Gen Lokech: The jolly Cinderella dance boy, daredevil fighter

Gen Ivan Koreta (left), Lt Gen Otema Awany (3rd right) and the late Lt Gen Paul Lokech (right), and other UPDF generals, salute at a Tarehe Sita function in Kitgum on January 31, 2019. Photo/Jimmy Kwo. 

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“The song he, and all of us loved most, was a South African hit song – ‘Take Me Back Home’ by Hot Syndicate. If we can only turn back the hands of time!’ That lyric - “Take me back home I want to be loved … always reminds me of Lokech and our sweet memories …” says Okeny Longole, an Old Boy with Lokech at Comboni College in Lira, writes Jimmy Kwo.

Although he was the seventh highest-ranked army officer at the 38th Tarehe Sita anniversary celebrations, the then Maj Gen Paul Lokech received the loudest and prolonged cheers from the crowd.

The day was January 31, 2019, at Kitgum Core PTC playgrounds in Kitgum Municipality.

The occasion was the regional launch of the 38th Tarehe Sita anniversary celebrations to precede the main February 6 event that would be presided over by President Museveni.

At the prep function, then Chief of Defence Forces (CDF), Gen David Muhoozi, introduced top army officers present, starting with the highest-ranked officer after him. They were Lt Gen Ivan Koreta, then several other officers, including Lt Gen Otema Awany.

Each time Gen Muhoozi called out an officer’s name, the officer would stand to attention, salute and wave to the crowd, which dutifully clapped for each in turn. But when it came to Maj Gen Lokech, the mention of his name sparked off spontaneous excitement from the crowd.

Prolonged handclaps ensued amid shrill and air-piercing ululations from the women. This momentarily forced the CDF to pause longer before introducing the next officer.

It was impactful, prompting two of Lokech’s more senior officers to glance about, as if uncomfortably, first to their left at the junior but clearly more popular officer, then at the excited crowd.

Maj Gen Lokech, then Commandant of Uganda Rapid Deployment Capability Centre in Jinja, seemed equally surprised.

But he beamed with a smile as he stood erect and tall, glancing quickly to his right at his seniors and also at the juniors to his left.

His smile became wider and broke into giggles as he stared joyfully at the cheering crowd in front of him.

Perhaps it was befitting that such an uproarious reception be accorded the “Lion of Mogadishu” in Kitgum, a home turf where Gen Lokech took his first baby military steps.

Cinderella dance boy

Former Kitgum District chief finance officer John Okeny Longole and Lokech’s Old Boy at Comboni College in Lira, says when he joined A-Level in 1985, Lokech was assistant head prefect, studying History, Economics and Geography.

Both resided in Nyerere Dormitory.

“We lived together, shared tea and eats. I remember Gulu lawyer Louis Odongo was in our circles,” Longole recollects.

He also recalls Lokech was engaged in some business that often took him up to Mbale on weekends.

“The school authority, under then head teacher Obua, was not very strict, so students were free to move out at the weekends. While most visited friends in other schools or went to ‘chill’ in Lira town, Lokech took business trips to Mbale. He often returned with sugar and other essentials and happily shared out to students.”

“He was business-minded. He would go to Mbale on a Saturday and return to school on a Sunday. He supported us a lot with sugar and money,” Longole says. He also recalls their best past time; grooving to a trending move, the ‘Cinderella dance’.

“Whenever we had functions, girls from St Katherine SS, near Dr Obote College, Boroboro, would be invited. And we’d perform the Cinderella dance,” he recalls. “In the Cinderella dance, boys weren’t allowed to choose female dance partners; that was left to girls. But long before their impending visit, we would polish our shoes spotlessly clean until we could ‘see’ our reflections on the glittering leather!”

“We would display them in a single line on the dance floor. We would then sit down gently and wait to be chosen by the girls,” Longole recollects.

“The song we all loved most was a South African hit song – ‘Take Me Back Home’ by Hot Syndicate. Up to now, when that song plays; wherever I’m, it grips my heart and brings back all the memories. The lyrics always reminds me of Paul [Lokech] and tickles sweet memories of good old days. If we can only turn back the hands of time!”

But Longole says the political chaos in Uganda through the 1985 Gen Tito Okello coup d’état that toppled Milton Obote, and the 1986 Museveni-led National Resistance Army (NRA) war and takeover disrupted their studies.

He says the situation became volatile in Lira and Lokech plotted a quick escape from school to Kitgum.

“Paul was the one who led us. He seemed to have had some military acumen even at that young age,” Longole recalls.

“At the time, then Education minister, Prof Isaac Newton Ojok, had called a public meeting that students were also to attend. But Lokech advised us against attending, and proposed we quickly flee to Kitgum.

“We later learnt that vehicles that came from Kitgum to Lira were not allowed to make a return journey,” Longole recalls.

But luckily, Lokech had a brother-in-law, a driver at Puranga Ginnery, who surfaced from Kitgum with a Bedford lorry. Lokech stopped and warned him that if he went to Lira Town, chances were he would not be allowed to return to Kitgum.

Later, they were ridden to Puranga Trading Centre - where Lokech’s family stayed, arriving as the sun went down.

But as luck would have it, another Bedford truck from Kitgum Ginnery had travelled to Puranga Ginnery to ferry cotton seeds, diesel and ox-ploughs.

Lokech again quickly fixed the trip.

“This is one greatest and an unforgettable incident in my life. Lokech saved our lives,” Longole recalls.

Longole says few students, including Lokech returned to Comboni College to resume studies. He says he shifted to St Joseph’s College Layibi before joining Kitgum Amalgamated School after their studies were yet again interrupted by the NRA 1986 coup.

After that takeover, schools were shut down for long periods as insecurity reigned. Many students lost the opportunity to continue with their studies.

Matters were made worse when the NRA army, having gained a foothold in northern Uganda - a region where most top leaders of the toppled regime hailed from, adopted an aggressive behaviour.

“At the time, many people were arrested, tortured, imprisoned or even killed, on allegations that they were ex-soldiers or had links with emerging rebels,” a resident says.

“As a result, many able-bodied adults, including many of the now out-of-school students, were forced to join rebel groups. Joining rebellion was the only way to avoid the wrath of government soldiers. If you didn’t join rebellion but stayed home, you could even get killed by soldiers,” the source adds.

Lokech’s school mates then lost touch with him.

Lokech’s adventure with UPDA

Information about Lokech’s early days in the armed struggle and regular army are scanty.

Those said to be in the know are cagey whenever sounded out on the issue.

But bits and pieces of information sewn together from various sources intimate that youthful Lokech joined the rebel ranks of the Uganda People Democratic Army (UPDA) in 1986 from his home in Puranga, then in Aruu County, part of Greater Kitgum District.

He reportedly joined the rebel unit under towering Capt Stephen Odyek, better known as Ojuku, a heavily bearded and fierce Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) commander.

Former Kitgum District chairperson Luka Nyeko says he first met Lokech in 1986.

“That was the time many young boys opted to join the on-going rebellions after NRA soldiers had started targeting and mistreating people. And I think he (Lokech) was one of them [who joined rebel ranks],” Nyeko recalls.

Sources say Lokech soon became a logistics officer within the rebel outfit, charged with moving ammunitions and fuel to different rebel units all over Greater Kitgum.

“I vividly remember I was at Lacek-ocot Health Centre III [in Aruu, now Pader], he used to ride a yellow motorcycle I suspect had been commandeered from Pajule Health Centre III. He used it to carry boxes of ammunition, which he distributed to the rebels,” Nyeko recollects.

“That was the first time I saw Lokech. He was a very young man; small bodied. I heard he was in charge of distributing bullets to the rebels. He rode up to Potika and Agoro on the Uganda-Sudan border [then in Lamwo County, Kitgum] where some rebels were located.”

Another source, then in-charge of stores at the Roman Catholic Mission at Padibe, recalls giving fuel to Lokech when he showed up.

“There was no fuel in the whole of Kitgum at the time. It was only us at the Mission who had some. So Lokech came for fuel and I was the one who gave it to him. He was riding a yellow motorcycle,” recalls the source.

Lokech joins NRA

It is not exactly clear when Lokech quit rebel outfit UPDA and joined NRA, the new government army. But a source that had interacted with him as a rebel recalls that when he arrived in Kitgum Town in April 1987, Lokech was already with the NRA.

Lokech was by then, the source recalls, working as an intelligence officer (IO) together with Brig Gen Richard Otto (then a private) under Maj Gen Fred Tolit (then a lieutenant).

It is said Lt Tolit was the one who recruited both Lokech and Otto into the NRA from the rebel ranks.

Nyeko says it was thereafter that he became closer and knew Lokech better.

“He offered me a room in Kitgum Town free of charge, while former Palabek Kal district councillor Charles Odonga Kasozi occupied the other. I stayed there for two years and without paying any rent,” he recollects.

Kasozi says he met Lokech in 1991 when he was just about 25 years, two years his junior.

“He was 2nd lieutenant and the intelligence officer of 106th Battalion, a mobile unit,” Kasozi says.

They stayed and worked closely with Lokech until his sudden death late last month.

“He was an intelligence officer for long. He mostly worked in northern Uganda and South Sudan during the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency,” Kasozi recalls.

He says Lokech lived with them in the Palabek for almost a year, doing his intelligence work.

“Palabek was an area through which LRA rebels used to enter Uganda and also exit to Sudan,” Kasozi says.

“We used to do everything together; played football, and would go to pray on Sunday and do many other things together,” Kasozi recalls.

Daredevil commander

Much later, in April 2001, Lokech arrived home on a hot afternoon at around 2pm.

“He entered the room, woke me up, telling me ‘we go for battle’. I was shocked and told him I didn’t know how to use a gun.

He insisted I get up and go to witness ‘how we fight’,” Nyeko recalls.

Outside was an army green Santana truck. They drove to a playfield where a three-seater gunship stood. The doors closed as they took off. Up in the air, curious, Nyeko asked where they were headed, but Lokech simply retorted ‘let’s go and fight’.

The previous night, the LRA rebels had attacked Kitgum Town, looted property and abducted at least eight people, including a half-dressed Bosco Ochola, then Kitgum High School teacher, from Westland, on the town’s fringes.

Nyeko recalls that on that night, several civilians were abducted as the rebels trekked westwards of Kitgum Town.

Lokech, then the Gulu-based UPDF’s 4th Division intelligence officer, coordinated the assault on LRA rebels from the air.

Otto, then the Brigade intelligence officer based at Pajimo in Labongo Akwang Sub-county, Kitgum, coordinated the mobile patrol unit from NRA’s 13th Battalion to pursue the rebels on the ground.

Up in the air, Nyeko was confused as he peeped below. 

“After flying for a while, we saw a wide shiny patch down. I asked Lokech; ‘whose buildings are those right in the middle of thick bushes’?

He laughed and said ‘those are not iron rooftops but rebels, who had tactfully spread out bed sheets on the ground,” Nyeko recollects.

“When we made a U-turn and flew over again, there was not a single sign of rooftops down,” Nyeko says.

Lokech then radioed Gulu for immediate dispatch to the location of a gunship.

“The soldiers were in hot pursuit of the rebels as Lokech commanded from the air; telling them to ‘move left, turn right, go that way, turn this way’, Mr Nyeko recollects.

When the gunship arrived, Lokech asked the pilot whether he was seeing a ‘bush’ on the ground, but the pilot said he was only seeing trees. Lokech then barked out orders to the pilot to bomb the ‘trees.’

“Lokech was well-versed with the rebels’ manoeuvres. When they noticed the gunship, they tore off tree branches, raised them up, and stood still underneath. From the air, it looked like a bush,” Nyeko recalls.

When the gunship bombed as instructed, a huge fireball exploded and spread out all over the ‘bush’. Then the ‘bush’ strangely started moving - in fact it was the rebels, fleeing with the leafy twigs held firmly over their heads.

Lokech barked out more orders to the foot soldiers to pursue the rebels as he gave out rebel positions.

Bullets whizzed about as the bombs exploded and the bushes caught fire and an abductee shot dead.

The other abductees were finally rescued near Got Kwar at the confluence of rivers Aswa and Pager, and taken to Pajimo army barracks.

Up in the air, Lokech and Nyeko flew past a distinctly tall tree.

“Unknown to us, a rebel marksman, had climbed up the tree and fired at us. I heard a bullet - a sharp whiz and a thud. Then Lokech said ‘they have hit us. There is one of them on top of that tall tree’,” he recalls.

Nyeko recalls that the pilot suddenly pressed a knob on the control panel and smoke billowed enveloping the chopper, apparently to trick the rebel that he had hit his target. The helicopter tipped skywards and disappeared unto thick cloud of smoke. We then landed back at the UPDF 4th Infantry Division barracks in Gulu.

Once on the ground, Lokech asked Nyeko if he feared death, to which he pleaded with him to leave him in Gulu so he can travel by road back to Kitgum.

“He said; ‘no, no, no. Let’s go back and finish the battle,” Nyeko recollects, giggling.

Lokech picked up bottles of water and soda and they boarded the chopper again.

“We flew back and found the gunship still pursuing the rebels. Our chopper flew in a wide circle then we located the tree where the rebel was hiding. Lokech communicated the position to the gunship that dropped two bombs and the tree was all but ash. I believe the rebel who tried to shoot our chopper was killed in that inferno,” Nyeko says.

When we landed in Kitgum, Lokech again asked me; ‘Have you seen how a battle is fought?

I said ‘yes’. Then he said, ‘that’s how we fight’.  That was when I saw at close range what a brave soldier Lokech was. I saw firsthand his bravery and skills in combat. That guy had the bravery of real warrior,” Nyeko says.

In summing up Lokech’s life, Nyeko says: “He was a great fighter. I remember he once told me he finished his battlefield escapades without even a single bullet grazing his body. And I feel that was because of his rare skills, and he died without any bullet touching him.”

But Gen Lokech’s illustrious career came to a shattering halt on Saturday, August 21.

Kasozi, who was appointed chairman of the Board of Directors at Tembo FM, a radio station in Kitgum owned by Lt Gen Lokech, says he last met the fallen general a day before his demise. Kasozi had travelled to Kampala and visited the genera at his home, had breakfast and lunch together before leaving for Kitgum late afternoon.

“On Saturday morning, while travelling to the village for a funeral, I received a call from a police officer asking about information he saw on social media that Lt Gen Lokech was no more. I told him to ignore the rumour,” Kasozi recalls.

Kasozi was confident the general couldn’t have died since they had just met and he was visibly in fine health. But more calls came in, asking him to confirm the sad news. He then called one of Lt Gen Lokech’s aides.

Indeed, it was true Gen Lokech was no more.

Longole says he has been devastated by the sudden death of his jolly Cinderella dance boy, Lt Gen Lokech.

“As an OB whose life he saved when we were still young, I can vouch he was straightforward and a good-natured,” says Longole.

Surviving chopper crash

Late Daily Monitor writer James Oketch Bitek and veteran correspondent Dennis Ojwee of the Vision Group, witnessed a nasty air crash involving Lokech at Opatte in Pader on January 6, 2004.

Ojwee recalls there were 15 Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) commanders and soldiers aboard the ill-fated helicopter gunship. They took off from Gulu barracks at about 7am and flew to Achol-pii – the headquarters of the UPDF 5th Division in Pader, where they picked up then Capt Lokech, then an Operations Commander.

They flew back to Opatte where an aerial bombardment was carried out the previous night. Some 35 LRA rebels, including a trusted LRA leader Joseph Kony’s radio signaler, were killed. Soldiers on the ground had cleared a patch of 40-metre radius in the forest for their chopper to land.

“As the chopper descended, just 40 to 60 metres off the ground, it sucked in a thick plume of ashes through its open windows,” Ojwee recalls.

All of a sudden, Ojwee saw a soldier leap from the back of the chopper into the cabin where four Russian crew sat navigating.

Ojwee recalls that the cabin was dark, although some lights from the control panel glimmered in the darkness.

“The pilot said from the poor lighting, he intended to switch off the engine, but his finger landed on the wrong knob that instead plunged the chopper,” Ojwee says.

The chopper then spun, with the propellers chopping trees and branches. One of the huge trunks then impaled the chopper and suspended three metres off the ground.

Nearly everyone aboard suffered injuries on their heads, including Capt Lokech, who Ojwee recalls, suffered bruises on his shoulder.

The commanders used a satellite phone to call out for a rescue, but none came, forcing them to trek through the bushes for 50km to Lacek-ocot.

Ojwee recalls Lokech teasing Otema Awany about the incident, saying “my brother, just imagine we had all died; nobody would know what had happened to us.” They laughed off the freak incident, Ojwee recalls.

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