By Elvis Basudde
The hardest day of Edward Mpagiâ€™s life was when he was put on the death row for committing a murder, which was a sham. The man he was alleged to have killed was still alive and well, but still he was convicted to death and served for 20 years.
Eight years down the line since Mpagi had his neck saved from the gallows and walked out of Luzira prison in 2000, the day still lingers in his mind as if it were yesterday. Sadness creeps into his eyes as he reminisces that day and his voice trembles as he tells the story.
At the age of 27 in 1981, Mpagi was already a fairly well established businessman in Kampala. He had completed his three years course in accounts at Bridge Technical College, Masaka, and opted to do magendo (black market), which was a booming business then.
He also owned a Combi taxi, operating from Kampala to Entebbe. He was dreaming of the next business venture when the unexpected happened. Things started getting bad for him.
First, thugs stole his taxi at gunpoint, forcing him to relocate to his birthplace in Masaka. He also wanted to flee the 1980 notorious killings.
In his village in Kyamabaale, he was elected the chairman of the youth and became quite popular, employing a number of workers to help him on his farm. But on the fateful day of June 12 1981, Mpagi was arrested and started his two decades of life at Luzira prison.
Reason? â€œ I was a victim of blackmail and malice. They fabricated a case against me, saying I had robbed a fellow villager and stabbed him to death. After spending one-and-half years on remand, I was committed to appear in the High Court and I was charged with robbery,â€ he narrates.
Mpagi, together with his cousin, Masembe, were sentenced to death for murdering William Wandyaka. After being on remand for one-and-half years, he was confined for 18 years and a half. In 1983, he appealed, but the sentence was upheld. He had to suffer death. Masembe later died in prison.
Mpagi says he was convicted for an offence he did not commit. What really was behind the curtain? Mpagi says there were people who had a grudge with his father and decided to revenge on him.
A letter dated April 3, 1989 ( pictured right), written by the sub-county chief of Butenga (where Mpagi was residing), addressed to the district executive secretary and state attorney, Masaka, exonerated Mpagi.
It reads: â€œDue to further investigation, we have established that Mpagi, who was reported in the case, was not the very person in question, and now here below is the very correct report on the real Mpagi in question.
The letter says Edward Mpagi is a son of Alooki Kalanzi of Kyamabaale village, and before his arrest, Mpagi was staying at his fatherâ€™s home. John Nsubuga is the father to William Wandyaka, who is said to have been killed by Mpagi in this case.â€
The letter revealed that the parents, Alooki Kalanzi and John Nsubuga, had their internal conflicts and when Wandyaka was robbed, Nsubuga suspected the son of Kalanzi, Edward Mpagi and another one called Masembe, to have robbed and killed Wandyaki.
The letter says, thereafter, Wandayaka moved to Jinja to make Nsubugaâ€™s statement appear true that his son Wandayaka was actually killed. â€œIt is said, in court, that Wandyaka died, but he was seen alive on April 3, 1989. Wandyaka was seen at the village of Kyamabaale at Keeraâ€™s shop, by Steven Mweba, Paul Mayanja and Bategeya, Secretary for RC1, Kyamabaale village. Wandyaka was driving a Toyota car No. UXC 718,â€ says the letter.
According to the letter whenever Wandyaka went to Kyamabaale, he never stays for a night. â€œIf needed, with help of the Police, we can collect him from Kampala where he resides these days,â€ the letter revealed.
With all the evidence adduced, the chief administrative officer, Masaka, wrote to the Attorney General saying: â€œIf the convict, Mpagi, was sentenced to death for murdering William Wandyaka of Kyamabaale village, then he was wrongly convicted.â€
The letter also said: â€œThe fact seems to be that William Wandyaka is alive but lives in Jinja district in a village called Mbiko. Evidence shows that he was cited in Kyamabaale village alive on two occasions since the time he is said to have been murdered. It would appear there was no murder.â€
Mpagi says that although the truth had been established that he never killed the man, they could not reverse their statements in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. At this stage, it was in the hands of the president and it was only the President to pardon him.
Mpagi, 54, says his experience in the condemned section was a nightmare. Within that time, he survived execution five times. Five executions were carried out. Each passing day, he was on tension, waiting to be killed.
â€œI could have been among those executed but God spared me. I witnessed people being picked from my group to be taken to the gallows. Some would cry, saying they were going to be killed for crimes they never committed,â€ he reminisces.
He says they would count them at 5:45am every morning, and whenever they delayed to count them or came earlier, an execution had to take place and that kept everybody on tension.
For all those years, those who were in the condemned section were always confined in their rooms. They would be allowed only 30 minutes to go for a small exercise in a confined place.
â€œSince I was confined in this place, I only looked outside once in 1983 when I was going for my appeal. I concentrated on reading my Bible all the time. I opened a school for people to learn how to read and write because I wanted those who were illiterate to read the Bible,â€ he says.
It is now eight years since Museveniâ€™s pardon breathed a new lease of life in Mpagi. Unfortunately, his wife with whom he had had six children died while he was still in prison and he never got a chance to bury her. None of his children went to school because relatives who were supposed to take care of them had all died of AIDS.
It is for this reason that Mpagi wants to team up with his fellow ex-convicts to start up a school for the children of prisoners who are still serving their sentences. His childrenâ€™s failure to go to school while he was in prison is a bitter lesson for him.
â€œPeople think I have a lot of money. They say I got money from the Government. I am actually a poor person. The Government never compensated me and I did not sue them for imprisoning me wrongly,â€ he says.
Asked why, he says he had forgiven everybody including the Government. He says it was in honour of the prisoners on death row, especially the innocent, who are still in prison.
â€œGranted, I have been pardoned. But there are many who are innocent who are still in prison yet they need to be pardoned. If I sued the Government, it would jeopardise the release of others. They would think whoever comes out of prison would sue them,â€ he reasons.
Mpagi also forgave those who gave false evidence against him, most of whom had died while he was still in prison, including Wandyaka himself.
Today, he is a Catholic catechist and has dedicated his life on preaching the gospel in prisons.
When he came out of prison, Kamwokya Parish sponsored Mpagi for a two-year course at the Catechical Formation Centre, Kiyinda-Mityana, where he trained as a catechist. When he graduated, he started working under Kamwokya Parish.
â€œI dedicate myself to going to prison to share my experience and encourage prisoners not to give up, to reform, to forgive those who wrong them, to change their behaviour and most importantly, to give their lives to God,â€ he says.
Mpagi has been integrated in the society and has started a new life. In 1993, he wedded Alice Joyce Mpagi at Kamwokya Parish Church and God has blessed them with three children aged five, three and one year.
Mpagi is not the only Ugandan who has stayed in prison longest. Some prisoners have been there since 1979. Lt Col. Abdullah Nasur, the former governor of Central Province, was in Luzira for 22 years. Rwakasisi, a former minister, was convicted in 1988 and he is still in Luzira.
Mpanga believes that there are so many people who are imprisoned innocently. He also appeals to the Government to revisit the capital punishment or the death penalty.
â€œWhen I remember how people came and gave false evidence against me when they had not seen me, I am with no doubt that there are very many people being executed or considered criminals when they are actually innocent though all the evidence tends to incriminate them,â€ he says. He adds: â€œIf I had not over-stayed in prison, I would have been killed for nothing yet the person I was alleged to have killed was still alive. The time I stayed in Luzira the truth came out. I thank President Museveni because since 1999, nobody has been killed,â€ he says.
Mpagi says that the aim of punishment should be understanding and correcting wrong doers. That is why he did not support Sadam Husseinâ€™s execution. Killing is not a punishment, he emphasises.