If the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) was an army of ancient Rome or Greece, a successful commander would count his victories through the number of captives, skulls of victims killed and the loot he returned with from battle. That would automatically guarantee him a heroic return with special reception at the gates of his home city.
However, that the UPDF is an army of modern times, does not mean commanders don’t count their success in related parameters only that the era of lining heads of killed enemies on stakes on the road side is long past. But were one to look for such a commander—one star general, Brig Michael Ondoga would carry the right to enter the gates of the City with drums and celebration. Only that, Ondoga, under current circumstances would also fit a popular Greek literary theme of tragic characters who despite their heroism at the battle front are confronted with shameful endings.
Until mid-last month, Ondoga, looked to his career set in one direction—a progressive path that started in 1988 when he joined the cadet course at Jinja army training school, a critical entry stage into officer ranks of serving in the national army.
Passionate about politics, his job and his country he grew through the ranks and positions rather first that by the time he completed a Bachelor’s degree at Islamic University in Uganda (IUIU) (it was not possible to establish whether this was his first degree or another he simply added) he was at the rank of Captain in 2000.
Ondoga now faces potentially career shattering investigations over allegations of mismanaging logistics for the peace-keeping troops in war-torn Somalia where the UPDF has the biggest contingent of an 18,000 strong African Union Peace Keeping Mission (Amisom) force.
The details of the allegations are still a subject of investigations and people in the know both in the UPDF and outside cautioned against prejudicing the case in anyway before it goes to trial before the Army General Court Martial. Should the prosecutor decide, Ondoga will be arraigned alongside 19 others part of the team he commanded in Somalia.
But who is Michael Ondoga?
Brig Ondoga joined the cadet course at Jinja Army College in 1998, where he graduated on top of his class. Upon graduation, he served in the political commissariat of the UPDF before heading out to battle Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who were menacing large sections of northern Uganda. Those who served with him say he was an excellent battlefront commander. He was later to head to Moroto as a Division Operation and Training Commander before heading out to Somalia when Uganda deployed to beat back the al-Shabaab.
Hi supporters and critics alike agree on one thing, “he broke the Al Shabaab’s back,” a senior UPDF officer told this writer. Of five Ugandan commanders of the Somalia mission, it’s only Ondoga who has served there twice. He arrived in Mogadishu when bullets were whizzing over the heads of anyone who dared land at the Mogadishu airport but left when conditions were suitable enough for a visitor to inspect a guard of honour.
At the end of his first tour, Ondoga headed to the US War College for further military training, returned only to be deployed back to battle front in Somalia. After his last tour, Ondoga was deployed as a Military Attache to the Ugandan Embassy in Nairobi, which posting now this newspaper understands has been put on hold. But as the Greek tragedies we alluded to at the start work, Ondoga now faces accusations that either directly or under his watch, food meant for the troops he heroically led to push back al-Shabab was stolen leaving the soldiers to live on one meal a day.
Colleagues in the army we spoke to for this article, cautioned against rush analysis and therefore judgment of either Ondoga’s exploits on the battle front or his alleged culpability in the food theft.
“We are still investigating,” said Col Paddy Ankunda, the UPDF and army spokesperson. Col Ankunda who disputed a rumour that the file for the prosecution of Brig Ondoga had been moved to the prosecutor at the army court martial, however, noted that the fact Brig Ondoga had posted excellent performance on the battle front does not mean he cannot be investigated in case concerns are raised about the handling of logistics under his command.
A journalist who reported in Mogadishu several times during Ondoga’s command described him as a principled man who inherited an intricate conflict but succeeded in pushing back the enemy, stabilising Mogadishu and creating sanity.
“As any soldier who has served under him and they will tell you he is a very principled man who woke up at 4am every morning to jog with his escorts even in troubled Mogadishu,” said the journalist adding, “have you wondered why he is the only commander (Ugandan Contingent) to be deployed twice in Somalia? He does not take nonsense,” the journalist was adamant Ondoga’s contribution on the battle front cannot be disputed but also spoke strongly in defence of his integrity. Of course, that will be tested through the court process.
A senior army officer who served in Mogadishu with Ondoga also urged caution on judgment either in support or against Ondoga and his co-accused. “Talking about it now would be premature and may lead to conclusions that either tend to condemn or exonerate the accused or the judicial process which will not be fair to either party,” the officer said but added, “there wouldn’t have been a suspension or recall if there were no basic facts.”
He is said not to be one who carries “his soldier personality” in interactions with people. “He debates, he engages with people, he appears to be a nice person when you interact with him,” said one individual who was a student at Islamic University in Uganda when he was also a student in the same institution.