When Maj Gen Ali Muhammed Kiiza sat for his Cambridge School Certificate exams at Masindi Secondary School (currently Kabalega Secondary School) in Masindi District in 1965, his dream was to become a lawyer.
Life would take a twist to have him pursue another of his passions, flying airplanes. By the time he retired, he had piloted planes of six Ugandan Presidents since 1973.
His journey into the skies started towards the end of 1965 when government agencies started scouring schools for students interested in public service.
“The army sent a team from their headquarters, who were put in the dining hall, to address those who wanted to join the army but I was not interested!” Gen Kiiza recalls.
However, as Gen Kiiza bypassed the dining hall where the meeting was, one statement from an army officer struck his mind!
“I overheard them talking about the Air force; once they talked about Air force and flying, I went in and got a form which I filled,” he says.
Whereas his dream career was to become a lawyer, he says it could not materialise because his father had many children and the resources were scarce, prompting him to join the army as a shortcut. However, his father had not yet endorsed the idea.
“I told my father that I was interested in seeing my siblings study and the only way I would do it was to go and work in the army for a short time and then come out to study law,” he notes.
Journey into Air force
In 1965, President Milton Obote had officially inaugurated the Air force. Whereas the Air force had been started, it had very few people.
He says: “At that time, there were only three Ugandan pilots; Captain Nyeko, Obote, and Smarts Guwedeko. The second batch had been sent to Czechoslovakia and Russia. The Israelis brought a few aircrafts and pilots to train, and we were the first batch to be trained in Uganda.”
When the Cambridge Certificate came out, those who had filled the forms were invited to Army headquarters in Mbuya, Kampala for recruitment.
“They gave us a date, we came, got recruited and went to Jinja for training, initially as a recruit of the army. In Jinja, we were given aptitude tests and the Israelis selected those who wanted to become pilots and technicians. After, we did a short course for those who were to become pilots but many failed, which forced the Israelis to recruit another group a month after us to increase our enrolment. Our group had 13 people and the second group had 11,” Gen Kiiza explains.
He adds: “After recruitment, we trained as soldiers for about four months in 1966 and were passed out and started training in flying.”
Gen Kiiza says they left Jinja and went to Entebbe in 1967 to continue training.
He says: “The first plane I piloted was a Piper Super cab which carries only one passenger. Later on, I started flying a military plane called the Fouga Magister, a French made aircraft with a twin engine. It can be flown by one pilot but has two cockpits for the instructor and the trainee. At that time, I was flying within the country because military planes are not flown anywhere unless there is a war.”
Col Paul Babula was his other colleague.
In 1968, Gen Kiiza was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant. He then ventured into flying another six sitter military plane, a Piper Aztec 2, for VIPs. And that is how he met Idi Amin.
“I met Amin before the 1971 coup and started flying him when he was an army commander. He was always a jolly good man in person,” Gen Kiiza notes.
At that time, Gen Kiiza was the acting administrative assistant at Entebbe Airbase. Although he says it was a sad moment!
“The situation was chaotic when Amin took over, and many people were arrested, released and others were never seen again. Some were my friends such as Okello, Acuny who were in piloting and maintenance were never seen again,” Gen Kiiza recalls.
Later things normalised and Gen Kiiza went back to being Amin’s pilot.
In 1972, he was awarded a military cross medal by Amin after the plane he was flying was shot at during combat. He had flown to the Uganda-Tanzania border to quell an invasion by a group of Uganda exiles using a Fouga Magister. He says he heard a bang, and found out that a bullet fired by the rebels had passed through the co-pilot’s seat which it was empty at that time.
He also says the salaries were good in 1972 compared to the standard of living at that time. In fact, when his army friends were getting Indian businesses after their expulsion, he saw no use of getting a free business yet he was well paid by government.
That same year, Amin acquired a Jet Commander from Israel for his foreign trips. But since Gen Kiiza and his colleagues lacked the experience for long trips, the Jet Commander was flown by Israelis.
However, the friendship with the Israelis was short lived and Amin expelled them that year, prompting them to go with their aircraft that they had donated to Uganda.
Amin was left empty handed and he immediately ordered government to buy another presidential jet. A Gulf Stream-2 was purchased from the United States of America. However, there was no one to man the aircraft. Gen Kiiza and three other colleagues were selected to go for training abroad.
“I was one of the four people selected to go train how to fly the Gulf Stream. Others were the late Col Andrew Mukooza, late Col Paul Babula and Patrick Bogere. We went to the USA and trained at Flight Safety Academy in Savanna, Georgia and continued to Vero Beach Florida to acquire our commercial licences as pilots,” he recalls.
He adds: “In 1974, we came back with the Gulf Stream but since we lacked experience, the American instructors stayed around for some time so that we gain experience until they left.”
He says, he first worked as a co-pilot; with the Americans taking the lead role to fly Amin to foreign countries.
His first flight as captain of the presidential jet was in 1975 when Amin visited Irag.
As Amin’s rule progressed, the Uganda-Soviet relationship became stronger and he broke relations with Israel, US and UK. Meanwhile, his relations with neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Tanzania were getting frosty. Gen Kiiza says Amin saw developing the Uganda airlines as his only alternative to connect the country to the outside world since Uganda is land locked.
He remembers how Ugandan coffee was transported to Djibouti by aircrafts and put on ship for export.
Amin embarked on skilling Ugandan Air force recruits. Hundreds went to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for training.
In 1975, Gen Kiiza was sent to Iraq to train in flying MiG-21squadron fighter jets. Gen Kiiza says he was trained by Russian Air force and Amin appointed him as commander of the MiG-21 squadron.
That same year, Uganda hosted the Organisation of the African Unity (OAU) meeting, Gen Kiiza says it was a bee hive of activity as he was tasked to fly different heads of state.
“I flew Yasser Arafat and brought him from Damascus-Syria to Kampala, and then took him back to Khartoum,” he says.
Gen Kiiza says: “At the same meeting, Gen Yakub Oguwon, the then president of Nigeria, was overthrown while he was in Kampala for the meeting. So, Amin tasked me to fly him to Togo where he went for exile. We became self-sustainable in 1976 when the Americans left.”
Amin confronts Nyerere
“In October, 1978, when the war started, I was the commander of MiG-21 squadron and the presidential jet. I didn’t fight in the air but I fought as a commander on the ground. I would task my MiG-21 squadron on to go and bombard whenever I got information on the enemy,” Gen Kiiza narrates about the war with Tanzania.
On October 27, the Uganda Airforce once again bombed Bukoba Town. However, one MiG was shot down. Gen Kiiza says: “Lt Capt Omita was shot down, he ejected the MiG and landed in Kagera salient, he was there for several days before he could be rescued.”
The Tanzanians were firing long range missiles and artillery at Entebbe airport and Airbase, forcing Kiiza to relocate to Kampala. He would only go to Entebbe for duty.
Escape plan foiled
“At the time of the war, there were many factions in the army. Some wanted Amin to win the war while others wanted change but of course you can’t say these things openly. So, I planned with my friends to escape with the presidential aircraft. I convinced Amin that we fly the presidential jet out of the airport to a safer place since the Tanzanians were sending long range missiles which would destroy it,” Gen Kiiza recalls.
He adds: “But somehow, they put in some soldiers whom we could not trust, and we ended up flying it to Nakasongola Airbase where it stayed up to the end of the war. That’s why when Amin was running away, he could not find the jet; the pilots had disappeared, so he had to go by road.”
On the day Amin fell from power, Gen Kiiza was travelling for his usual duty to Entebbe when he was stopped at the first road block and told Entebbe had been cut off. He made a U-turn to Kampala to tell his friend Kassami.
Gen Kiiza later went with Kassami to a friend’s place in Kanyanya where they hid. On a Monday, Col Kassami rode his motorcycle and found a big gathering at city square where the Kampala District Commissioner told the gathering to come back to work the next day.
“That night, when we got out of the house to see the heavy fire in the city, we saw a long convoy around Kololo leaving Kampala. We knew Amin was leaving. We didn’t spend a night, we left on foot to Gayaza and ended up at Gayaza Secondary School in the evening. We felt internally displaced. Later, Radio Uganda announced that Idi Amin had been overthrown and Yusuf Lule was to be sworn in. We started walking back to Kanyanya although we didn’t reach because there were many soldiers at that time. So, I spent a night in Kasangati,” Gen Kiiza says.
Meanwhile, Kiiza’s family had scattered with his children staying with his relatives.
Working for Yusuf Lule
“On the day of swearing in Lule, I walked back to Kampala with a group coming for the ceremony. The day he was sworn-in, I had contacts from some Ugandans coming from Tanzania. I met them and started living in Nakasero. Then one day, former army people were summoned to Makindye Military Barracks though initially they were looking for me. When they found me, I went to Radio Uganda and called people who had run away to come back since I was a senior officer; something I regret to this day because many people came back and were killed,” Gen Kiiza narrates.
Later when Kiiza went to the barracks, he was arrested and held alongside other officers such as the late Terikya, an aircraft engineer.
Gen Kiiza says: “We were held at Makindye for two weeks, the new government said it was holding us for our own safety. But to our surprise, they brought International press to interview us as prisoners of war, something I refused.”
He continues: “Partly, I was released because there was no one to fly the jet. I told the new government where the aircraft was and if they see it, it should not be destroyed. Later, they picked me with Col Babula and we went to Nakasongola with some technicians, checked it and flew it back to Entebbe.”
Gen Kiiza met Lule and became his pilot. He says: “I met him after he became the President. Lule was a composed man and I flew him to Dar-es-salaam and Mwanza where many meetings were held. At that time, I was residing at Sheraton Hotel. Actually, we thought may be, he would stabilise the country. That is not what happened, things were getting worse!”
He continues: “The presidential jet was due for maintenance, I told Lule, we had to take it for maintenance at the manufacturer’s place in USA. The day I landed in USA and put on news, Lule had been removed and replaced by Godfrey Binaisa.”
Around the world with Binaisa
Gen Kiiza says he had met Binaisa before he became president.
He says: “While flying Lule, I resided at Sheraton Hotel. We would have breakfast with him, so when they talked of Binaisa, I knew who had become president.”
When Gen Kiiza returned from the USA, Binaisa was attending a Commonwealth meeting in Lusaka, Zambia. His first flight with Binaisa was when he went to pick him from Lusaka.
They spent a night in Nairobi and later came back to Uganda. Gen Kiiza says his relationship with Binaisa was good till he was removed 11 months later.
Gen Kiiza also flew Binaisa to countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where he had the chance to fly DRC president Mobutu Tseseko around the vast country. On the day Binaisa was ousted, Gen Kiiza said he was at his home in Masindi District.
“I heard there was a lot of commotion in Kampala so I drove back to my house in Entebbe. Then Binaisa sent somebody to call me to take his delegation to Dar-es-salaam. But since, they had already announced his downfall. It was hard to respond to his request. I called Oyite’k Ojok, the commander of the armed forces,” he said, “No, no… you can’t take his delegation, he’s no more a president.”
He adds: “What I heard Binaisa telling people is that I was a conspirator of those who removed him from power because I refused to take his delegation to Tanzania, which wasn’t true because I never interfered in politics.”
Eventually, Kiiza took the delegation but still Binaisa never came back to power. Whereas he stayed around State House for some time, he was later taken to Entebbe.
The Military Commission took over on May 22, 1980 with Paul Muwanga assuming chairmanship and presidential powers at the time.
The commission also consisted of other six members: Yoweri Museveni, Maj Gen Oyite Ojok, Col Maroro, Wacha Olwol and Prof Edward Rugumayo.
Gen Kiiza says he flew Muwanga and other members of the commission to several destinations. He says he had met Museveni during Lule’s reign at Nile Hotel (current Serena) at night and they had a brief talk. At that time, he was minister of Defence.
When the two met, Museveni while speaking to a Tanzanian colleague jokingly said: “You see this Colonel (Kiiza), we are from the same region, but he’s the one who has been fighting us.”
In 1980, Gen Kiiza flew Museveni for Independence celebrations in Harare, Zimbabwe to represent Uganda and to other countries such as Iraq.
Other members of the commission that Gen Kiiza flew were Oyite Ojok, who he describes as a hardworking and ambitious army officer.
Gen Kiiza says he later heard in the news while in exile in the USA that the ambitious army officer had died in an accident.
Honeymoon flight with Milton Obote II
The fatigues of the past wars and the turbulent politics had taken a toll on his professional life. But he had to continue flying presidents.
He took over flying Obote in December 1980 when he assumed his second tenure as president. A move he says was well orchestrated by Muwanga who headed the Electoral Commission at the time. He flew Obote to Kenya, Tanzania and Congo and other foreign countries. In June, 1981, Gen Kiiza quit and left for exile. He says he no longer felt safe in his own country.
“I decided to leave the country because there was a lot of pressures within. My friends told me some people thought I was Amin’s man. So, I lied to Obote that I was taking the presidential jet for maintenance in the USA. When I reached the USA, I again flew to London and handed the jet to my colleague Lt Col Babula who returned it to Uganda,” Gen Kiiza recalls.
While in the USA, he worked with Gulf Airstream Aerospace, a company specialising in assembling Gulf Stream aircrafts until 1986 when he returned.
In 1987, Gen Kiiza was called to rejoin the Airforce and he obliged. He says he was President Museveni’s chief pilot from 1987 to 2012 when he chose to hang up his boots; partly because of advanced age. He was 68 years, beyond the retirement age of 65.
In 1987, he was appointed the Deputy Director of Air force until 1989 when he was elevated to Director of the Air force. He says he took over as director at a time when there was insurgency in the north and West Nile, which he helped to suppress.
He also recalls flying Nelson Mandela on his visit to Uganda in 1994. He took him back on a return trip via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Pretoria, South Africa. Others include Paul Kagame of Rwanda.
Gen Kiiza says he finds President Museveni a brilliant man compared to other presidents he has served.
“Most didn’t do research but for Museveni, he only does something when he has done research,” he sums up.
How he saved president Museveni on flight
Gen Kiiza says he once saved President Museveni’s life on one major flight to China something the President keeps referring to whenever they meet.
He says: “One day I was flying President Museveni from Chengdu city, Central China to Urumqi city Western China, but as we approached the airport in Urumqi, the snow had covered the runway. We circled twice, and went to an alternate airport in Kirzakistan. However, in Kirzakistan, the weather was also very bad.”
“The fuel was running low but we managed to land after two attempts. We left Kazakhstan for Tehran in Iran to refuel, but as we left, our wind screen partially broke, this forced us to fly at a low altitude, and also switch off heaters so that other layers of the wind screen don’t break. As we approached Entebbe Airport at mid-night, the whole windscreen was covered with fog because there was no heat. It is a time I landed looking from the side not the front. The President was very impressed with me,” he adds.
In 1998, Gen Kiiza was appointed special presidential advisor on Air Force Affairs and later elevated in a senior presidential advisor in airforce affairs.
His role is to supervise the President’s flights but sometimes travels with him on long journeys.
Three months ago, the 74-year-old was retired from the army at a rank of Major General and continues to serve as a senior presidential advisor on airforce affairs.
He says for those interested in flying, they should join aviation after acquiring a minimum of a degree qualification in any field.
This is because if piloting fails, then, it is possible to be fixed in another department.