On August 12 this year, it will be six years since three UPDF choppers crashed over Mt Kenya en-route to Somalia and left seven soldiers dead.
Since then, many changes have happened but the one thing that has remained unclear is whether Uganda will ever be compensated by the UN for the loss.
The air force officers who were sacked by President Museveni over the incident, have been redeployed and are serving in more senior positions.
Lt Gen Jim Owoyesigire, who was sacked from the position of Commander of Air Force, is now commander of all 20,000 Amisom troops in Somalia.
Amisom troops are from five countries of Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Burundi.
Brig Moses Rwakitarate, the former Air Force Chief of Staff, is now Uganda’s Military Adviser to the European Union in Brussels.
Without choppers, the Ugandan troops continue operating under difficult conditions. The injured cannot be quickly evacuated from the frontline.
Lack of attack helicopters has made it difficult for the UPDF troops to chase the fleeing enemy that is highly mobile and light.
The army says America has offered five utility choppers that will soon be deployed, but combat helicopters are still very much needed.
Brig Richard Karemire, the army spokesperson, says they are still pushing to have the UN replace the crashed assets. “We are still pushing,” he said.
Despite the delay, Brig Karemire says, they are optimistic that UN would compensate Uganda.
United Nations provides logistical support and reimburses all African countries with troops in Somalia for wear and tear of their weapons used in the fight against the al Shabaab.
The Global Arms Transfer Expert Organisation, SIPRI, in its arms transfer database, shows that Uganda acquired three Mi-24 helicopters that were updated to the Mi-24PN mode before delivery in an estimated $10 million (Sh36 billion) deal.
The wreckages of these force enablers that were bought during the war against Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in northern Uganda and South Sudan are rotting away in Mt Kenya.
Brig Karemire says it was not necessary to remove the wreckage from the mountains. “Would it be worthwhile?” he asked.
The crash was not only a big blow to the operations against al Shabaab, it also seriously impacted the UPDF’S young Air Force.
As the negotiations continue, there is little hope that Uganda would be compensated because the UN insists that the choppers crashed before reaching the area of operation.
But also, there issues of negligence on the side of the UPDF, despite a heated argument between some Air Force officers and an American flight engineer, who was working with the UN at that time.
The American was flying in the M17 then flown by Maj Okidi, who safely landed in Wajir, north eastern Kenya. Okidi has since been appointed presidential pilot and promoted to the rank of Colonel.
According to the sources, the helicopters were supposed to fly around Mt Kenya, not directly over the mountain.
They flew well between Soroti Flying School and Nanyuki, but could not negotiate the 17,000 foot altitude of Mt Kenya between Nanyuki and Garissa.
The Mi-24 is designed to fly at altitudes no higher than 12,000 feet. It was, therefore, hard for it to fly over Mount Kenya.
There were reports that Maj Okidi managed to fly over the mountain because Mi-17 is bigger and could handle such heights.
Other sources say when the American insisted, he flew around the mountain, not directly like the MI-24s did.
After the crash, the army gave bad weather as the cause of the crash. But President Museveni dismissed the reason.
He mentioned “acts of negligence” and “high-handedness” as the cause of the crashes that resulted in such losses of military equipment.
“I cannot listen to stories of bad weather on the mountain. Mountains are clearly shown on the maps. We never fly over mountains with helicopters, especially combat ones,” he later said.
President Museveni later appointed Gen Salim Saleh as chief adviser on defence, to head an investigation.
However, details of the report have never been made public. It is said President Museveni used the report to sack Lt Gen Owoyesigire and Brig Rwakitarate.
Sources say it was an unprecedented catalogue of mistakes, inexperience and bad orders from commanders that could have been the most likely causes of the triple helicopter crashes.
A Kenyan newspaper also reported that contrary to well established international aviation rules and regulations, the pilots of Uganda’s three ill-fated Mi-24 attack helicopters that crashed in the Mt Kenya ranges were communicating in Luganda.
The newspaper also reported that the Kenyan aviation authority could hear UPDF soldiers as they communicated among themselves in Luganda – just minutes before the crash. They crashed after 30 minutes into their flight before realising there was bad weather ahead.
In a move to avoid poor visibility, the pilots are said to have gained height and flew far above the required altitude, the Kenyan newspaper reported. The choppers were flying at 11,000 feet when they came down.
Other Kenyan media reported that after realising that the chopper pilots were heading straight into the mountain, a Kenyan pilot attempted to break into the military frequency to warn them of the dangers ahead but he was unable to get through.
The need to send these helicopters came in November 2011, when Amisom launched ‘Operation Free Shabelle’ troops fanning out of Mogadishu that came with the long lines of communication and supply routes. The operation marked the beginning of the second phase of the military operations against al-Shabaab.
The UPDF had expanded its frontline out of Mogadishu to Afgooye, Marka and later Baidoa in the southwest and Jowhar in the north of the Somali capital.
Uganda Battle Group 10 under the command of Lt Col Edison Muhanguzi, now a Colonel, had captured Baidoa in 2012, which is now under the Ethiopian troops.
Baidoa is about 243km from Mogadishu, while Jowhar is 90km. That meant travelling 243km by road from Mogadishu to supply the forward base in Baidoa and, therefore, there was an urgent need for helicopters.
On the day they were flagged off at Entebbe Airport, journalists were invited, and the former Chief of Defence Forces, the late Gen Aronda Nyakairima, handed over the flag to the head of the crew, Lt Col Chris Kaija and wished him well. But one week later, Lt Col Kaija, now Colonel, was being carried on a stretcher by the Kenyan rescue team from the mountains.
Seven soldiers died and 21 survived. Since then, the UN has insisted it cannot compensate Uganda $10 million for the three helicopters whose loss remains tagged to Uganda. But UPDF still hopes for the best.
The affected soldiers
Killed in crash
Capt William Spear Letti
Lt Patrick Nahamya
2nd Lt Robert Tushabe
Lt Nelson Mulumba
WOII Kakabe David Zikosoka
S/Sgt Mweshezi Ruhamata
Sgt Charles Lukwago
Lt Col Chris Kasaija
Maj Charles Okidi
Capt George Buga
Capt Samuel Kitenyi
Capt Asad Magombe.
Lt Robert Bakashaba
Lt Job Osuret
Lt Everest Sebagenzi
Lt John Nyanzi
Lt Charles Alemu
2nd Lt Gideon Taremwa
2nd Lt Asaph Barigye
WOI Patrick Ongaria
WOI Nixon Ayesigye
WOII George Nakabanda
WOII Wilberforce Kalulu
S/Sgt John Komunda
S/Sgt Robert Eritu
Sgt Coleb Mugwisa
Pte Mark Muse