Erasmus Magazine

On October 22nd, Susan Kigula visited the University of Amsterdam as part of the monthly Room for Discussion conversations. Since the height of the pandemic, RfD has been pushed to virtual meetings; however, Rostra, Sefa, and UvA are excited and ecstatic to bring back the Room for Discussion panels! For the first time since 2020, RfD had the physical presence of an English speaking attendee – Ms Susan Kigula, “the woman who pioneered the abolished of the automatic death penalty in Uganda”. Join us as we share her inspirational life story in the following article.

Susan Kigula, the daughter of primary school teachers, was born in 1980 in the Masaka region of an East African country known as Uganda. She was brought up in a middle-class family with her five other siblings. When she was a child, she told her dad about her ambition to become a banker with the assumption that by being a banker, she would be wealthy. The limited opportunities of her childhood shaped her dream to become a banker. Undoubtedly, the difficulties she faced played a massive role in shaping Susan Kigula’s strong character later in her life.

When Kigula’s dad retired, her mother became the only breadwinner in the family, bringing about a breaking point in Kigula’s life at sixteen. Kigula then went to Kampala and started to work in a small gift shop, where her relationship with Constantine Sseremba, her future husband, began. Two years later, at the age of 18, Kigula married Sseremba. They had a happy relationship for two years, during which their daughter was born. Sseremba’s son from his previous relationship also lived with them until a tragedy struck one night in June 2000. When Kigula woke up in the middle of the night, she felt immense pain behind her neck. There was blood on her mattress, and she found her husband dead on the floor. Everything happened so fast, and she was in such a shock that she could not remember anything until the following day when she opened her eyes at the hospital. That same day, she and the caretaker woman from their house were arrested for the murder of Constantine Sseremba.

While telling her story, Ms Kigula tried her best to keep the tears that prevented her from speaking. Understanding her pain, the RfD hosts were helpful and considerate to provide her with tissue and water. During those minutes of silence as Ms Kigula composed herself, it was a moment to reflect on the harsh reality that this poor woman has endured.

Ms Kigula related her husband’s murder to his work, but the true reasons behind his death are still unknown to her. Regardless, after that night, Kigula’s life has changed forever. Her dreams for happy family life had gone. Her sunny childhood days had not prepared her for what was about to come, said Kigula, trying to carry on with her story. Her trial, held after two months of her arrest, resulted in a harsh death sentence verdict. Ms Kigula expressed her shock and devastation over the judge’s decision. She had believed in a fair system, referring to the laws of Uganda.

The moments in which she reflected on her inner thoughts and feelings during the interview were probably the most challenging parts to witness. The ever-increasing Amsterdam rain outside did not help either; it felt like the clouds were reflecting on Kigula’s feelings. Her goals, dreams, and future were all set to an end on a specific date because of a crime she did not commit. During her trial, even her 14-year-old stepson testified against her, which created the drama in the courtroom that later became widespread news. According to Kigula, her stepson was manipulated and instructed to testify against her. Having known her son’s character, she was devastated beyond measure.

During her trial, everything was piled up against her, and the odds were looking dreary. During those dark times, she questioned her faith and was angry with God for seeing her innocence and not making things right. However, Kigula later told the audience that she had reached the point of forgiveness. She forgives those who wronged her: the people who killed her husband and the judge who sentenced her to death. Her surreal and virtuous personality shone through the darkness as she later elaborated on her forgiveness for the questions raised by the audience. During her life in prison, Kigula never lost hope in God and humanity. She helped her fellow inmates by teaching them how to use the resources provided by their families and prison wardens.

Five years after Kigula had been imprisoned, Alexander McLean, a 20-year-old British student, took a break from his studies and volunteered to work in the Mugalo hospital in Kampala in 2005. During this time, McLean and Kigula met and started to work together to help the other inmates. Alexander had been impressed by Kigula’s leadership and willingness to help others. She later got a scholarship to study law at the University of London. Ms Kigula expressed her frustration, telling McLean that she did not want to study law after all of the things that had happened to her in Uganda. Nonetheless, McLean insisted that her place is in direction because of her inner drive and her actions to help so many others. In the end, she conceded and decided to study law and obtained her University of London degree. All study materials were provided in an MP3 player. She still remembers how she had grasped the course material with a heavy legal technicality, once again providing her admirable resilience despite all hardships.

After finishing her studies, Kigula became a lawyer, and she proceeded with the African Prison Project. This project aimed to provide education for prisoners in addition to legal professionals such as judges. An interesting remark made by Kigula was that even women judges have difficulties understanding the possibility of women being innocent in a marriage. This means that women judges tend to give out harsher sentences than male judges, proving her point about the necessity of legal education in Uganda. The Project became a successful initiative and helped 417 others to be saved from automatic execution. Another point of clarification Ms Kigula made was that the death penalty had not been entirely abolished after her efforts, but the automatic execution for brutal crimes had stopped. Nonetheless, Kigula shared that she intends to reach the level of complete abolition later.

After finishing her story, there was room for more general and broader questions, such as her stance on criminal punishment and the death penalty. From her perspective, every individual, even those who committed the most serious crimes, can be brought back to society; therefore, everyone deserves a second chance. By taking the opportunity away through the application of the death penalty, society is robbed of a potential member, according to Kigula. Meanwhile, she also mentioned that she is not against all punishment by stating her awareness of the difficulty of healing specific individuals and giving them an early passage back to society due to the severity of their crimes.

It goes without saying that listening to Susan Kigula was inspiring and very enjoyable. Her resilience, strength, and humanitarian personality prove her to be a true model for humankind.