Warrant Officer II Steven Sempagala, aka Sgt Kifulugunyu, is one of the famous living Ugandans who made a daring escaped from the dreaded Luzira Maximum Security Prison, popularly known as the Upper Prison.
In 1981, Kifulugunyu and seven others escaped to save their lives from imminent death that hovered over their heads every day. Now aged 75, Kifulugunyu who joined the Uganda Army in 1964, retired from the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) in 2011 and lives a humble life in Kawempe, a Kampala suburb, where this reporter interview him recently.
The Maximum Security Prison at Luzira Hill was opened in 1927. It had been previously moved from Nakasero Hill to pave way for the construction of the now refurbished State Lodge. Earlier, it had been moved from lower Kampala on the plot next to Kisekka Market across lower Kyagwe road along the Nakivubo channel. This was the first government of Uganda Maximum Security Prison built to accommodate “high risk” prisoners, many of whom were ex-servicemen at the time.
When the ex-servicemen returned after the World War I, they became a security threat. Many were involved in extra-judicial killings, escaping from jails and other capital offences. And so, a special prison was built to hold these “high risk” offenders.
Road to prison
When Idi Amin’s regime was toppled in April 1979, Yusuf Lule’s government ordered all former soldiers of the Uganda Army, usually referred to as “Amin’s soldiers”, to report to the authorities for scrutiny. Among those who reported at Makindye Military Barracks in Kampala was Kifulugunyu.
Kifulugunyu and many of his colleagues were held at Makindye barracks. In the following two weeks, about 600 soldiers were ferried and piled at Luzira prison. What was the crime? They were “Amin’s soldiers” and were therefore “collectively guilty of every crime” that happened in Uganda from 1971 to 1979 when Amin was president.
At Luzira, they were herded and deserved no better treatment than irate wild beasts.
A few days after they had settled into the infamous prison, the minister of State for Defence, Yoweri Museveni, visited them. According to Kifulugunyu, Museveni while addressing them used a metaphor to describe their situation. He reportedly said they were like cows put in a dip-tank to remove ticks; that those who had committed crimes would have to answer while the innocent ones would be set free and soon.
The minister’s words were somehow soothing to those who knew the law would absolve them. But for months they waited to be brought to justice in vain. It was at this time that some prisoners planned to escape from State-inspired injustice of deliberate indefinite incarceration.
Planning the great escape
Escaping from captors is one of the special skills taught to commandos. Among the inmates at Upper Prison were commandos who had trained in Israel, Greece, Russia and Czechoslovakia, among other countries.
Clandestinely, they met on several occasions in brief meetings in the prison compound and plotted to escape.
Among them was Staff Sergeant Kifulugunyu who had trained in Israel, Libya and Czechoslovakia as a commando. According to him, planning the escape lasted about six months. Asked who initiated the escape, “It was Captain Muleke,” Kifulugunyu answered.
Captain Muleke was a tank commander. Muleke and Kifulugunyu were among 200 Ugandan soldiers who underwent a two-year paratrooper training in Israel from 1967 to 1969.
When Kifulugunyu bought the idea, Captain Muleke who was a Muganda-Munyankole from Mbarara District brought in another officer called Lieutenant Ndugutse, aka Kalisoliso, Kifulugunyu recalls.
Ndugutse was a Rwandan refugee but claimed to be a Mufumbira from Kisoro in Kigezi sub-region. Ndugutse was among the pioneers of the Uganda Marine Squadron established in 1973 by president Amin. The trio agreed to involve other resolute commandos. “They were Captain Johnson Kasenge, Sergeant George William Sekiwano, Sergeant Idi Ajuga, Mohamad Sadiq and Corporal Kamuhanda, a Munyankole from Bushenyi,” Kifulugunyu recollects.
Kifulugunyu does not recall the exact day they escaped but thinks it was in November 1981. This is because they were excited that Christmas would find them out of prison. When this reporter contacted a friend who deserted the Uganda Prison Service in December 1981 for fear of his life having voted UPM in the 1980 elections, he too recalled that the commandos escaped in November because it was in December 1981 that he left Luzira Prison barracks for his home in Rukungiri District.
On the D-Day, shortly after midnight, under the cover of darkness, the seven men each left his cell and safely moved to the escape point as agreed. Next was to climb over a 12-foot high perimeter wall. They created a human ladder. Corporal Kamuhanda stood leaning against the wall. Another one climbed on his shoulders. When the third stood on the shoulders of the second person, he reached the top level of the wall.
Kifulugunyu, however, cannot recall who it was. He was given a rope which he used as a pulley. With a wall as fulcrum, he pulled others up. When they had all reached atop the wall, they crawled towards the main gate. At the main gate, the wall is about 15 feet high. Too high to jump!
In the lead was Corporal Kamuhanda. Using a three-knot tie, he threw the rope at the flag pole and fastened it against a metal bar. The rope was now the bridge between the prison wall and the flag pole outside. Using the flag pole, one after one, they climbed down. Once all the eight had touched the ground, they decided that each should walk alone to his own destination. Why? “If we were found in a group, it would be hard to explain our reason for walking at night,” Kifulugunyu responded.
“But our next destination was Sliver Springs Hotel [Bugolobi]. From the prison we could hear music.
And so we went there to beg for money from revellers and also get current news,” Kifulugunyu narrates.
The prison officer that this reporter spoke to (and who chose to remain anonymous) too recalls that when the news came that “Amin’s commandos” had escaped, “we went to the Upper Prison main gate and saw the rope they used to escape from prison.” His recollection corresponds to Kifulugunyu’s. He also recalls that investigations indicated that a one Kamuhanda was the architect and leader in the escape.
Life as free men
Meanwhile, before the commandos parted ways at the Upper Prison main gate, they agreed to meet at a place in Kisenyi slum, Kampala after 14 days to chat the next course of action. When they met, Ndugutse suggested that they go to Rwanda and join the army because president Juvenal Habyarimana wanted Rwandans in the former Uganda Army to join the Rwandan army.
Captain Kamuhanda and Captain Muleke agreed to go with Ndugutse. According to Kifulugunyu, that was the last time he saw his fellow escapees. But recently, when Kifulugunyu appeared on “Omuntu Wantu” TV show, the sister of late Muleke came to visit him. She told him that Muleke used to tell them of his friend Steven Sempagala.
Meanwhile, from Kisenyi slum, Kifulugunyu escaped to Kasanda, Mityana where he later joined the National Resistance Army (NRA) of Yoweri Museveni. Apparently, Kifulugunyu did not know that Ndugutse also joined the NRA rebels.
After the Kisenyi meeting, Ndugutse joined Dr Andrew Kayira’s rebel group which he abandoned to join NRA rebels. By 1990, he was a Captain and his last deployment was at Naluwerere on Busia-Malaba highway where he was the detach commander.
When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) attacked Rwanda from Uganda on October 1, 1990, Ndugutse –then about 50 years old – was the oldest RPF fighter.
Signing soldier. Sergeant Steven Sempagala Kifulugunyu was born on January 8, 1937 and joined the Uganda Army in 1964. Although he is now 80 year old, he does not look his age. Why? Because he says he is disciplined as a trained commando from Israel, Libya and Iraq. He keeps fit by eating the right food as well as doing physical exercises. Kifulugunyu has seen it all. When the Uganda Army went to Congo in 1965, he was there. When Libya invaded Chad in 1973, he was there as a commando trainee. A year before Uganda had sent Kifulugunyu and others for training but Libyan president Muamar Gaddafi sent them to Chad as mercenaries. In 1983, he joined the NRA rebels of President Museveni in Luweero. Although he did not fight, he was a famous morale booster. His singing was important to relieve fatigue and stress from the fighters. After the war in 1986, Kifulugunyu became famous as soldier-musician on Uganda television and depended on his music. In 2008, he retired from the UPDF at a rank of Sergeant and he has since retired from singing. Today, Kifulugunyu sells water Tuula, Kawempe near Kampala to survive as he waits for President Museveni’s financial assistance he promised him when he awarded him with the Luweero Medal on January 26, 2017 at a function hosted in Masindi district. He told Sunday Monitor if he gets that money the President promised him, he will buy land.
About Maximum Security Prison
High security prison. The Maximum Security Prison at Luzira Hill was opened in 1927. It had been previously moved from Nakasero Hill to pave way for the construction of the now refurbished State Lodge. Earlier, it had been moved from lower Kampala near Kisekka Market across lower Kyagwe road along the Nakivubo channel. This was the first government Maximum Security Prison built to accommodate “high risk” prisoners many of whom were ex-service men. To be taken to Luzira Maximum Security Prison meant death. Indeed as many as 500 inmates did not survive the noose – judging from the colonial annual records about executions between 1927 and 1957 when the last prisoners were executed there under the British colonial rule. On average, 18 prisoners were executed annually in 30 years. However, the last prisoners were executed in 1999 when 29 prisoners were hanged including Hajj Musa Sebirumbi from Luweero.