Why Uganda is grieving for Gen Paul Lokech

Lt Gen Lokech became famous among security personnel for his courage and military tactics. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • In early 2000s, Ugandan troops had been cut off deep inside the vast territory of DR Congo. Lokech hatched a daring plan for extrication.
  • Trekking more than 700kms, across dangerous territory, he safely delivered his men and equipment back to Uganda.

The sudden death of Lt Gen Paul Lokech, on August 21, has unleashed a spontaneous avalanche of grief and heartbreak in the country. What is it about this warrior-leader that has galvanised this powerful and palpable outpouring of emotions? Certain things jump out without any prompting.

To be sure, no country in the world, no matter how well-endowed with human capital, can afford to casually lose a leader of Gen Lokech’s vast and layered experience. It takes time, investment, talent, character and hard work to attain that level and calibre of leadership. 

Gen Kahinda Otafiire, who has known Gen Lokech for many years, said of his fallen friend: “I found Gen Lokech a very gifted and unique individual; we may not easily get his breed. Perhaps in a country, a man like him comes along in 50 years.”

He was a brilliant and audacious military commander. His campaigns in Somalia, where he served twice, are well recognised internationally. Senior officials at the UN and AU all speak of his leadership in glowing terms. It was his success in pushing Al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu that earned him the moniker ‘The Lion of Mogadishu’. No mean achievement. Somalia would honour him with the personal presence of its former president at the funeral in Pader District.

In early 2000s, Ugandan troops had been cut off deep inside the vast territory of DR Congo. Lokech hatched a daring plan for extrication. Trekking more than 700kms, across dangerous territory, he safely delivered his men and equipment back to Uganda. Gen David Muhoozi, himself a veteran of the DRC campaign, declared: “That was an exceptional feat as a battalion commander.” The President was personally on hand to welcome their ‘miraculous’ return to Uganda. 

On the domestic front, Lokech was among the UPDF officers who were heavily engaged in fighting the LRA in northern Uganda; it was here that he and Gen James Kazini became close friends. Gen Otema Awany often recalls one harrowing experience when the two men had a close brush with death, when their helicopter nearly crashed.

By all accounts, in all his missions, Gen Lokech was a warrior’s warrior. More recently, Gen Lokech led the crucial and delicate military-diplomatic mission of peacemaking in South Sudan.

According to Gen Salim Saleh, away from the battlefield, Gen Lokech was known in military circles as a thinker and reformer. In 1996, Lt Lokech’s unconventional proposal became the main plank for two early rounds of reforms in UPDF.
Just eight months ago, Gen Lokech was assigned to the police. This came in the midst of the electoral mayhem and brutal repression. A good and patriotic man was suddenly thrust into this hotspot at a most uncomfortable moment. This assignment would turn out to be his last lap in a very stellar career.

In their tributes, both the President and Inspector General of Police (IGP) report that Lokech had already embarked on several initiatives to reorganise, reorient and reform the police.

In time, would this very talented man have made a significant difference to the operations of the police? Would the powers-that-be have allowed him to organise a more professional law enforcement regime, enforcing the law, while respecting the political and civil rights of the citizens? Would he have been granted the prerogative to robustly tackle galloping corruption? 

Aside from ‘orders from above’, Gen Lokech would have, almost certainly, had to contend with the entrenched mentality of his own colleagues and friends. I can almost hear them beseeching him, “Afande, go slow! This is Uganda. This is how things are here.” Would Gen Lokech, who was spectacularly successful in executing difficult missions abroad, have succeeded or been hobbled at his final assignment at home? We shall never know. 

I have encountered many good and highly professional Ugandans working within the current system, soldiering on, in spite of the comprehensive brokenness of the system. Tragically, as long as the current system of governance remains in place, Uganda will not get the full benefit of their service. Similarly, Uganda will largely miss out on the wealth of experience, expertise and exposure which have been accumulated by some of its most gifted sons and daughters (like Gen Lokech) in various sectors of endeavour abroad.

Gen Lokech’s outstanding qualities as a military leader have been widely acclaimed. Few may know, however, about his non-military attributes, which I find no less compelling and inspiring.

To begin with, his sheer humanity. He was humble and understated, grounded and friendly. This, for an overachiever with an intimidating CV. We live in a society where the temptation is very strong indeed, for ‘big people’ to become rather pompous and overbearing, strutting on the national stage like peacocks. Gen Lokech was different.

Second, what we have been witnessing in Uganda is not corruption; it is the wholesale plunder of a country. Few are the powerful and well-connected, who have abstained from this national pillage. To his great credit, Gen Lokech was among those few.

Third, the Ugandan society remains deeply divided, particularly along ethnic, regional, political and confessional fault lines. Remarkably, in death, as in life, Gen Lokech managed to cast a unifying presence on this divided landscape. 

Gen Lokech’s record in military campaigns has made him a veritable national hero. His personal qualities make him a role model. May more Lokeches sprout on this rugged and sometimes arid landscape.

In the aftermath of the General’s sudden death, speculations and questions have been rife, concerning the circumstances of his death. A word about this. It is critical that our discussion of this matter remain sober and factual.

We need to avoid three major pitfalls. First, we should not lightly hurl unfounded allegations of foul-play. Second, we should not second-guess the pathologists on the immediate “cause of death”; their findings indicate that death was caused by blood clot. Third, we should not silence legitimate questions that are being asked, not about what caused the death (in the narrow sense), but about the full circumstances (in the broader sense) surrounding that very cause of death.

The Chief of Defences Forces, Gen Wilson Mbadi (left), and Reserve Force Commander, Lt Gen Charles Otema Awany (centre), among others, pay their last respects to Gen Lokech in Pader District last Friday. PHOTO/ TOBBIAS OWINY 

Although blood clot does kill, it is not in itself a death sentence. This is a familiar medical condition. When blood clot is anticipated or may be a probable occurrence, doctors will usually recommend preventive measures, including the use of small aspirin tablets as blood-thinner. And, once the onset of blood clot is detected, doctors have options of intervention at their disposal, to try to mitigate or eliminate the blood clot.

Several legitimate questions arise. What was the likely cause or trigger for the blood clot itself?  Could this blood clot have been anticipated or any reasonable precautions taken? How long might the blood clot have been developing (and moving up) in the General’s body, before the fatal blockage in the lungs?

For three weeks, following the accident, the General was under serious medical care, being monitored and treated by at least two doctors, an orthopaedic surgeon and the family doctor. In their review regime, did or could the doctors have detected any hint or onset of blood clot? 

What was the impact of the plaster administered on his leg? And, three or two days before his death, the General began to experience serious pain in the affected leg; he kept the doctors informed about this. What were the doctors’ intervention concerning the reported pain?

These and other legitimate questions call for serious answers, not casual dismissal. The most appropriate inquiry mechanism available, historically developed for precisely this kind of situation, is an inquest. 

An inquest does not presuppose any wrongdoing or foul play. It is a judicial process to establish the full circumstances and facts surrounding a death, particularly a sudden and unexpected death.

That is why I call on the minister of Internal Affairs, to appoint a coroner to conduct a formal inquest into the death of Gen Lokech. This will provide the whole truth, dissipate prevailing speculations, and bring a measure of closure to this most painful loss.

The writer, Olara Otunnu is a former president of Uganda Peoples Congress party.