Mogadishu. In November 2011, Amisom launched ‘Operation Free Shabelle’ troops fanning out of Mogadishu. The operation marked the beginning of the second phase of the military operations against al-Shabaab.
But after the a successful campaign with the UPDF expanding its front out of Mogadishu to Afgooye, Marka and later Baidoa in the southwest and Jowhar in the north of the capital, came with challenges of long supply routes and lines of communication.
Uganda Battle Group 10 under the command of Edison Muhanguzi had captured Baidoa in 2012. Baidoa is about 243km from Mogadishu while Jowhar is 90km. That meant travelling 243km by road from Mogadishu to supply the forward base in Baidoa.
It would not be hard to evacuate the injured from the battlefield, but travelling on dilapidated roads would expose the troops to al-Shabaab ambushes.
This necessitated deployment of helicopters. In fact, Brig Paul Lokech, the Amisom contingent commander at the time, says if they had had helicopters during the advance to Afgooye, all fleeing al-Shabaab insurgents would have been decimated.
With these long lines of communication and supply routes, UPDF decided to deploy air assets (Mi-24 attacks helicopters) in August 2012. At the colourful ceremony held at Entebbe Airbase, the former Chief of Defence Forces, the late Gen Aronda Nyakairima, handed over the AU flag to the head of the helicopter crew Lt Col Chris Kaija.
Lt Gen Jim Owoyesigire, then the commander of airforce, said the helicopters would be used to support the ground troops. At around 1pm, they took off.
They flew in formation as Gen Aronda waved at them. Three Mi-24 combat helicopters were to be used to attack the enemy and the Mi-17 was a utility helicopter to move troops and also evacuate the injured from the war theatre.
The Russian made Mi-24 is a large, heavy gunship and attack helicopter with an eight-troop capacity war craft produced by Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant and has operated since 1972 by the Soviet Air Force.
UPDF had acquired some Mi-24 during the war against Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and months before the flag off, Russian experts repaired them at Soroti Flying School.
To operate these choppers, was a 28-member crew. Gen Nyakairima told the team it “was a great opportunity” for Uganda to further help Somalia as it prepared for the August 20 polls. The late Gen Aronda hoped that the deployment would be a great boost to the Amisom force which had been operating without an airforce. He also told crew to maintain high levels of discipline as they executed their duties. He didn’t know that the piece of advice would be the last word to them.
The flight route was charted from Soroti to Eldoret, Nanyuki, Garissa and Wajir in Kenya — before finally entering Somalia.
The combat helicopters flew well between Soroti Flying School and Nanyuki, but could not negotiate the 17,000 foot altitude of Mt Kenya between Nanyuki and Garissa. They crashed on August 12, 2012, leaving seven dead and 21 survivors.
The Mi-24 is designed to fly at altitudes no higher than 12,000 feet it was therefore hard for it to fly over Mount Kenya. Only the bigger utility Mi-17 chopper that could handle such heights survived the disaster, and landed at Garissa.
The Mi-17 flown by experienced Lt Col Okidi landed safely in Wajir. The army gave bad weather as the cause of the crash. But President Museveni dismissed the reason.
He mentioned “acts of negligence” and “high-handedness” as the cause of the crashes that resulted in such losses of military equipment. “I cannot listen to stories of bad weather on the mountain. Mountains are clearly shown on the maps. We never fly over mountains with helicopters, especially combat ones,” he was quoted in the media.
President Museveni later appointed Gen Salim Saleh as chief adviser on defence, to head an investigation.
Details of the report are not known, but President Museveni later sacked Lt Gen Owoyesigire and Brig Moses Rwakitarate, the former Airforce Chief of Staff, reportedly based on that report.
Sources say it was an unprecedented catalogue of mistakes, inexperience and bad orders from commanders that could have been the most likely causes of the triple helicopter crashes. There are claims that the choppers switched from their original flight plan which would have seen them fly north of the mountain towards their destination in Wajir but instead flew south of the mountain leading them into thick fog.
A Kenyan newspaper also reported that contrary to well established international aviation rules and regulations, the pilots of Uganda’s three ill-fated Mi-24 attack helicopters that crashed in the Mt Kenya ranges were communicating in Luganda.
The newspaper also reported that the Kenyan aviation authority could hear UPDF soldiers as they communicated among themselves in Luganda – just minutes before the crash. They crashed after 30 minutes into their flight before realising there was bad weather ahead.
In a move to avoid poor visibility, the pilots are said to have gained height and flew far above the required altitude, the Kenyan newspaper reported. The choppers were flying at 11,000 feet when they came down.
Other Kenyan media reported that after realising that the chopper pilots were heading straight into the mountain, a Kenyan pilot attempted to break into the military frequency to warn them of the dangers ahead but he was unable to get through.
Lt Col Okidi managed to successfully fly the Mi-17 to Wajir. His helicopter is built to fly at a higher altitude compared to the Mi-24. But again, sources say it could have managed to survive the crash because of Okidi’s experience. He is said to be one of the best pilots in the airforce. The fact that he was the one leading the flight formation shows he was the most experienced.
At different crash sites, seven bodies were found. It took seven days before they were returned home on August 18, 2012.
The day before, 11 survivors had returned and the other eight survivors had remained behind to work with the Kenyan government to bring the bodies back home.
When the plane carrying the bodies arrived, the names of the survivors were called out by Lt Gen Owoyesigire. Clad in clean, blue and green air force uniform, the survivors lined up in single file formation near the plane carrying the caskets of their colleagues.
Lt Col Kasaija, the head of the crew, and his other colleague remained in Nairobi for treatment. He didn’t return with the rest of the survivors.
Gen Owoyesigire started his speech in a breaking tone but later regained his composure, and talked tough, saying the loss of the choppers and seven crew members of Mi-24 would not stop UPDF from “liberating Somalia”.
“We shall not divert our forces and commitment to fight and liberate Somalia and Africa. For us, it’s no retreat, no surrender,” he said, attracting applause. He dismissed reports that helicopters were not airworthy.
“There are those who have been saying they were junk, they also say that our pilots were not skilled. All this is empty talk,” he said.
The Defence state minister, Gen Jeje Odongo, described the six days following the crash as a difficult a week. Relatives of the dead could not hold back tears as plane ramp was rolled to get the caskets out. The burials took place in different parts of the country a few days later.
With the botched mission to deploy the choppers, Uganda turned to the UN to get compensation for the lost air assets. But the UN refused to compensate Uganda, saying the choppers had not reached the operational area.
In May 2013, during a conference on Somalia in London, President Museveni told the UN to compensate Uganda for loss of its military hardware.
“In this connection, the UN should replace our gunships that crashed in an accident in Kenya on the way to Somalia so that we use them as force multipliers,” President Museveni told the Somalia Conference.
But UN has insisted it cannot compensate Uganda $10 million for the three helicopters. To-date the public can only speculate as to the real cause of this tragedy whose loss will forever remain a huge one to Uganda…
1. Capt William Spear Letti
2. Lt Patrick Nahamya
3. 2nd Lt Robert Tushabe
4.Lt Nelson Mulumba
5. WOII Kakabe David Zikosoka
6. S/Sgt Mweshezi Ruhamata
7. Sgt Lukwago Charles
1.Lt Col Chris Kasaija
2.Maj Charles Okidi
3.Capt George Buga
4.Capt Samuel Kitenyi
5.Capt Asad Magombe.
6.Lt Robert Bakashaba
7.Lt Job Osuret
8.Lt Everest Sebagenzi
9.Lt John Nyanzi
10.Lt Charles Alemu
11.2nd Lt Gideon Taremwa
12. 2nd Lt Asaph Barigye
13.WOI Ongaria Patrick
14.WOI Ayesigye Nixon
15.WOII Nakabanda George
16. Wamagali Yahaya
17.WOII Kalulu Wilberforce
18.S/Sgt Komunda John
19.S/Sgt Eritu Robert
20.Sgt Coleb Mugwisa
21.Pte Muse Mark