Questions linger 40 years after Oyite-Ojok’s demise

Former Uganda National Liberation Army chief of staff, Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

  • The crash occurred while then president Milton Obote was away in India attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. He was forced to cut short his visit, arriving in Uganda the following afternoon, Isaac Mufumba writes.

Forty years ago yesterday, a helicopter, a Bell Augusta-412, in which Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok, then chief of staff of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) was flying burst into flames in Kasozi village, Nkitoma Sub-county in Nakasongola District.

The explosion claimed the life of Oyite-Ojok and five other high ranking officials of the UNLA.

They included Col Dr Wilson Okwonga, the head of Mbuya Military Hospital; Lt Col Alfred Otto, the director of the Uganda Air Force, and Maj Stephen Abili, who was the UNLA’s director of engineering.

The others were Lt Kiragga Kato, a helicopter technician who was at the time the acting director of Military Intelligence; and Capt Harry Olwoch, who was flying the helicopter on the fateful night.

The other person who perished in the same helicopter was Captain Charles Kamara, an army photojournalist. 

The crash occurred while then president Milton Obote was away in New Delhi, India, attending a Commonwealth Heads of Government summit. He was forced to cut short his visit, arriving in Uganda late on the afternoon of December 3, 1983.

At the time of his demise, Oyite-Ojok – who had been one of the top commanders of the Kikoosi Maalum, one of the Uganda fighting groups that along with others like the Front For National Salvation of Yoweri Museveni, had fought beside the Tanzania Peoples Defence Forces (TPDF) in the war that led to the ouster of the Idi Amin government – was also the chairperson of the Coffee Marketing Board (CMB).

A statement that the minister for Internal Affairs, Dr John Mikloth Magoola Luwuliza-Kirunda, issued in Kampala on December 3, 1983, indicated that Oyite-Ojok had left Kampala at around midday on December 2 to inspect troops in northern Uganda and Luweero where UNLA was battling rebels of the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A).

Luwuliza-Kirunda was also the secretary general of the “common ruling party”, the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC).

Obote’s government did not recognise NRA as a rebel force. It instead preferred to look at them as “bandits”.

Luwuliza-Kirunda’s statement indicated that the helicopter landed at the UNLA detachment on Kasozi Ka Mirembe at around 6pm for purposes of refuelling before proceeding to Kampala, but that at around 6:15pm, when it had just been airborne and still in the view of officers who had seen off the chief of staff, it nosedived and crashed.

Whereas an investigation conducted by Bell of Texas in the United States and Augusta-Bell Italy concluded that the helicopter came down because a rod that helps to stabilise crafts during flights got damaged, doubts will simply not go away.

Some of the questions that still beg answers are, was he assassinated? Was it an accident? Was the helicopter brought down? If so, by who?

NRA claims
No sooner had news of Oyite-Ojok’s death become public, than the NRA, which was battling the UNLA in the Luweero Tringle, claimed to have brought down the helicopter in which he perished.

Civil Aviation experts and journalists inspect the crash site in December 1983. PHOTOS/FILE

The claim was carried in an article in The New York Times, but the government quickly dismissed the claim.

“The accident happened within the encampment of the UNLA troops. Any claims by the bandits [NRA rebels], that they shot down the plane, is without foundation,” Luwuliza-Kirunda said in a statement in Kampala.

Four days later, the NRA issued another statement which was attributed to the chairperson of its High Command, Yoweri Museveni.

The rebels claimed that the helicopter in which Oyite-Ojok died had been one of three that had been crisscrossing the battlefield while dropping leaflets with messages encouraging NRA fighters to abandon the rebellion.

“In criss-crossing the battle-field, one of the helicopters attracted fire from our forces in Biduku area. It, however, flew on towards Kasozi. Then around 8pm, our soldiers who were on the Ngoma side of Kasozi heard the helicopter take off in darkness; then, after a short while, saw a spark of fire on the flying helicopter which was quickly followed by the fire engulfing the whole helicopter and the whole helicopter came down burning until it thudded to the ground — just 3kms from where our soldiers were. We think that the fire of our soldiers in Biduku must have caused some damage which eventually resulted in the crash of Ojok’s helicopter,” the statement read in part.

The same statement, however, alluded to the possibility that the helicopter could have been booby trapped as a result of infighting in the UNLA or because of business deals gone awry.

The statement argued that it did not matter “whether Ojok was shot down by the NRA, was bobby-trapped by his own colleagues due to in-fighting, or quarrels over business deals, was bobby-trapped by ordinary soldiers…”

What mattered, it argued, was that a person believed to have been responsible for the deaths of many Ugandans had been taken out of action.

How the media covered the death of Oyite-Ojok in 1983.

Assassination claims
There are those who are inclined to believe that the Sandhurst-trained officer was assassinated. They point to a clash in Lira District between the General and Luwuliza-Kirunda.

Writing in the book Trapped In His own Prison of Nile Mansions for Five Years (Obote 2), Rutarindwa Mwene Barizeni states that the two clashed over a room in Lira Hotel, one of the many government facilities run by the Uganda Hotels Limited.

“During a political party retreat for members of the ruling UPC party at a hotel in Lira in northern Uganda, Oyite-Ojok arrived late and found all rooms booked by party members. He had no room to sleep in and, in what seemed like a joke, Dr Luwuliza-Kirunda, told him not to worry much since he was a soldier who could as well sleep anywhere, the bush inclusive,” he wrote.

He was not at the hotel when Luwuliza-Kirunda made the joke, but one of his aides was. The aide reported the matter to Oyite-Ojok who perceived it as an insult and not the joke that it was meant to have been.

“An offended Ojok speaking on top of his voice and with a lot of a military commander’s authority, told the attentive retreat participants that they were all whoever they were because of him,” Barizeni wrote.

Obote is then said to have intervened and warned everybody against “infuriating” Oyite-Ojok, but not before Kirunda had been ordered out of Lira and told to return to Kampala without his security detail.

Ganging up on Ojok?
Conspiracy theorists argue that his outburst in Lira, where he made it known that he was the real force behind the throne, had left him “marked for death”. 

They at the same time argue that Oyite-Ojok soon started feeling like it was not enough that he was a “king maker”. He soon developed ambitions to become the king.

A former operative of the National Security Agency, which was the internal spying agency under Chris Rwakasisi, who claimed to have knowledge to what was pertaining at the time told Sunday Monitor that, “There were all indications that Ojok was about to stage a coup”.

The coup is said to have been expected to have taken place the minute Ojok landed back in Kampala. Could someone have moved to take him out of action before a coup materialised? That we may never know.