KAMPALA — On Saturday night, my best friend and brother, Robert Aldridge Kasango, died in Murchison Bay Hospital inside Luzira Prison. The cause of death was heart failure! He was only 46 years. Bob didn’t have to die at this early age and in the way he did – alone and lonely, away from the care of his family and friends or competent doctors, in a prison hospital not equipped to handle his condition.
At Murchison Bay, he had no access to the medical attention he needed. Why? Because our judicial system denied Bob access to all reasonable medical care. First the prosecution bitterly protested his application to go abroad for heart surgery in spite of specialist doctors recommending it as urgent and critical. Then one day the judge arbitrarily cancelled his bail and later convicted him. Court rejected bail pending his appeal, so he could access a better-equipped hospital and competent doctors able to handle his complicated condition and also be cared for by his family.
In a country where people accused of murder, robbery, treason, defilement and terrorism regularly get bail I found the treatment of Bob depressing but also illuminating. It suggested that there was an invisible power pulling strings from behind. We may never know who this power was. What we know is that Bob did not just die. He was killed by a perverted system where judicial power was not used judiciously and in some cases actually abused.
But this is not the time and place to indulge in quarrels and recriminations. It is the time to celebrate the life of this great man, to give testimony to this victor in a thousand battles: beaten but unbowed, down but not out, jailed but not destroyed, fought but not defeated, frustrated but never depressed, always imitated but never equalled and even when killed his memory will continue in the lives he touched.
As Amilcar Cabral said at the funeral of Kwame Nkrumah, quoting an old African saying, “No man’s hand, however big, can be used to cover the sky.” No amount of bad press, however vitriolic, could hide Bob’s generosity to friends, kindness to fellow human beings, legal excellence, intellectual acumen and good humour. But died frustrated but fulfilled. He knew his weaknesses and mistakes, and with time he would have corrected them. He and an enduring faith in repentance and redemption
I met Bob in 1992 during a school debate when we were both teenagers and became instant friends. It was like love at first sight – within one minute of our meeting we were hooked. People who knew us thought that we would be friends – if we met. It could only be that way because Bob embodied many attributes which made him magnetic: handsome, intelligent, articulate, jovial, humorous, witty, name it. It became a lifelong long union. And now he is gone, yet still young with so much he could offer.
Across the years, Bob and I spent a lot of time together, read books together, debated together, attended conferences together, did business together, travelled locally and internationally together, dined and wined together, struggled together, celebrated together, lent each other money, spent time at each other’s home, we became twins. My first date with Fifi, the love of my life, was in hospital on Bob’s side. His wife Nice brought us the dinner there.
Then misfortune struck. The state accused Bob of theft of Shs 15.3 billion. The money belonged to pensioners and had been properly appropriated and paid to his law firm. The pensioners testified that Bob had served his role to their satisfaction. The Shs 15.3 billion was what they agreed to pay him. The state had no right to complain. The case was pursued with relentless tenacity. Finally in a judgement that will live in infamy Bob was sentenced to 16 years in jail.
I visited Bob regularly in Luzira, almost every weekend, especially before COVID. When COVID struck, prisons were set off limits and visitations stopped. But because of his sickness and the kindness of prison authorities, I was allowed to visit him twice this year. Prison is a horrible place: it separates inmates from family and friends. Its confining walls can suffocate even the most resilient, making them sad, depressed, resigned and despondent.
But Bob was a resilient man and tenacious fighter blessed with a competitive spirit. Adversity always seemed to bring the best out of him. Thus in Luzira, he preserved his optimism, his good humour, confident tone, kind heart and generous spirit. Each time I visited, I took him books to read, friends to share experiences with. He was always jovial and conducted himself as it he was on a short leave.
Before going to prison, he bad been diagnosed with a serious heart condition. For nearly a year he could barely work or walk. He spent a lot of time in hospital, often on oxygen. He needed urgent medical attention abroad but the DPP vigorously opposed his application for a passport and the judge agreed. They claimed Bob was faking his illness, in spite of letters by some of the best doctors recommending his urgent medical attention abroad. Many people are broken by adversity and for a while I feared the burden of his trial and the stress from the biased press would push Bob over the cliff. But he held on.
Yet when he went to jail, Bob seemed to recover. I recognized his inner fighting spirit was ticking. He was determined to prove his innocence and stage a dramatic comeback. He acted like he had made a strategic retreat, preparing his offensive to return to the stage. The disease that had threatened to kill him now seemed to be in miraculous retreat. In prison Bob found renewed energy and vitality.
He read books, reflected, introspected. He developed an incredible insight into the weaknesses and strength of both the judicial and prison system and began writing a treatise on how to improve the system. When I visit prisoners, all they talk about are their troubles – the people who betrayed them, those who fought them and the injustice they are facing, which is understandable.
Yet Bob rarely complained about the injustice meted against him, or his personal situation. In almost all cases, he talked for the forgotten inmates of Luzira: men wrongly incarcerated, others lacking legal representation, those with medical or family problems, and sought my assistance to help them. It is rare to find such a selfless soul – concerned about the issues of everyone else when his own weighed heavily on him. Who does that?
That was Bob, instead of jail putting him down, it fired his creativity, inspired his brain, stimulated his intellect, challenged his assumptions and gave him a new purpose. He had no time for self-pity, never allowed his anger to cloud his judgment or let short term reversals undermine his optimism and his enduring faith in a bright future. He saw in every setback an opportunity to learn, in every misfortune a chance to sit back and reflect and in every disaster the stirrings of his imagination, giving him new horizons.
Thus in Luzira, physically weak and sickly, seemingly crushed by a 16 year sentence and bad press, Bob bounced back with renewed energy and vitality. He helped extend legal services to other inmates – for free: listened to their cases, provided them advice on how to go about their cases (how to plead or appeal), wrote their appeals and using his friends paid some of their legal bills making them feel treasured, cared for and human again. Within two months of him in Luzira, he had helped over 50 inmates get their freedom.
He became a lecturer inside the prison teaching law and helping inmates get degrees from the University of London. He read books, lectured and tutored, wrote and analysed, helped his inmate-students focus, inspired them to look beyond their prison environment to a future after prison. The prison officials too were both intrigued and inspired by Bob’s selflessness, his boundless energy, his enduring optimism and his unbroken and unbreakable spirit.
He organized inmates to pray and fellowship with the Lord, invited prison officials to communion with him and other inmates making everyone feel equal and loved. Prison warders fell in love with Bob; they always went to him for advice or to seek help to solve their problems using his large network of friends. He became a celebrity, a mentor, saviour and adviser to many and thus earned a place as a sage of Luzira Maximum Security Prison.
Bob derived satisfaction, fulfilment, meaning and purpose in life from helping others. I have met few generous persons who can even compete. His generosity knew no boundaries. Initially, his generous spirit made me feel guilty because I just lacked the inner spirit to give endlessly without expecting a return. But then I realized this should instead inspire me as well and make me a better person to my family, friends and the community around me.
Yet in little efforts to help others, I could never match Bob. Wherever he went, he expressed his gratitude to those who served him by learning their names, asking about their lives and giving them tips. In banks and restaurants, in clinics and clubs, on planes and in taxes, Bob always gave generous tips to those who served him and established relationships with them that survive to date.
Whenever he visited our offices at The Independent, staff crowded around him, listening to him discourse on social, political and business issues. He was a Socrates surrounded by Plato, Crito, Antisthenes, Aristippus, Aristophanes, Xenophon, Alcibiades, etc. Then Bob would be in his element: rigorous, insightful, ambient, dashing, humorous, witty, poetic. He just commanded presence and got respect and admiration. Staff just felt good being around him.
Aside from his discourses, he listened to the personal and family problems of staff, understood their struggles, then digested their aspirations and challenges and wherever and whenever possible extended help – in form of a connection or money or just advice.
Anyone who met Bob would immediately feel the tinge of his magnificent personality. He never lost hope, never lost his humour, never got bitter, never lost faith in the goodness of the human soul, never lost his cool, never abandoned his friends. He got angry and frustrated but that was only momentary. He possessed and inspiring ability to stand out of the moment and keep his gaze at the big picture.
Bob was a committed Christian who believed that life on earth was only a short stint to life eternal. We know he has gone to communion with God. To his dear wife Nice and his kids Samora, Stephie and Ivana, your grief should be relieved by the fact that Bob has not died. He has retired from this world to the next and is waiting for you to join him. To those who knew him, Bob was not perfect, and he would have been the first person to admit this. He made many mistakes and misjudgements. But looking at his life, one conclusion is unmistakable: he was much bigger than those mistakes.