison was God’s plan.
“The people who played a role in my imprisonment were doing God’s bidding,” he says. “They were not working on their own; Museveni had power to protect me, and in ISO we had the power to block the case.”
It was God’s plan, he says with a smile, “that I go in, just like the children of Israel had to be enslaved in Egypt to find redemption.”
Cheeye adds that he wants to meet retired Justice John Bosco Katutsi, the judge who convicted him, and thank him for what he did; “he was sent by God.”
According to Cheeye, God wanted him to read the Bible and then proclaim the truth. He says all the suffering experienced in Uganda today, citing hunger as an example, is because God has turned his face away from our sinful country.
“With my skills in writing, economics and politics, I lacked spiritual knowledge. God wanted spiritual content in my communication,” Cheeye says, adding that
readers of Uganda Confidential will find a good dose of that.
He might sound all composed now but it was not like that on the day he was convicted. It was around 11am on April 8, 2009 when Cheeye felt as if life was oozing out of him. He had just been convicted of misappropriating Shs 120m from the Global Fund.
The money was deposited on the account of his organisation, The Uganda Centre for Accountability, to support Global Fund activities in the fight against malaria, HIV and TB. Justice Katutsi of the High court, and later on his colleagues on the appellate courts, all agreed that the money had been misappropriated under Cheeye’s watch.
Cheeye maintains that his case was politically motivated, having made many enemies in politics and the judiciary as a journalist. He mentions the judge not only sending him to prison but demanding that Shs 110m be refunded as amounting to double punishment.
“The feeling of fear of a person awaiting judgement is something no one can understand unless they experience it,” Cheeye tells me.
“What hurts the most is when you feel that you were sacrificed; that the law was bent; that people worse than you are free; that you were isolated out of many; that is when you wonder, why me? That is a very big phase of torture for a prisoner.”
He compares the day of judgement to life and death scenarios. When you are convicted, it’s death; when you are acquitted, it’s life, Cheeye explains.
“At the stage when the judge convicts you, you can’t believe it’s true; you feel that it’s a dream,” Cheeye says, adding, especially if you feel that selective justice has been applied.
Being a high-profile individual, Cheeye enjoyed some privileges in prison. He was taken to a ward of about 100 inmates housing mostly elite prisoners. The prisons authorities have a system of categorising prisoners so that the riffraff end up with their ilk while the elite are kept together.
Prisoners such as Gilbert Bukenya, Kizza Besigye, David Sejusa and Charles Wesley Mumbere were treated like royalty by the prison’s standards, Cheeye reveals.
When former Vice President Bukenya arrived in 2011, for instance, some inmates had to be moved to create enough room for him. He was also guarded so that other inmates couldn’t easily approach him.
Former presidential candidate Besigye and General Sejusa were treated more or less the same way during their time at Luzira in 2016. But during Cheeye’s time, there is no prisoner who enjoyed a status like that of Bakonzo king Mumbere who spent some time at Luzira recently.
“The king was treated with much more respect than others,” Cheeye said. He had a room with a flat screen TV, and once joked that he had established a cell fit for presidents.
Cheeye created his own space in this context. He had a room to himself where he did most of his reading and writing, that has culminated in at least four books that he says are in the pipeline.
Every single day, Prisons authorities open at 6am to check if everyone is in. A head count then starts; with those on remand being counted first and the convicts last. After the counting exercise, Prisons officers tally their results, before blowing the whistle to start the day officially.
Before the whistle blows, inmates are not allowed to move out of their wards. This is the time Cheeye used to walk freely in the compound of about one acre and a half, enjoying the breeze from the nearby Lake Victoria, wile saying his prayer. After his 30-minute walk, Cheeye lines up for the prison’s daily porridge and then returns to his room to shower.
His private breakfast of tea or millet porridge with bread or chapatti follows. Luzira prison allows inmates to prepare private meals. Cheeye’s food was delivered by his family members whenever they visited, and prepared by one of the two boys who helped him. He says most inmates of his status get such boys to cook in return for small favours such as foodstuffs, soap or toothpaste.
With breakfast out of the way, Cheeye steps out to read, until lunchtime at 1pm. After lunch, he rests for at least 30 minutes and then returns to his spot in the compound to read some more.
At 4pm, there is another whistle and another head- count as the inmates get inside. A few remain taking a walk up to say 6-m, especially when the prison is waiting for inmates returning from courts around Kampala. Then, after a shower and a light supper of say three Irish potatoes and beans, Cheeye heads to the corridor to watch news on TV.
He is joined by about 40 others with the same interests. Younger in- mates are more interested in music; so, they crowd the TV space in the morning hours to watch music videos.
Also of much interest are wildlife channels, which Cheeye found very surprising. He tells me he used to think only white people were fascinated by these programmes until he went to Luzira. The pay TV, a new innovation by the current prison ad- ministration, is funded by a donor for the ward.
After the news, Cheeye returns to his cell to write his books until around midnight when he goes to bed. The general rule of lights out at 10pm applies to prisoners without private rooms.
His wife and children visited him weekly but with time he asked them to reduce the frequency of their visits. As for other visitors, Cheeye says there weren’t that many and he didn’t even encourage them. Days of visitation put in- mates on tension, he said, as they have to wait near the gate and for a person with a lot to do, it can be disruptive, “so I was happy I didn’t have that many visitors.”
Nevertheless he has “the re- cord of people who sent me assistance through my wife, and I also know those who didn’t yet I expected them to, but those I forgive.”
After initially living in denial and trying everything to get out, including appealing to the Court of Appeal and Supreme court, as well as writing letters to President Museveni and his wife Janet to no avail, Cheeye began to accept his fate.
“Initial days are horrible, you are in denial - first of all you are thinking you have been victimised, and you believe reason will prevail and you get out,” he says.
But after a prisoner settles in and accepts reality, life be- hind closed doors becomes a continuation of life outside, Cheeye tells The Observer.
“One of the things that helped me was that I accepted reality. Many people in prison suffer because they don’t accept the reality; they are hankering about the outside world - they can’t sleep before making two or three phone calls to their girlfriends, they can’t sleep before calling a brother to ask why they are neglecting him...”
For me I accepted, Cheeye says. “I’ am here, let me serve my time. I never disturbed the authorities, call this one, call Saleh...
“I accepted that this is God’s programme, I should accept it. God has no bad plans for anybody. What people see as a bad thing is in God’s plans a good thing.”
Cheeye’s Prison Story continues next week, with anecdotes on dividing a tomato so as to make it last, and Luzira without water for one week.