Brig Pierino Yere Okoya: Was he architect of own death?

Saturday January 25 2020

On duty. Brigadier Okoya (left) with President Milton Obote during the Obote I regime. FILE PHOTO

Today marks exactly 50 years since the killing of former deputy commander of the Uganda Army, Brig Pierino Yere Okoya, and wife Anna Akello Okoya at their residence in Koro Village in then Gulu District, now Omoro District.
Government then promised to investigate and prosecute those behind his death.

But on January 25, 1971, the day marking a year since his death, the government of Milton Obote was toppled by Idi Amin before the findings of investigations into Brig Okoya’s assassination were made public.
Obote had special interest in the case, and he and the director of Criminal Investigations Department, Mohammed Hassan, directly oversaw the probe.

Hassan was assisted by two officers, Wawuyu and Ocungi. During the investigations, the fingers were pointed at the then army commander Amin as the mastermind of the killing.

A former Special Branch agent, who was privy to the investigations but prefers not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, says the murder was a preventive and a matter of self-preservation for whoever killed the deputy army commander.

At 42 years by the time of his death, Brig Okoya, in Uganda’s military circles, was seen as a potential leader with the ability to become a Head of State.
His position as deputy army commander came at a time when his tribes mate, the Acholi, dominated both the army and the police.

“When Amin became the army commander, he started nursing ideas for a higher position. Unfortunately for him, he saw Brig Okoya as a stumbling block to his ambition because of the tribal support he enjoyed from both the military and police. Amin then reportedly looked for ways of sidelining Brig Okoya, but demotion was not a possibility and in return, Amin reportedly started feeding President Obote with false information about his deputy,” says the retired Special Branch officer.


Amin’s appointment to the post of army commander was in the hope that he would be a very loyal officer to the Commander-in-Chief, but he had other plans and so did Okoya.

“The two men had their eyes on the presidential seat. And they knew each other’s ambition. Amin knew that numerically, he stood no chance against Brig Okoya because the Acholi were the dominant tribe in the army. To have his way was to decapitate their influence from the head by getting rid of Okoya,” the former Special Branch officer says.

Final moments
As deputy army commander, Brig Okoya also doubled as commander of the 2nd Infantry Brigade based in Masaka, from where he travelled on January 23, 1970, to his country home at Koro in then Gulu District, now in Omoro District.

The next morning, on the way to his ancestral home in Palaro, some miles outside Gulu Town, Brig Okoya reported his presence to the military leadership in Gulu, despite his superiority.
He spent a night in Palaro and returned to his Koro home the following day January 25, 1970.

On his way home, Brig Okoya passed by the Air Force Officer’s mess to get some bottles of whisky and two creates of beer. But he found the barman had gone to collect more supplies.

At the officers mess, Brig Okoya found two army pilots; Lieutenants Andrew Mukosa, and Mutono, the base’s technician Warrant Officer Kisule, and base commander Smuts Guweddeko.

Base commander Guweddeko asked Brig Okoya to wait for the barman’s return from the barracks where he had gone to get the supplies from, but he insisted on going home, as he was to travel back to Kampala the following day.
In the evening of the same day, Brig Okoya sent the two soldiers he had with him back to the officer’s mess to get him alcohol. The two were his driver and his radioman.

“After a short delay at the mess, which was occasioned by the officers at the mess, the two returned home slightly after 9pm to find both Okoya and his wife shot dead.

Okoya was shot in the doorway as he was coming out of the house having heard bullets outside his house.
The assassins first shot dead his wife, who was coming from an outside bathroom, and then shot dead her husband as he emerged from the house when he heard the bullets,” says the former Special Branch agent.

Talking to this writer in 2016, a former Inspector General of Police, Mr Okoth Ogola, who was the personal assistant to Erinayo Oryema, who was then IGP in 1970, said Amin’s presence and actions in Gulu, only hours before Okoya’s death, left many questions unanswered.

“We flew from Karamoja with the IGP to Gulu and went to Acholi Inn for a late lunch before returning to Kampala. At Acholi Inn, we found Amin, and we had a meal together. At 8pm that night, Pierino Okoya and his wife were killed at their home, five miles from Acholi Inn. We learnt that Amin left Gulu later that night, he never informed the president [Obote] of the death of his deputy. While in Gulu, he [Amin] never reported to the military authorities of his whereabouts.”

When the radioman and the driver found their boss and his wife dead, the driver went back to the air force base to report to base commander Guweddeko of the death of the deputy army commander.

Two different investigations teams were constituted, one police-led and the other led by the military. The military team had Majors John Mwaka, Emmanuel Ogwal, Oyite Ojok, Lieutenants Lukwiya, and Wooley Odong and it was headed by a one Col Obol.

Though the investigations pointed to Amin as the culprit, in April 1970, air force base commander Guweddeko and his technician – Warrant Officer Kasule – were arrested and sent to Luzira.

However, soon after the 1971 Amin-led coup, the duo was released and promoted to ranks of Brigadier and Major respectively.
Unfortunately, some of the people actively involved in the investigations were killed soon after the coup de tat.

Okoya-Amin rivalry

On the night of an attempt on Obote’s life at Lugogo in Kampala, Amin, who should have taken charge of the security situation, also went into hiding. Brig Okoya left his leisure time at the Senior Officer’s Mess at Acacia Avenue to quickly take charge, which response should have been the commander’s role. During that critical time, Amin’s radio communications were switched off, and when Brig Okoya arrived at his boss’s residence, Amin was missing.

A few days after the incidence, during a security meeting chaired by Defence minister Felix Onama, Brig Okoya accused Amin of not stepping up to his role in the hour of need.

During the meeting, Brig Okoya complained of poor military discipline exhibited by some officers during the aftermath of the attempted assassination. Amin reportedly took this as a personal affront to him by Brig Okoya.

Who was Brig Okoya?
Background. Pierino Yere Okoya was born in 1928, and joined the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in 1950. He commanded KAR’s B Company of the 4th Regiment, based at Jinja, which was the first military headquarters.

Career. In 1962, Okoya became one of the first three soldiers to be commissioned lieutenants after independence by Kabaka Mutesa under the presidential commission, others were Longoya and Omoya.
Okoya then rose through the ranks and by 1968, he was made the chief-of-staff, and a year later he became deputy army commander.