Sunday January 12 2014

My relative died in Ojok copter crash

Maj Gen Oyite-Ojok, one of Uganda’s military

Maj Gen Oyite-Ojok, one of Uganda’s military icons. file illustration 

Over the last 30 years, I have read, sometimes with great pains, numerous articles written on the death of Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok and his other colleagues in a helicopter crash in Luweero in December 1983.
Some of the articles either border on wild speculations or suffer from analysis paralysis – i.e. the writers do not have adequate information to ground their articles. I have deliberately restrained myself from participation. However, this time round, I wish to add my voice.
I would like to thank Timothy Kalyegira, ‘my son’, for his usually well-researched articles. But his serialisation on the death of David Oyite-Ojok and his colleagues, which ended in the Sunday Monitor of December 29, 2013, had some gaps and loop-holes, which need be pointed out.

First, one of the people who perished in that unfortunate incident, Col Alfred Otto, was not only my maternal relative, but we also went to the same primary school – Acholi Local Government (ALG) Primary school, Opette. He was two classes ahead of me. At the time of his death, he had been promoted to full Colonel. He was no longer a Major as appeared in Kalyegira’s serialisation.

Second, Otto was not the Commander of the Air Force. On that fateful day, Col Otto was on a pass leave. We had arranged to travel to Kitgum in his private car that very morning. I arrived at his house on Acacia Avenue (now John Babihia Avenue) at about 6.45 am. From my house on Elizabeth Avenue to his house would take only about a 10-minute walk.
When I entered his house he was just getting out of the bathroom. He quickly dressed up in casual civilian dress and joined me in the sitting room. Without sitting down, he told me that the previous evening he had forgotten something very important at the Nile Mansion (now Serena Hotel). He asked me to have breakfast, which was ready on the dining table, as he quickly drove off to the Nile Mansion to pick up the forgotten thing.
After about 30 minutes or so, he came back and informed me in Luo: Jal wot tin pe. Watem kong diki,. (Meaning: my friend, there is no trip today. Let us try tomorrow). When I asked for the reason, he told me that he had met ‘Chief’ (as Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok was fondly called) at Nile Mansion and Chief ordered him to come back, change into uniform and then quickly go back to the Nile Mansion to fly him (Chief) and some other officers to Luweero (now Nakasongola).

Faulty helicopter
Col Otto informed me and his wife, ‘Min Aloyo’ (the mother of Aloyo – now also the late) that he had complained to ‘Chief’ that the helicopter he wanted him to fly to Luweero had been grounded at the Nile Mansion for more than a week because it was not in good mechanical condition.
According to Otto ‘Chief’ insisted that the journey was short and, therefore, the helicopter would make it. We both got in his car. He drove me back to my house and proceeded to Nile Mansion. Never to be seen alive again. The journey to Luweero originated from the Nile Mansion, not Entebbe.

The following morning at around 5am, my telephone rang and I picked it. When I heard the voice of Mzee Tito Okello Lutwa, I knew something was terribly wrong. Tito spoke in Luo and said: Acoyi woko do? Litino otum woko. Ojok oto, Okwonga oto, Otto oto, Abili oto, Kamara oto, Olwoch oto, ki jo mukene aryo nyo nadek. Wek iti obed twolo ma peya ikato woko. (Meaning: Have I woken you up? The children are finished. Ojok is dead, Okwonga is dead, Otto is dead, Abili is dead, Kamara is dead, Olwoch is dead, plus two or three others. Helicopter has finished children. Keep your ear open before you go out).

The meeting Tito referred to have occurred was a high-level security meeting chaired by the then vice president Paulo Muwanga. Agenda items were few. The first item was brief on the helicopter accident; second, when should the nation be informed and by who? Third, when should the president, Dr Apollo Milton Obote, who was in India, be informed and by who? Lastly, funeral arrangements for the dead.
On informing the nation, it was decided that it should not be done until the then rebels fighting the government had made their claim.
After BBC news bulletin at 6am local time, the then rebels came out in Focus-on-Africa, that they had shot down the helicopter between Bombo and Kampala. It was after that claim that the government came out to inform the nation in a statement by Paulo Muwanga, who was in-charge of the country.

Informing nation
It was also decided that the responsibility to inform the president was the mandate of the vice president. When President Obote was informed about the tragedy, I am told that he concurred with all the decisions of the security meeting, but only asked if it was safe for him to return and land at Entebbe. To which, I learned, Muwanga replied that there was nothing unusual happening at that moment and that the situation seemed to be calm.
I am not aware of any undue delay on the part of president Obote to return to Uganda as insinuated by various writers, Timothy Kalyegira inclusive. Obote’s government was a collective responsibility. That’s why all these important decisions were being taken in his absence.
It was after listening to that BBC news, Focus-on-Africa and government statement that I drove to Nile Mansion in my Datsun Nissan pick-up truck No. UXA 838. Very many people had already gathered at the Nile Mansion. At about 7.30am, three of us - Ms Getrude Lokecha, the late Timoni Langoya and myself - decided that we should travel to Luweero in my pick-up truck.
We arrived at the scene of the accident when there were still few people there. What I saw will never leave my memory until death.
Literally, everybody was crying. No one could hold back their tears. Soon, the police came and decided to cordon off the site, pushing the crowd, which had now swollen, some distance away. We had already walked around and seen what had happened.

It is absolutely not true that all the victims were burnt beyond recognition. How could Oyite-Ojok’s remains have been brought to Parliament? In any case, the plane ploughed through several trees before crashing down. Some of its parts were also scattered around. Some of the victims were damaged in other ways, not by fire.
Fuel claims
The allegation that a lot of fuel was being carried on the plane is also not true. I am not an expert on helicopters, but if a helicopter can fly from Kampala to Moroto, Kitgum or Arua without fueling on the way, then I think a full tank of fuel could go to Luweero and back.
The conspiracy theories I think should be dismissed with the contempt they deserve.

Oyite- Ojok was one of the main pillars of government, if not the main one. Only a fool can cut down the main pillar of a home so that it may collapse on him or her.
If there was any conspiracy to kill Oyite Ojok, it could only be by those who were ‘so close’ to Dr Obote and yet were working round the clock to bring about his downfall. Such a conspiracy could never have been by Dr Obote, or even with his knowledge or participation.
It is good to write articles in papers or journals. But when we write about people whose lives have been cut short, let us not forget that they still have relatives and friends alive. We should avoid hurting the feelings of such relatives and friends.
May their souls rest in peace.

Okello-Okello J. Livingstone. (Former MP, Chua).

what kalyegira wrote
On the morning of Friday, December 2, 1983, Oyite-Ojok flew to the Luweero Triangle area to inspect the army’s counterinsurgency operations against the National Resistance Army (NRA) guerrillas.
The official helicopter used by the Chief of Staff had a mechanical problem and was grounded at Entebbe Air Force Base. It was decided that Oyite-Ojok flies instead in the Bell Augusta-412 craft usually flown by the Commanding Officer of the helicopter squadron, Captain Peter Oringi.
Flying Oyite-Ojok that day was Maj Alfred Otto, the director of the Airforce and his co-pilot Captain Harry Oluoch. Oluoch, although not trained as a pilot, was a ground engineer and airworthiness specialist who had learned to fly helicopters.

On board the Italian-made Agusta Bell AB 412 Griffon helicopter that morning were: Maj-Gen David Oyite-Ojok, the chief of staff; Maj Alfred Otto, pilot and director of the air force; Captain Harry Oluoch, co-pilot; Maj Stephen Abili, the army’s Chief of Logistics and Engineering, who received his training in Hungary; and Lt John Kato Kiragga, the acting Director of Military Intelligence.

Others were Lt Col Wilson Okonga, the medical superintendent at the Mbuya Military Hospital; Captain Charles Kamara, the Israeli-trained technician in charge of the air force helicopter squadron; a photographer with the Ministry of Defence called Atei; and a Tanzanian Corporal known only by his first name Friday, who had served as an aide to Oyite-Ojok in the 1978-79 Uganda-Tanzania war and was the signaler on the helicopter that day.

Rumours in Kampala said a 10th person on board the helicopter was a woman, a girlfriend of Oyite-Ojok, seemingly confirmed by the Radio Uganda and the state-owned Uganda Times newspaper reports that a total of 10 people were aboard the helicopter...