Mugumya: 3,000 days in a DR Congo prison

Former FDC president Dr Kizza Besigye (right) with Sam Mugumya (centre) on a street in Kampala on June 24, 2013. PHOTO |  ABUBAKER LUBOWA

What you need to know:

  • In 2014, Sam Mugumya, a former Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) activist and also an aide to then party leader Dr Kizza Besigye, was arrested under unclear circumstances and later confined at Ndolo prison in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eight years later, he was released from jail on October 21, 2022. On March 11, he shared with Saturday Monitor’s Gabriel Buule his story of how he ended up in a foreign jail, how he survived and came back home. 

Upon your disappearance, it was reported that you were arrested by Congolese Forces in 2014, after allegedly crossing into the nation’s territory illegally. What exactly happened and who arrested you?

The circumstances surrounding my arrest were a culmination of a series of political witch-hunts in Uganda. I had been detained uncountable times on framed [trumped] up charges: The most outstanding being the 2012 treason case, where I was arrested together with Buhweju MP Francis Mwijukye and [then FDC Women League chairperson] Ingrid Turinawe.

Then came the robbery case in 2012, where Mwijukye, myself and a man called Robert Kissekwa, were accused of stealing a kabiriti phone and Shs10,000 in a place called Maliba. For two years, we were required to report to Kasese Magistrate’s Court on a monthly basis, to answer to these obnoxious charges. The State presented a police officer masquerading as a hawker, claiming to be the victim whom we had purportedly assaulted and robbed. The case was finally dismissed in June 2014, after we brought evidence that the complainant was actually a police officer because we had a video of him beating up demonstrators while in uniform. A few months after this case was dismissed, I received a call from a childhood friend of mine, who works with security organs.

He told me that a team had been dispatched to arrest me, and that this time round, they were hell-bent on ensuring I disappeared. After weighing carefully the information I had received, I had to work out an escape plan. I and my other comrades, Aggrey Kamukama, Joseph Kariisho Kamugisha, Nathan Bright Alison and Stephen Jirani Mugisha, made for the Uganda DRC border at Ishasha and crossed [into DRC] using a footpath. When we got to the DRC side of the border, we presented ourselves to the immigration officials and told them that we were political fugitives seeking to be relocated to a third country. Rather than help us, they contacted the Ugandan authorities, who came to check on us. One was a major in the [Uganda People’s Defence Forces] UPDF uniform, and the other four were in civilian clothes. When they saw me, they recognised me and a flurry of calls begun. Each group calling their superiors. A lieutenant colonel of the Congolese army called Bigayi came and we told him under no circumstances would we return to Uganda.

He told us his superiors had decided that we be held temporarily at his detach in Nyamirima until discussions between the two governments were concluded. He took us to his detachment, where we spent two days. On the third day, the chief of intelligence for North Kivu province, Col Peter Chirimwami, came to pick us.

He took us to Rutchuru, where we spent a night at a police station. Early the next morning, he picked us and took us to Goma to an intelligence detention facility. We got a rough reception there.

There was bullying, the space was overcrowded and there was very little food. We literally spent the whole days and nights squeezed in between people’s legs. We would sit with our legs bent. Someone would then sit in between one’s legs and so on. The sweat and the stench were terrible. Long calls were so brief. They would call us in pairs and rush us to the toilets. Before anything could drop, the guards would bang the toilet doors and shout at one to finish. It was such a nasty experience.

After four days, I was transferred to Beni, leaving behind my other colleagues.

The conditions in Beni were not any different from those in Goma. The starvation and overcrowding. In Beni, we were so squeezed that people actually died in cells. There was a young boy, aged about 15 years called Kakule Baraka. He died next to me, and I had to lean on his body the whole night because they could not open the cells at night.

In Beni, I was interrogated by CMI [Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence]. It is them who took the picture of me without a shirt that was first shared by Ofwono Opondo on social media. While I was in Beni, a decision was made that I be transferred to Kinshasa. This was after a meeting held between the FARDC [The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo] regional commander for North Kivu, Gen Mundosi Akili, and then UPDF’s Second Division commander, Gen Peter Elwelu. On November 17, 2014, I was transferred to Kinshasa.

Your supporters, different organisations and politicians have always emphasised that you were thrown into prison for no reason other than politics. What is it like to be in confinement without fair hearing?

Detention without trial is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through. Imprisonment is generally tough, but to be detained without being informed why or for how long is a form of torture.

It is like being ordered to run without being told when or where to stop. For more than six years, we were never charged formally.

The Congolese authorities were not forthcoming about the reason they detained us, and the Ugandan government was feigning ignorance about our case. To maintain our sanity, we worked out, composed songs, and sang in jail and spent most of our time walking in the prison quadrangle.

How has being in prison changed you?

Prison has taught me patience. In jail, a very small thing that would ordinarily take a few minutes to accomplish can take a week.

For example, writing a letter to a loved one. First, it can only be done through the Red Cross or through one’s lawyers. Then, the letter has to go through a process of proofreading by the authorities to ensure there is no unauthorised communication therein contained.

This can take days or weeks. The response to one’s letter goes through the same process. Thus, it will take months to get feedback to a very simple communication. This calls for patience.

Secondly, I am now more of an indoors person. Before, I was an outdoors person, but today, I love staying home. Going out is like a punishment to me.

Depending on your political vibrancy, we did not expect you to last this long in prison, do you feel you were let down by other forces of change?

Nobody expected that we would take this long in prison. All efforts were made to help us get out of jail. Initially, there was a push by our comrades through civil activism, like when they petitioned the Congolese Embassy in Uganda.

Some of our people held direct talks with [then DRC] President Joseph Kabila, who promised to solve our problem but later reneged on his promise.

A case was lodged with the African Union Human Rights Commission in Banjul Gambia, and the UN High Commission for Human Rights. Up to now, none of these bodies have ever responded to our complaints.

When President Felix Tshisekedi came to power, our people reached out to him, and he too promised to help, but later, things did not work out. Therefore, efforts were made, but they did not succeed. Our comrades helped us get legal representation in court and helped in our upkeep.

So when everything has been tried and it does not work out as hoped for, we conclude that it was God’s will that I spend the time I did. The Holy Qur’an, Surat, At-tawbah 51 tells us that “Nothing shall befall us except that which has been ordained by Allah”

How did your detention affect your family and those who depended on you for a living?

My detention was a very trying moment for my family. Four months before my arrest, I had lost my brother in a car accident. So this coming on the heels of that tragedy was a devastating blow to my family, especially my mother. However, they took it with stoicism and eventually pulled through that dark episode.

What was your experience with Congolese judges?

The court process in DR Congo is very challenging, the court process leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to dispensing justice. I saw judges taking alcohol within the precincts of court before they could preside over cases, which gave me doubt that I could get justice. In court, we were treated to a different system in a military tribunal in a foreign land.

On the first day, I was asked to present my story and I told the court everything and all circumstances that surrounded my arrest.

In my case, I was accused with other people on my file that I did not know. We were seven in total; two Ugandans and five Rwandans. Later, investigators could come back and forth to take statements but no one would tell me my crime.

Do you feel safe in Uganda or you are waiting for the next plane to Europe, Canada or US?

I know the situation in Uganda has changed for the worse. Therefore, I cannot feel safe. As a matter of fact, you remember Gen Muhoozi’s [Kainerugaba] threats on Twitter the day I was released? He stated what I already knew; that I was to be arrested on arrival. That be as it may, I am studying the situation carefully and weighing my options. I will surely return once I have satisfied myself about my next course of action.

What was the first thing you did when you were released?

I tried to sleep but failed. So I just sat.

What would you say to young people who are joining the politics of defiance?

The struggle is not a walk in the park. You have to be resolute, fear no sacrifice, and be prepared to surmount all odds to succeed. The despot and those who torment us are not superhuman. They also once wetted their mothers’ laps, and they were not born with two umbilical cords. The difference is that they are hell-bent on retaining power at all costs. We must, therefore, resolve to kick them out by all means necessary. Do not trifle with them, for they will not trifle with you.

Sam Mugumya

Torture is reportedly a widespread practice in DR Congo prisons, especially against activists. Were you tortured, what kind of torture?

We were never physically tortured, except for the bullying in Goma

You’ve been silent since your return, why the silence?

I have not been silent. I am active on my YouTube channel, “Mugumya Sam” where I have been sharing my prison story and my views about issues in Uganda

You returned with no job, no bank account, how are you able to survive?

Well-wishers are helping me get on my feet

By the time you left Uganda, FDC, the party you subscribed to, was the most vibrant [Opposition] political party and currently, it is [National Unity Platform] NUP at the wheel, are you moving with the wave, working as an individual or revitalising your political demands with FDC?

FDC is my political home. However, it is imperative to stress that at this point in time, what matters most is the direction we are taking, not who is on the wheel.

At the end of the day, we are all in chains. Therefore, the question of who is credited for breaking the chains should not cause us sleepless nights. What is primary is breaking loose from the despot’s shackles. This will take a collective effort. No single grouping will do it alone.

Whenever political activists get arrested, efforts to get them released are usually more visible on social media and it never lasts long. Do you believe Opposition figures don’t do enough to seek freedom of their foot soldiers?

It is true that advocacy in the media, both social and mainstream, wanes with time. It requires a persistent and concerted effort to keep a story alive. In this regard, there is so much work to be done.

However, my own experience even before I was detained in DRC is that a lot also happens away from social media. For example, the legal battles and attending to the welfare needs of prisoners. The challenge is that many expect quick results.

They underestimate the despot’s resolve to do all he can to break our will. We need a mind shift to know that the struggle is not a picnic. Some lose lives, and others are forever condemned to wheelchairs.

Many will languish in jails, but we must charge forward with renewed impetus if we are to dislodge the despot.

You seem to be in the same great spirit; how have you managed to keep your focus intact?

The trials and tribulations I have gone through have strengthened my resolve. When one suffers for a cause one believes in, he or she gets stronger.

Yes, there are some who will falter, especially if they had not fully prepared for the ‘occupational hazards’ that punctuate the struggle. I have always expected the worst, which is to be killed, so when I suffer anything that is not death, I count myself lucky. And besides, I am clear and single-minded on my goal of fighting the despot, my mission is my motivation.

Moving forward, what are your plans, should we still expect you in active politics or you are choosing silence?

I have no intention of retiring from the struggle

Who do you hold responsible for your arrest and imprisonment?

President Museveni and his despotic system. He superintends over a system that kills people physically and psychologically.

A select few are closeted in the ark of privilege and power while the rest of us are being swept away by the floods of poverty. When one speaks out against this diabolic system, the despot’s henchmen are at hand to “crush” the dissenting voice. That is how I ended up in a foreign military jail.

Do you have any serious political ambition?

My ambition today is to work for the downfall of the Museveni regime by all means necessary.

Do you plan to press charges for your illegal detention?

I do not plan to do so because I believe it will be an exercise in futility

What befell the other Ugandans who were arrested with you?

Unfortunately, they are still in jail. We were charged separately in 2020. Although the case was the same, participating in an insurrectionary movement of M23, our files were different. Mine was disposed of first in December 2021, where I was sentenced to eight years, the time I had already spent in jail.

Theirs came up in late February 2022, but before a ruling could be given, the M23 war broke out again, and the rebels captured the town of Bunagana. As a result, all files pertaining to the M23 case were shelved to date.

We are still trying to find ways of helping them to get justice, but it’s not easy.

However, we shall not give up until they regain their freedom.


In November 2014, unconfirmed reports started circulating that Sam Mugumya, a Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) political activist, had gone missing.

It was later announced by then army spokesperson, Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, that Mugumya had been arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for alleged illegal entry into the country.

Lt Col Ankunda revealed that Mugumya had been found in possession of US dollars and was suspected to be involved in rebel activities.

Then Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kuteesa explained that the DRC government had indicated that Mugumya had allegedly gone to DRC to pronounce rebellion against Uganda together with other Ugandans.

He was arrested with four other Ugandans, including Aggrey Kamukama, (then a businessman in Rukungiri Town), Steven Mugisha, (then a trader), Nathan Bright and Joseph Kamugisha, then a boda boda.

Circumstances surrounding his whereabouts took a fresh twist when on November 6, 2014, government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo shared a tweet of a shirtless Mugumya stating that he was in detention in Beni, Congo.

Mystery about his case continued to unravel as political activists could not give a clear explanation of how Mugumya went to DRC.

It should be noted that Mugumya rose to the scene in the early 2000s while a student at Makerere University where he actively became involved in political activism.

Mugumya later actively joined Dr Kiiza Besigye’s 2001 campaign platform, the Reform Agenda, and got involved in a series political movements, including the prominent Walk-to-Work.

His political journey later became characterised by arrests and prosecutions as he was arrested many times in protests and political campaigns. In October 2011, he was charged with treason after a demonstration in a case that was dismissed in 2013.

On November 13, 2014, this newspaper reported that Mugumya had been detained at least 60 times. Perhaps, no Ugandan has had stints and stunts with police as frequent as his boss Dr Besigye.

Eight years later, Mugumya was finally released from Ndolo military detention in the Democratic Republic of Congo on October 21, 2022.

Who is Sam Mugumya

Mugumya was born in 1979 in the western district of Rukungiri to Emmanuel Turyomurugyendo and Edinat in a family of five siblings.

He went to a school in Kasese District for his primary education, before joining Muntuyera High School in Ntungamo and later Makerere University, where he studied social sciences, majoring in Political Science. He graduated in 2006.

It was at Makerere that he cut his teeth in activism with the Reform Agenda, now FDC as general secretary of the party’s youth league. He was arrested in 2002 while delivering Christmas cards to former army commander James Kazini at Bombo army barracks, which Besigye had sent to influential personalities.

He has not had formal employment after university and reportedly lives on handouts from friends and well-wishers, arguing that he will get a job when the country has better leadership. He stood for MP Rukungiri Municipality in 2011 and lost.