In the second part of former Security minister Chris Rwakasisi’s life with Obote, the former minister explains how he was shortlisted for arrest and execution, and how he stood before a jury of his former juniors, writes Henry Lubega.
The 1985 coup was not a one-day event, we knew what was being planned; it took days of planning by the different factions in the army. I got minutes of the last planning meeting held in Gulu. The synopsis of that meeting was that arrest Chris Rwakasisi, Luwuliza Kirunda, Peter Otai and Smith Opon Acak, kill them instantly and arrest Obote, but don’t kill him.
A few days before the coup, we knew that it was eminent and unstoppable. The minister of Internal Affairs had gone to Zambia and Peter Otai, the minister of State for Defence, had gone to Addis Ababa. In their absence I was literally the man at the centre of everything.
The opposing troops moved by train from Gulu to take Lira, at around 4am they set off for Kampala. I had asked the chief of staff to remove all troops in Luweero triangle to concentrate on countering the ‘invading’ forces from the north. They assembled at Bombo in the morning of 27th to be addressed by the chief of Staff.
Information reached at 3pm that the chief of staff, for unknown reasons, did not show up to address and deploy our troops. As the soldiers waited, rumour circulated among them about who was going to take over government, one group was prepared to welcome them while another was prepared to fight them.
I dispatched Lt Kato with arms to Nakasongola to arm about 370 new recruits based there to counter the invading forces on their way to Kampala.
Unfortunately after Bombo he landed on the advancing opposing forces.
He communicated back what was happening and I told him to retreat. Lutwa’s forces were steadily advancing towards Kampala. When they encountered the first batch of the UNLA forces, one commander would order them to fire and the other would tell them not to.
I recall in that desperate situation, at around 5pm, I called the commissioner of prisons to bring me about 170 soldiers we had sent to prison at Luzira for misbehaving in public.
I took them to the chief of staff in Kololo and I told him, “You have got this good manpower, deploy them.” In the meantime, I asked the commander of General Service to open the armoury to allow them get uniform and guns, ready for battle.
Immediately after Kawempe, they met a group of our soldiers running away from Lutwa’s forces; they almost shot at each other. Fortunately I was following the proceedings on radio and I intervened. All this was happening when I was at the Nile Mansions with the president.
At around 11pm, I took the president to a safe house in Kololo; it was Dr Opieto’s house. At about 2am, I went to the president and told him he had to leave, he refused, saying he was not going to go anywhere.
He said: “Chris if it needs, I will die here. I’m not going to go.” I told him, “I don’t mind if it is straight death, but I cannot afford to see you being flogged on Kampala Road, you have to go.” He still refused.
I went ahead to organise his transport and security. I told him if you are not willing to go, I will pull you into the car. At around 4am, he reluctantly sat in the car, the convoy had a few artillery pieces ready to fight their way out if the need arose. At that time Mama Miria [Obote] had gone to Nairobi to visit a friend, and the children were at school, unfortunately they were left behind.
I was not going out of the country and leaving my wife and children in danger. After seeing the president off, I rushed home, picked a few belongings, but the most important thing was my wife and children. I took off in a convoy of six cars. I was about 30 minutes behind the president. At the bridge in Jinja, the army had received orders not to allow any vehicle from Kampala to cross.
I told my escorts to fight our way through, but the head of my security, Apollo, was a very intelligent man. He said, “We are outnumbered, there are so many soldiers we cannot fight them.” It was a very wise move.
It was me they wanted, they had orders to have me arrested and killed. Luckily, those who arrested me did not mistreat me because they were some of the soldiers I had recruited.
I was taken to Nalufenya Police Station at about 11am. From there I was taken to Gaddafi Barracks where I stayed from the July 27 to August 20 when I was brought to Luzira prison in Kampala.
From Gaddafi Barracks, I was brought to the High Command on August 20, 1985, in the cabinet room where I used to sit as a minister. Lutwa was the chairman of the High Command that included Bazilio Olara-Okello, who had by then been promoted to Lt Gen, and other members.
I was sat in the very chair I used to sit in as a minister during cabinet meetings. I was brought in handcuffs and Tito Okello ordered the Captain who brought me from Jinja to take off my handcuffs.
I was charged with three offences. First was misappropriation of veteran’s money. The money, Shs100,000, was given to every soldier regardless of rank, who participated in the 1979 liberation war. It had come through the president’s office.
My second charge was that I was escaping with $40 million (about Shs100 billion today) stolen from the Central Bank. The third charge was made by Lt Gen Bazilio himself who said, “Two time you write to president, you don’t want me chief of staff,” which was largely true.
On the first charge I told them I was a minister, not the accounting officer, it was the permanent secretary who was dispatching that money and it was by check, some of the members of the High Command supported me, saying they had received theirs.
On the second charge I told them there was no where in Uganda at that time you could get $40 million, because even Bank of Uganda did not have that kind of cash, even if they had, there was no way I could have got that money at night. I asked them if I was arrested with the money and where is it. That’s when Lutwa intervened and asked “Wapi chente”? (Where is the money). That case was also dropped.
On the third case I said I admit I took an oath of office to advise the president according to my ability and that’s what I did. After Oyite-Ojok’s death, it took a long time to replace him.
I urged the president on several occasions to fill that post and he would say “We are still mourning the army commander”. Tito Okello became the acting Chief of Staff. I wrote to the president twice stating how necessary it was to have a chief of Staff and how dangerous it was to have a void.
I had listed all the colonels of the time and weighed them according to my assessment and then gave the list to the president to choose one suitable for the post. Unfortunately there was a secretary in the president’s office, who was a mole, and leaked the letters to Bazilio.
I had preferred Smith Opon Acak among others because militarily Smith was more trained. He trained in Greece, Israel, and Russia among other places. “Paper wise”, he was on top, Bazilio was a soldier of the rank, by the time of the 1971 coup he was a Captain, while Oyite-Ojok was a Lt Colonel.
Having explained myself to them, Tito Okello said, “rudisha yeye Jinja” (take him back to Jinja). I feared being handed back to soldiers, so I pleaded that instead of being taken back to Jinja, why not take me to Luzira. Lutwa handed me over to the Inspector General of Police, who took me out of the cabinet room and handed me over to the commissioner of prisons, who took me to Luzira were I spent 24 years until the presidential pardon in 2009.
Obote lost control the day Oyite-Ojok died
Recent media reports about Dr Milton Obote’s (RIP) reaction following the death of the late Major General Oyite-Ojok, was written with malice and direct proposition that Obote actually planned the death of his chief of staff. Many people who were with Obote when he leant of Ojok’s death are dead. It’s only me, Mama Miria Obote, Peter Otai the former minister of State for Defence, the PPS Martin Orech, and some other functionaries in security still alive.
I recall it was early hours of the December 3, 1983, in Bombay on a state visit, the president was staying in Taj Mahal Hotel, while Peter Otai and I were staying in a different hotel.
Some minutes past 2am, I received a call in my suite from Peter Otai telling me there was a helicopter accident at home and the chief of Staff was involved. My first question to him was “was it fatal”? He replied, “Yes, it was fatal,” and he continued, “You are needed at the president’s Hotel.”
I got out of bed and joined Peter at the foyer. We took a taxi because by that time all government vehicles had gone. At Taj Mahal we found the late Gurdial Singh Uganda’s former High Commissioner to India, the private secretary, the chief escort Late Odongo Oduka, and other people, all in a sombre mood no body was talking.
I asked them whether the president had been informed, they said no. They said, “We have been waiting for you to inform him.” I rung the presidential suite, and Mama Miria picked the phone. I told her, “Can I talk to the president?” When he came on the line, I broke the news. He said, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” and hung up. Within a few minutes, he emerged from the bedroom dressed in his pyjamas and robe.
A year earlier, most Ugandans didn’t know but Obote had undergone an operation in Italy, and they had stopped him from smoking. The first thing he did when he emerged from the bedroom was asking his chief bodyguard, Odongo Oduka, for a cigarette. Oduka pulled out a packet of Rex and handed it to him. From that moment on, he resumed smoking.
At around 3:30am, the president ordered our High Commissioner to India to cancel all our programmes in India and have the delegation clear for home departure. The good thing was that the Indian state machinery operates 24hrs.
At around 11am, we boarded our plane back to Kampala. This was the loneliest, yet full flight I have ever experienced. Everyone was in grief, it was a big loss. Ugandans should know that Obote lost control of the government the day Oyite-Ojok died. He never recovered from that shock. It really saddens me when someone suggests that Obote planned Oyite-Ojok’s death.
We got to Entebbe at around 6am the next day, the Internal Affairs minister then, the late Dr Luwuliza Kirunda, had lined up a police guard of honour. But Obote ignored it, I recall his words, “We are not here for celebrations,” and he walked straight to his car and drove straight to State House in Entebbe. From there I started arranging for the funeral.
After the funeral, the president ordered for an investigation into the accident by calling in experts from Bel (The manufactures of the helicopter), and the International Civil Aviation. He wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.
There were rumours that the plane had been shot by the NRA rebels, others were saying it was a planned accident; others accused Muwanga of being behind the accident.
The investigation report said the crash was due to human error, not defective machine or anything else.
The helicopter crushed around 8pm, it was not fitted with night visual gadgets. The pilot crushed into a tree.
Despite the many theories of the chopper having been shot down by the rebels, President Museveni has never come out to claim having shot it. Oyite-Ojok was never intentionally killed as it has been alleged.
As told to Henry Lubega
Continues next Sunday