On September 17, 1972, the Uganda People’s Liberation Force (UPLF) rebels attacked Uganda from Tanzania. They entered Uganda through Mutukula border in Masaka District and Kikagati in Mbarara, then Ankole District.
The war was meant to reinstate former president Milton Obote to power. However, in just a matter of hours, the Uganda Army had defeated the rebels. Many were killed while others were captured.
Among the high profile prisoners of war was Alex Ojera, the former minister for Information, Broadcasting and Tourism in the Uganda Peoples Congress government which was toppled in the January 25, 1971, coup.
On September 23, 1972, Ojera was interrogated. According to statements from Prisoners of War recorded on faded light green paper, seen by Sunday Monitor, Ojera narrated to president Idi Amin how he travelled by taxi to Malaba border and proceeded to Nairobi before heading to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
“I started my journey on May 9, 1971, to Kenya. I stayed in Kenya for about two weeks. I left Kenya for Dar [ es Salaam] and stayed in Dar for almost one month. I later met Akena [Adoko] who told me that Obote wanted to talk to me.
I went at night to see Obote [for him] to get me a passport, but Obote found that it was hard to get one unless he begged from the people concerned,” Ojera said.
“On my visit to Obote, he asked me for a lot of information about Uganda e.g. ‘how is the interest of the general public on president Amin. Are the new hospitals open? How do people carry on their normal duties?”
Afterwards, Ojera said he was again invited to meet Obote in a different house. And in that house he met Joshua Wakholi, Peter Oola and Lt Col David Oyite-Ojok. With assistance from Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, several meetings were then held to plan for Obote’s return to Uganda by military means.
In one of the meetings, it was resolved that all heads of the newly established departments, including Obote, would on July 23, 1971, leave Dar es Salaam and go to Camp Mukuyu for military training.
At the camp, Ojera was appointed overall administrator, while Oola was in charge of the soldiers’ welfare [former Uganda Army soldiers, new recruits and other people who had fled Uganda and joined Obote in exile] and Wakholi was in charge of education.
Tribalism in the rebel camps
Ojera told his interrogators that as people from different regions and professions from Uganda kept arriving at camp Mukuyu, wrangles emerged. The Bantu felt isolated, especially by the northerners from Lango and Acholi sub-regions.
Writing in his book Sowing the Mustard Seed, President Museveni on page 52 wrote about the differences between his group and that of Obote’s.
“Those who said they were loyal to Obote treated us as enemies and held certain views which we knew to be wrong and dangerous,” he said.
Another group accused the General Service Unit (GSU), a security and intelligence agency led by Akena Adoko, of partly causing the coup due to its brutality and political isolation of the citizens.
Ojera also said they were disagreements between Obote and Ojok and the Acholi.
Majority of the people who joined Obote in Tanzania were from Acholi and Lango sub-regions while others were from Bugisu and Kigezi sub-regions.
But toward the end of 1971, most of those who came from Kigezi sub-region joined Museveni in the Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) rebel movement, especially after Seperiya Mukombe-Mpambara, a UPC stalwart and chairman of the National Trading Corporation, fled to Tanzania through Rwanda in July 1971.
And one of those who crossed to Museveni’s camp was Mukombe-Mpambara’s brother, Lt Silver Tibihika, who in 1965 was a driver in the GSU before joining the army. Tibihika was among the first soldiers to desert the Uganda Army after the coup to join Obote in Tanzania. Tibihika was formerly stationed at Simba garrison in Mbarara, western Uganda.
War plan drawn
When the forces were through with military training, which lasted less than three months, the war plan was made. Less than 72 hours before the planned attack, the fighters were ferried towards the Uganda border.
“On September 13, Obote came to Mukuyu with some lorries. He talked to Ojok, Nyero and Tito [Okello Lutwa]. He then briefed us together with Peter [Oola], [Joshua] Wakholi and Ocen that we should leave Mukuyu camp and go to a nearer camp towards Uganda near Mutukula,” Ojera said.
“We left Mukuyu camp on Tuesday and reached Mutukula camp on Saturday from where Tito and Ojok gave us orders. At about 7:30pm, lorries were brought, ready to start the journey to Uganda. Although I had never driven a lorry before, I was given a lorry to drive. At about 10pm, we left for Mutukula, arriving there at about 6am.”
Ojera went on to describe the first contact with the government forces at the border. He said during the advance to Mutukula, inside Uganda, the UPLF were intercepted by the Ugandan forces and panic engulfed them, since many of them had never come under fire or experienced rapid shooting from close range. They all scampered to the bush.
“So Tito [Okello Lutwa] came back in a Land Rover which was bluish in colour and told us to go back. I turned the lorry I was driving because the situation was not good,” Ojera, who was in a company commanded by Karim, said.
However, as Ojera was starting the lorry, Lutwa halted them and told them to wait for the other lorries which had led the way to turn so that they could withdraw at once. And that was when tragedy struck on Ojera and his colleagues.
“From the nearby airfield, the Uganda Army opened fire at us. Two planes were flying over our heads. Everybody in the lorry jumped out. When fire was opened at us near the airport, we were all disorganised and people ran everywhere. I could not understand where the other leaders were,” Ojera said.
He also disclosed that they were told that there would be no fighting and that they would just march through to Uganda.
However, when they crossed over the border, the rebels heard that there was fierce fighting at Kyotera in Masaka and that they had lost a number of men. And as they tried to retreat, they were fired on.
Although they had about 10 lorries, only one, the lead lorry driven by Oyite-Ojok, was hit by the government forces.
As everyone jumped out of the lorries, it was now time to survive. Ojera, who had also abandoned his lorry and ran to the bush, decided to surrender to the enemy after a while.
“I left my gun somewhere in the bush with the ammunition. I moved near the road. I was seeing some trucks. I saw an officer I knew and I stopped him. I told him where my gun was and I told him that if possible I could lead them to get it, but they refused,” Ojera said.
On September 29, while president Amin was addressing foreign dignitaries and ambassadors from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now African Union, at State House Entebbe, Ojera was brought in, only in a trouser.
The Uganda Argus of September 30, 1972, wrote: “Amin was speaking to ministers and ambassadors of the OAU members states at State House Entebbe.
They had just attended a reception which president Amin gave in honour of the OAU secretary general Nzo Ekangaki when Ojera was led into the chamber, dressed in Khaki trousers and socks only with hands tied behind his back and wearing a bushy beard. The visitors were surprised at the ghastly sight of a man whom they had known as a respectable gentleman.”
“President Amin entered the chamber and greeted Ojera, to who he offered a seat having ordered that his hands be untied. President Amin asked Ojera why he led himself into that situation… whereas he was a well-educated man and had been a smart minister with a family and was respected.”
“President Amin assured Ojera that he would not be harmed and that he would be taken to the military hospital where he would be examined, treated, fed and given clothes; and when he became fit, he would be interrogated and if there is any crime that he will be found to have committed, he will be treated according to the law of the land. Amin then ordered that Ojera be taken to Malire where there was a good army hospital.
He also ordered him to be given good treatment until he became fit and after that be handed over to the military police for interrogation.”
Veteran politician Henry Kyemba, who was at the time the minister of Culture and Community Development and later minister of Health, was present when Ojera was brought into the room.
He told Sunday Monitor: “I remember that incident. It was horrible. Incidentally, Ojera looked healthy. He did not look like someone who had been beaten or hungry. I remember Amin giving him a chair to sit on. He did not want him to sit on the floor like those soldiers had wanted.”
But after that, Amin said, according to Kyemba, that Ojera be taken away and given “VIP treatment”, which meant execution.
Ojera pleads for his life
During the interrogations, the former minister was asked to make an appeal. He pleaded with Amin to have mercy and spare his life. He also asked for a second chance and promised to be a developmental Ugandan as he had done before when he was a teacher. He said he had taught good people like Maj William Toko, then chief of the Uganda Air Force, and Maj Joseph Ozi, who was the chief of military intelligence.
“A lot of people lost their lives because of only one person, Obote. I and many others who have fallen into this trouble pray that Obote shouldn’t continue to be the president as he wants. I learnt where I had gone wrong. My biggest regret is that I did not resist the order to drive the lorry to Uganda and took the decision rather late,” Ojera pleaded.
“Leaders come and go, but the country will remain. So no leader should think that when his time expires, it will come back, and those who think that Obote will come back as president should forget it.”
And to the rebels still fighting, Ojera said: “They should give up and come and join the rest of the citizens in Uganda, work together for the betterment of our country, Uganda.”
Ojera is killed
After the rebels had revealed it all to the incensed Amin, the president said no Ugandan would forgive the guerrillas for killings Ugandan soldiers and civilians.
On October 3, captured senior rebels were allowed to meet their relatives in the presence of Amin at his command post in Kololo, Kampala.
On that day, Ojera’s parents and his two wives saw him, but little did they know that it would be for the last time.
A few weeks later, there were press reports about Ojera’s death. The Uganda Argus of October 16, 1972, published a small story on the front page under the title “Ojera escapes in riot”.
“Obote’s minister of Information, Broadcasting and Tourism, Alex Ojera and former Captain Oyile escaped when 50 prisoners captured during the recent invasion on Uganda escaped from custody at Kifaru Mechanised Regiment, Bondo West Nile.
The prisoners rioted and overpowered a guard in the course of subduing the prisoners, 35 men [prisoners] were killed and eight recaptured,” The Uganda Argus reported.
Could it be true that Ojera and the others indeed overpowered a prison guard in an attempt to escape, or were they murdered by their incarcerators?
That is an answer that can only be guessed from the two scenarios.