The circumstances surrounding Lt Col Jet Mwebaze’s death remain shrouded in mystery, almost 19 years later. It is not surprising, therefore, that the controversial death of Lt Col Mwebaze, then 40, first reported by The Monitor now Daily Monitor on September 29, 1998, is etched as a highlight in the 25-year history of this newspaper.
The headline story “Planeful of top UPDF officers miss in Congo” could not have come at a worse time for the men in uniform on the frontlines in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and their bosses issuing orders from their swanky offices back in Kampala.
DRC, Uganda’s neighbour to the west, in 1998 was at the time the theatre of a bloody war involving more than eight African countries (Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad, Libya, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda) and tens of militia groups and a host of foreign powers albeit silently.
In fact, Col Mwebaze’s older brother, James Kazini, then a Brigadier but later rose to the rank of Major General and army commander, was at the time one of the senior Ugandan commanders leading the charge in DRC.
The Monitor’s Andrew M. Mwenda, quoting “a well-placed military source,” wrote that Col Mwebaze had been one of the military officers in the missing plane which was also transporting officials of a rebel alliance fighting to overthrow the government of former DRC president Laurent-Désiré Kabila.
The chartered Kenyan-registered Cessna aircraft (5YANV), according to the military source, had departed Entebbe for Bunia in the Ituri Province of DRC on Friday, September 25, 1998. It had not been heard from since.
The response to The Monitor’s story by then State minister for Defence, now outgoing Deputy Chief Justice Steven Kavuma, was telling of how those in power viewed The Monitor story.
The news of the disappearance of Lt Col Mwebaze’s plane, however, presented another kind of fear to the journalists in the know of the story.
John Ogen Kevin Aliro, a co-founder of this newspaper and Chief Sub Editor at the time, together with journalist Hassan Badru Zziwa, had travelled to DRC on the same day Col Mwebaze and others departed Entebbe.
Unlike today where it is easy to reach almost anyone across the globe by mobile phone, text message or on social media, 1998 was different. The duo had not been heard from since they had left. Were they on the same flight as Lt Col Mwebaze?
It was Mwenda’s call to President Museveni’s younger brother Gen Salim Saleh that allayed the fears in the newsroom. The duo, Gen Saleh said, had been on a different flight and was going about their work having arrived safely in the war zone.
Minister Kavuma was compelled to come clean when it became apparent that The Monitor was right.
In an interview with Uganda-born American journalist and Voice of America senior editor Shaka Ssali, he [Kavuma] confessed he had given wrong information when he said all the passengers aboard the plane had been rescued.
In her weekly column, “The Long View” Mary Karooro Okurut, the current minister in Charge of General Duties in the Office of the Prime Minister, took on Mr Kavuma saying “Minister Kavuma got it all wrong”.
“These were indeed strong words, but were they necessary?” she added: “Is it not better to do some research before issuing a statement of that magnitude? When such a statement is issued and then the truth comes out as it has done and it tallies with the condemned report, then the populace begins to wonder on which side of the divide patriotism lies.”
Jet is dead
A week after they were last seen, reports they could have survived the crash emerged. Again quoting a “highly placed military source”, Daily Monitor reported on October 2, 1998, that the pilot, Enos Luwunzu, had died in the process of crash-landing after failing to clear the mountain ranges.
The survivors were Idi Taban (Congolese), Abuki and Ms Rosette Kirungi who had parted ways with six others, including Lt Col Mwebaze, when they disagreed on the direction to take. There was hope, Col Mwebaze and others had allegedly been spotted by hunters, the military source told our reporter. He and others could be alive.
The death of Lt Col Mwebaze was officially confirmed in a statement by the defence ministry on October 4, 1998.
Eulogising his late brother, a tearful Gen Kazini blamed his demise to rumour-mongering and what he called irresponsible reporting. The rumours Gen Kazini was referring to was a claim made by then Rubaga South MP Ken Lukyamuzi that Gen Kazini had been taken to the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa.
Gen Kazini told a packed church at All Saints Church that his sibling was on his way to Congo to see him when he met his death. Lt Col Mwebaze had earlier called, he said, to check on his well-being and had insisted on going to see him.
“So I do not know whether I should be held responsible for his death,” Gen Kazini said.
Lt Col Jet Mwebaze was buried with full military honours at Kapeeka Heroes Cemetery in Namunkenkera Village, Nakaseke District. He was the first UPDF officer to be buried on the grounds.