It wasn’t me: Gen Otema speaks out on cold case

Gen Charles Otema Awany. Photo/File

What you need to know:

  • The army officer speaks to Tobbias Jolly Owiny about an incident that happened more than two decades ago when he commanded Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces soldiers during a raid on Gulu Central Prison in which one inmate was killed.

Gen Charles Otema Awany has for the first time spoken publicly about a cold case, distancing himself from the fatal shooting of an inmate.

More than two decades ago, armed Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) soldiers from the army’s 4th Division headquarters in Gulu descended on Gulu Central Prison. An operation they mounted to relocate 21 inmates ended up with one of them—Peter Oloya, alias Yumbe—dead.

Human rights defenders, politicians and the State have tried to get to the bottom of what transpired on September 16, 2002. What is clear is that Oloya was shot dead during the raid that was allegedly commissioned by Gen Otema. 

Before he became Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister, Mr Nobert Mao weighed in on the raid. 

“[…] there was a brief but violent scuffle. A loud voice was overheard shouting orders in Swahili: ‘Nani wuyo, piga, piga yeye’ literally meaning ‘Who is that one? Shoot him.’ Shortly, a hail of bullets was sprayed and the prisoners were ordered into the gatehouse,” Mr Mao wrote in a 2017 oped piece, adding that the regional prisons commander, a one Mr Onyai, was made to sit on the floor of his office holding his head with both hands.  

The contingent of UPDF soldiers is believed to have forcefully relocated the inmates. Per Mr Augustine Ojara, a close friend of Oloya Pido, one of the victims, the inmates were beaten and manhandled while being forced into a waiting army truck. 

“Military mambas (armoured personnel carriers) also parked just outside the main gate of the facility and randomly kept beaming their headlamps into the facility’s compound,” Mr Ojara recalled.  

Ms Sarah Kayagi (left), the HIV/Aids committee chairperson at Parliament, interacts with prison staff at Gulu Central Prison in Gulu City on February 10, 2024. PHOTO/TOBBIAS JOLLY OWINY

It is reported that four UPDF mambas, laden with UPDF soldiers commanded by Gen Otema, laid siege on the prison. According to Human Rights Watch, the UPDF committed extra-judicial killings, at least per eyewitness accounts of inmates. These indicate that the assistant superintendent of Gulu Central Prison, and prison authorities (wardens) were roughed up by the soldiers who had no search warrant. 

According to a publication released months after the incident, the Human rights body stated that a UPDF officer singled out a prisoner known as “Yumbe” (Oloya), who was accused of planning to escape from the prison.

Peter Oloya, alias Yumbe

That officer then ordered the soldiers to shoot Oloya. The other inmates, as well as Oloya’s corpse, were then relocated to the barracks.

In early October 2002, Gen Otema allegedly told the prisoners that they would be released from the barracks and custody if they gave evidence against Dr Kizza Besigye. It was barely a year since Dr Besigye had taken part in the first of four presidential polls against Mr Museveni. The evidence that Gen Otema allegedly wanted adduced was that Dr Besigye was supporting and financially supplying the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). 

The rebel group had waged war of attrition against the government in northern Uganda, with the embers still smouldering at the time. Most of the inmates in the Gulu prison were either Opposition-leaning or were kin to the LRA commanders. In fact, the only female inmate—who was allegedly gang-raped—was Joseph Kony’s maternal aunt. Kony is the leader of the militant group.

Mr Stephen Olanya

Fresh account 
New details are now emerging about how Oloya was shot dead. Mr Stephen Olanya, one of the 21 inmates, said Oloya’s relatives lavished him with his favourite meal— four legs and the head of a goat—on the fateful day. It would turn out to be his last supper. Since cooked food is prohibited in prisons, the meal was cooked on-site. Oloya was joined at the feast by his colleagues, inclusing David Penytoo, Lukwiya Pido, Alex Otim, Tony Kitara and others.

“That was the same day the army raided the facility at about midnight,” Mr Olanya told Saturday Monitor, adding, “The reason for the raid, we heard from Gen Otema, who was present, was that the rebels were targeting to raid the prison and abduct some of the treason suspects.” 

Mr Olanya further disclosed that it is true that two brothers and some relatives of Kwoyelo, a former commander of the LRA, were among the 19 treason suspects incarcerated in Gulu. 

“I resided in Ward 1 and Oloya was in Ward 3 […] Otim Alex and others were brought out and lined up in a corridor, in Ward 2, they picked Tonny Kitara and the rest and in Ward 3, opposite our ward,” Mr Olanya recalled. 

He added: “We squatted down and saw how the army, led by Gen Otema, went inside and read names loud in the next ward. Once Pido and Oyat came out, Oloya came out later, Otema, Division Intelligence officer (now Col Rugadya Akiiki and the Prison Commander) stood by the door.”

Once Oloya came out, Mr Olanya said they “thought he was coming to our group like others.” When Oloya caught a glance of the soldiers, “he started running behind the block through a dark corridor […] upon hearing Lt Gen Otema’s voice, [Oloya] started shouting at the top of his voice with a threatening statement.”

Oloya reportedly said thus: “Abii too kwedi” (literally meaning: I will die with you). He died, but not with Gen Otema. 

“Six bullets were fired at him […] two hit him in the back. He was shot behind while running,” Mr Olanya revealed, adding, “Those of us who did not run, up to now we are still alive.” 

It is said Gen Otema ordered that Oloya be taken to the 4th Division hospital for treatment, not knowing that Oloya was already dead. 

“On November 15, 2002, they relocated me from Gulu Barracks back to the Central Prison,” Mr Olanya disclosed. “I was the only person released because my case was murder and would be heard from Gulu High Court […] the 19 others charged with treason were moved to Kigo Prison.” 

On November 16, 2002, the State Attorney told the court that the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) had withdrawn the case against Mr Olanya. Justifiable evidence was cited. 

“In 2003, when I came out, I went and testified in court [about] how the soldiers hit Oloya, and the court later ordered that each of us be paid Shs10m for violating our rights and Shs30m for killing Oloya, and that the UPDF must rebury him,” he said. 

Mr Olanya and Oloya were arrested on January 22, 2002 and remanded until September 9, 2002.

“The person who arrested us was former RDC [Resident District Commissioner] Col Walter Ocora (RIP),” Mr Olanya recalled, adding that state actors used the death of Alfred Bongomin, the Pabbo LC3 chairman, “to politically implicate and frustrate us.”

Bongomin was killed on January 10, 2002. This was a day before election results were released. Mr Olanya alleges that “Col Ochora declared on Radio Freedom that he would deal with us using the jungle law for killing Bongomin.” 

Mr Olanya proceeded to reveal thus: “I had never seen him (Bongomin), and Oloya also didn’t know him […] the man died during the campaign periods and it was meant to politically frustrate our political efforts since I was the Gulu District mobiliser for Uganda Young Democrats, and Oloya was our chief strategist at the time.” 

By the time of the shooting, the pair had lived in detention for seven months. Three years after the incident, Mr Olanya was rearrested by the army and charged over the same case in which some of the pardoned treason suspects, with whom they were detained at the army barracks at the time of shooting Oloya, were witnesses against him. 

“They took me to the barracks. Myself, Ocan Laryang and David Penytoo, three of us, at 2pm, the army picked us up, and we lived there up to the 27th and they relocated us to Kampala at CID headquarters, and we were charged at Buganda Road Court and remanded us to Luzira Prison,” he remembered, adding, “Two weeks later, Mr Reagan Okumu and former ambassador Michael Ocula were brought in and remanded over the same murder case. The same people who had been arrested (for treason) were the ones testifying against us. One of the witnesses was Tonny Kitara. The case was later dropped.”
Court ruling
In February 2003, a year later, Justice Augustine Kania from the High Court, in his ruling, ordered the government to pay Shs230m as compensation to the 21 victims, including the relatives of Oloya. 

Justice Kania said Oloya was “murdered in cold blood” and ordered that the government pay Shs30m to his family and Shs10m to each of the 20 inmates. 

A month later (March 2003), before the Court of Appeal justices Kikonyogo Mukasa, CK Byamugisha, and others in Kampala, Mr Mao filed a constitutional petition against the Attorney General over the matter. It was dismissed on March 7, 2003 because the same matter had been heard before the Gulu High Court judge.

In the petition, Mr Mao stated that Oloya’s killing contravened Article 22 of the Constitution and that a refusal to release his body to his family to afford it a decent burial violates Articles 29 (1) and 37 of the Constitution. He also argued that the forceful removal of the prisoners from Gulu Central Prison to Gulu 4th Division Army Headquarters contravened Article 23 (1) of the Constitution and that the physical and physiological torture of the prisoners to admit being engaged in rebel activities contravened Article 24 of the Constitution. 

Gen Otema reacts
Gen Otema told Saturday Monitor in an interview that they “induced” the prison authorities to release the suspects since the LRA rebels had mobilised to attack the facility at dawn. 

“I led the group of army officers who stormed the Gulu Central Prison that fateful night during which Oloya was shot dead. We had gotten an intelligence report that Joseph Kony, through his commanders Vincent Otti and Thomas Kwoyelo, had a plot to attack the prison facility and abduct some inmates,” he said. 

The inmates the LRA reportedly targeted were persons who had been charged with treason. These, per Gen Otema, included brothers and close relatives of the two commanders, Otti and Kwoyelo. 

“It was also for the same reasons that we further transferred the suspects to Kigo Prison for fear that the rebels were still interested in attacking the barracks, until they applied for amnesty and were released,” he stated. 

Initially, then Division Commander, Gen Andrew Gutti, sent his junior, Akiiki, with a truck to meet the prison commander and pick the keys to gain access to the cells. 

“The two commanders were running huge bases at Lacor and Unyama towns, each less than 7km from the prison facility. The army then decided that the best way was to relocate those inmates…,” Gen Otema told Saturday Monitor. 

He added: “At first, the prison commander stubbornly declined Akiiki’s request since he underestimated the problem and its likely impact, so the Division commander [then Brig] Gutti sent me and asked that we must return with the inmates. Upon entry, we went to the cells and read out names of these inmates and we asked them to comply with us and march out once their names were read.” 

Oloya’s shooting, Otema offered, resulted from his attempt to snatch a gun from one of the prison warders. The general also disclosed that he neither shot nor ordered Oloya’s shooting. 

“Akiiki read out the names and when Oloya came out and heard my voice, from a near distance, he became wild and attempted to grab a gun from one of the soldiers, howling that he would die with me that night. He was shot in the scuffle during which he tried to manoeuvre to a dark corner,” Gen Otema said. 

He added: “All soldiers in my company were armed, but I did not carry any gun, not even a revolver as claimed in the past. […] There were several shots fired and once they said he was the one shot at, I asked the soldiers to pick him up and put him into the truck so that he could be rushed to the army medical facility inside the barracks for treatment, I did not know he had died from the prison. I was then told later.”

Gen Otema also admitted that Oloya was buried at the cemetery where Ebola victims were being laid to rest. A month later after his family failed to claim his body, “Oloya’s relatives, considering the sensitivity of the case, did not turn up to pick his corpse until the fourth week when the army decided to bury him there.”