Piecing life together after 23 years in prison

Justine Nankya is looking to the preaching and craft-making skills she learnt in prison to make ends meet. Photo by Alex Esagala.

In 1992, Justine Nankya’s retail shop business was struggling. She had spent a lot of money tending to her brother who eventually died of HIV/Aids the same year.

The brother’s wife had died earlier and their eight-month-old son, Remegio Njuki, remained in Nankya’s care.

To revamp her business, a friend, Julie, swayed her into passion fruit trade. It seemed promising. You would buy a sack at Shs20,000 and sell it at Shs60,000.

In December 1992, they went to Kasese, bought many sacks of passion fruit and loaded them onto a pickup truck. Nankya wanted to reach Kampala fast because she had left her little nephew with a maid, so they boarded a taxi in which she coincidentally met Joseph, her cousin, a soldier (Lieutenant).

“I did not realise it at the time but it seemed like Joseph kept trying to get me off the taxi along the way. He, for instance, suggested dropping off to see our relatives’ at Kyabakuza,” Nankya recalls. “I, however, wanted to get to my children first so I insisted on staying aboard the taxi.”
If only she had known better.

Hell breaks loose
“As we approached Namagoma, on Masaka Road, a man at the back said he had arrived at his destination so we made to give him way. In the same instant, my cousin and his friend reached for their pistols, and put the driver at gun point before ordering all of us out of the car,” Nankya recounts in low tone.

The old man from the back of the taxi took the driver’s seat and drove off, leaving all passengers stranded on the roadside. But a few metres away, the taxi reversed to pick Nankya and her friend Julie.
“I think my cousin feared I would spill his secrets if he left me behind so they took us along. It was around 8pm, they drove like maniacs. They said they would drop us off near Kyengera, but before we got there, they veered the taxi off the highway into the bush and left us there, battling to stop the bleeding on Julie’s arm, which she had injured while trying to escape earlier.”

They also left behind everything else except two metallic boxes, which belonged to two men, whom these thugs had followed from Bwera. We later learnt the boxes were full of dollars.”
Meanwhile, an Anti-Smuggling Unit vehicle was following the runaway taxi and found Nankya and Julie stranded. They were innocent and had no reason to run.

“The other passengers had told them we weren’t part of the deal but police insisted we had to record statements,” Nankya narrates. “As soon as we reached Nateete Police Station, the other passengers came in. They reiterated our innocence but still I was detained.”

Julie was taken to hospital for treatment and that was the last the two friends saw each other. It also became the day Nankya lost her freedom. She was first moved from one police cell to another, until she ended up at Luzira Upper Prison for 23 years.

At Kibuye Police Post, friends advised her to bribe the authorities. Her relatives sold off her property and gave Shs500,000 to the authorities but it couldn’t buy her freedom.
At Wandegeya Police Station where she was held, the inmates were very ill-mannered, they wanted to rape women. She rioted. Threatening to leak her plight to the media, she was transferred to Central Police Station (CPS) until she was taken to court.

Paying for a relative’s sins
No one implicated her in any way but she was charged with armed robbery, a capital offense that would send her to the gallows on conviction. Her uncle Sserwanga, a lawyer, intervened but court insisted she could be released only when her cousin was captured.

After a year and two months, Nankya was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995. “There were inmates winning cases and being released during my trial so I never believed I would be condemned to death,” she recounts.

Her appeal in the Supreme Court flopped when one female judge insisted Nankya should be imprisoned until her cousin was arrested.

“It took me a long time but I finally forgave my cousin. I worried about my nephew though who was still very young,” Nankya says.

All attempts by human rights activists to save her were futile. For 14 years, Nankya remained incarcerated at the Condemned Section where the death row convicts are confined in white uniforms'.

When the death penalty was reviewed in 2009, she was shifted from the Condemned Section to Boma where other convicts stay, on November 14, 2009.

Surviving death
With time, Nankya got used to sleeping on the floor, under torn blankets, the poor meals, digging every morning and evening and living with the premonition of being killed any day. But there is one day she will never forget. One day in February 1999, a list of 29 inmates to be hanged was put out and I, the only female on death row, was on the list,” she narrates.
Twenty eight male inmates were hanged. “As I led the church service that day, everybody was crying inconsolably for me.

Although I was strong before them, in private I cried too.” But when those on the list were drawn out from the other prisoners and put alone, Nankya was not called out.

That night, 28 male prisoners were hanged and Nankya survived. When she was still wondering how she had survived, a warder whispered to her, ‘Your name was removed from the list’.” And just like that, Nankya’s life was spared, under circumstances she will never know for sure.

Freedom, at last
When the death penalty was reviewed in 2009, the new law stated that inmates who had been on death row for more than three years be instead given a 20-year sentence. By that time, Nankya had already served 14 of these years since her conviction in 1995, so she only had six to go.

And so, on July 23, 2015, Nankya regained her long lost freedom. Seven cars filled with friends and relatives came to take her home from Luzira. Her adored nephew, now a 23-year-old father of one, was among the reception party which made for a grand homecoming.

“But I did not really feel free,” she says. “You see, I’m just regaining the weight I lost worrying about what life I would live on the outside.”

While she lived in Nateete with her three children and nephew when she was locked away was no more. Now, she returned to children who have their own families, and rents a room in Kamwokya where she stays alone.

Most of her paternal relatives are now dead including her father and the uncle who had tried to secure her release at the beginning.

Starting afresh
For now, Nankya is undertaking training at Victory City Church in Ndeeba to complement her experience as a preacher during her time in Luzira. She plans to go on a prison evangelism mission around the country. “It’s the only way I can thank God for what He has given me,” she says.

She also learnt how to make crafts such as baskets, hats, mats, and bags from prison, which she sells at a shop in Kamwokya.
Given money, she hopes to expand her business into a serious retail store. Once bitten, the 56-year-old Nankya is very cautious dealing with people.

Women in prison
Mr Frank Baine, the public relations officer, Uganda Prisons, says of 46000 prisoners in Uganda, only 2030 are women, which makes approximately four per cent.

Most women are charged with crimes of passion such as fighting, killing co-wives or husbands due to emotional outbursts. Their commonest capital offence is murder, very few are charged with armed robbery. About five to 15 women could have been hanged as a penalty in Uganda, with the first one having been hanged around 1939 in the precolonial era.

Wrongful conviction , causes and remedies
According to Dr Livingston Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI);

Wrongful conviction is caused by many factors including inadequate evidence collection due to uncooperative witnesses or failure by the police might to do their work; cases that drag on for too long, or weak defence cases.

Resultantly, sometimes wrong people are charged, or others are charged out of bias.

The remedies for this include advocating for a national legal aid scheme to deliver justice even to the poor, establishment of an ethical judiciary, and improvement in the investigative capacity of the Police Force. Awareness of the law and procedures among the common man would also help.