Thirty years later. In this third and last part of our series on the life and times of one of Uganda’s military icons, Sunday Monitor’s Timothy Kalyegira digs into the circumstances leading to Maj Gen Oyite-Ojok’s death.
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 helicopter set off for the Luweero Triangle. Oyite-Ojok had laid out a strategic military plan to defeat Yoweri Museveni’s NRA guerrillas once and for all, and he was going to present it to the army’s field commanders in Luweero.
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 during 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.
Captain Peter Oringi, flew another Bell-412 helicopter with the late Captain Peter Nyakairu as co-pilot. Oringi and Nyakairu landed at 11am in the hilly area of Kasozi in Nakasongola, about 150kms north of Kampala. Oringi and Nyakairu previously had been flying in 12-barrel, 107mm Katyusha guns to be used by the army against the NRA guerrillas.
Arriving in Luweero
Oyite-Ojok’s helicopter landed shortly after Nyakairu and Oringi and the Chief of Staff called a meeting with the field commanders Lt Col John Ogole, the overall counterinsurgency commander, Maj Eric Odwar the commander of the Buffalo Battalion and Maj Michael Kilama, commander of the Air and Seaborne Battalion Tororo, both of whom were under Ogole’s overall command.
The long meetings ended at about 6.30pm and the helicopter teams prepared to return to Kampala and Entebbe. Captain Kamara inspected the helicopters.
Captain Oringi and Captain Nyakairu lifted off first and the Bell Augusta-412 carrying Oyite-Ojok lifted off at 8.15pm. However, a few minutes after lift-off, Oyite-Ojok’s helicopter started giving off noises that sounded like an engine or exhaust pipe problem, according to some sources. It suddenly nose-dived and plunged to the ground where it burst into flames, killing all on board.
All on board were burnt beyond recognition except for the acting director of Military Intelligence, Lt Kato Kiragga, who was seated to the left while the helicopter tilted toward the right. Kiragga’s lower body was burnt but parts of his torso and upper limbs were intact.
Some reports said the helicopters had carried large amounts of fuel on board, since there were no re-fuelling facilities. A special announcement was read on Radio Uganda on the morning of Saturday December 4, 1983 about the death of the Army Chief of Staff. It was received with shock across Uganda.
At the time of Oyite-Ojok’s death, president Milton Obote was in India on a State visit. He left hurriedly, apparently on his way back to Uganda. However, the following day in the Indian city of Bangalore, a Ugandan student claims that he saw Obote at a local five-star hotel, seated by the swimming pool in a deep discussion with two cabinet ministers, in a “totally relaxed” mood.
Even after Oyite-Ojok’s death, President Obote did not immediately fly to Uganda but travelled to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, then on to Uganda. It is this delay in leaving India and then traveling on to Tanzania rather than cutting short all overseas travel to rush back home, that has a number of skeptics still convinced that the then Uganda government might have had a hand in Oyite-Ojok’s death.
A source said in 2009 that just before Oyite-Ojok’s died, soldiers in key barracks in Kampala and other towns had been disarmed. This claim cannot be independently verified, but if true, it would bring another angle to that still unresolved helicopter crash.
Or at the very least, Obote --- perhaps taking precautions out of fear of a possible army coup such as the one attempted by Brig Perino Okoya following the assassination attempt on Obote in December 1969 --- might have delayed his return to Uganda until the situation became clear.
In that case, it would suggest that the government was unsure of Oyite-Ojok’s death and that it might have been caused by Museveni’s NRA and for the president’s security, it was thought important to watch any developments from outside Uganda.
Oyite-Ojok had certainly by 1983 not only become extremely powerful but by some accounts, extremely wealthy from Uganda’s coffee exports, he being the chairman of the Coffee Marketing Board.
A short while before the 1985 coup, prime minister Otema Allimadi visited London. It was rumoured at the time that he had been sent by the government to persuade the British government to freeze Oyite-Ojok’s personal bank accounts, loaded with money from Uganda’s coffee sales.
A Ugandan official at the Coffee Marketing Board’s London office, who is said to have been the handler of Oyite-Ojok’s accounts, became incredibly wealthy overnight following Oyite-Ojok’s death, suggesting that he might have made a last-minute transfer of some of Oyite-Ojok’s money to his own account.
The manufacturers of the helicopter, Bell of Texas in the United States and Agusta Bell in Italy later sent investigators to Uganda, joined by aviation safety crews from the Ugandan Civil Aviation Authority.
The combined Agusta Bell-CAA investigation discovered that the rod --- the smaller propeller that rotates at the upper tail of helicopters and helps stabilise the craft during flight --- had either been broken or damaged enough to later break off in the first few minutes of the return flight to Kampala.
Because Captain Kamara regularly and carefully inspected the Bell-412 and Jetranger-3 helicopters at Entebbe before they flew, it is unlikely that the rod would have got so worn out over time as for him to fail to notice it.
There also appears to have been intrigue within the airforce involving Ugandan pilots and Canadian technicians at that time helping re-build the airforce after it was depleted by the 1978-79 war.
A Swiss citizen and two Canadians on the technical team to revamp the ariforce enjoyed lucrative expatriate salaries and lived a comfortable life, living at the Lake Victoria Hotel in Entebbe. One of the Canadians was found to be less than well trained.
In an incident in September 1983 during which Capt. Oringi and one of the Canadians flew the army commander Lt Gen Tito Okello to his home in Kitgum, Oringi tried to test the Canadian.
On the return flight from Kitgum, the Agusta Bell AB412 helicopter encountered a storm over the River Aswa and had to make an emergency landing in the papyrus swamp until the storm had subsided.
Oringi had told the Canadian to avoid the storm but the latter insisted, saying it was not a threat and flew right into it. Oringi then concluded that the Canadians were not as qualified as they appeared. He wrote a report to the Ministry of Defence recommending that these Canadians’ contracts be terminated.
Sources with knowledge of the investigation say the helicopter might have been sabotaged by the Canadians with Capt Oringi as their target, not knowing that Oyite-Ojok would fly on that same aircraft after his own was grounded at Entebbe.
Whatever the truth to all these rumours, conspiracy theories and reports, the full story of the death of Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok remains as far from conclusive as it was 30 years ago.
He remains an enigmatic figure to Ugandans three decades after his death, as evidenced by the fact that he remains among the top 300 searches by Ugandans on the Google search engine.