John Garang: The flight of no return

John Garang boards the presidential chopper at Entebbe airport headed for Rwakitura on July 29, 2005. File photo

On Thursday July 28, 2005, South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army leader, Col John Garang, rang President Museveni and told him he wanted to meet him over important issues about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed with Khartoum government in January 2005 in Naivasha, Kenya.

Garang had only three weeks earlier been appointed First Vice President of Sudan as part of the implementation of the CPA.

Garang left Juba, South Sudan the next morning on July 29 by chartered Ilyushin aircraft, arriving at Entebbe International Airport at about 12pm. He was received at Entebbe by then vice president Gilbert Bukenya and then State minister for Regional Cooperation Augustine Nshimye. He was ushered into the VIP Lounge as preparations were finalised to fly him to President Museveni’s country home in Rwakitura.

Mr Museveni had returned to his country home to vote in the referendum on the return of political parties that was held the previous day.
After a one-hour wait, the presidential chopper taxied next to the VIP Lounge and Garang boarded; seen off by Mr Bukenya and Mr Nshimye. His chartered plane remained parked at the airport; it was expected to fly him back at 6pm.

As the First Vice President of Sudan, a position he had held for only three weeks, he was entitled to a State aircraft, but sources say he didn’t inform the Khartoum government about his trip to Uganda.

There are reports that he had told Khartoum that he would spend that weekend at New Site (New Cush), near the border with Kenya, an area he had used during the civil war as his headquarters because its forest cover was good concealment against bombardment by the Sudanese planes.

But he spent two days in Rwakitura, according to Museveni’ narration during the funeral services of the crash victims at Kololo Airstrip.

Rwakitura talks
During the same funeral service President Museveni said: “My fallen comrade rang me on Thursday (July 28) and said he wanted to talk to me about some very important things about his people, Africa and beyond...”

They spent the two days together. Mr Museveni and Garang discussed the CPA signed in January the same year between Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which marked the end of the second Sudanese civil war that had started in 1983.

The agreement gave a six-year interim period, at the end of which, the people of South Sudan were given the right to vote in a self-determination referendum to decide whether to remain united with Sudan or to secede.

On July 9, 2011 the interim period would come to an end and South Sudan would vote to become the world’s newest nation, six years after Garang’s death.
President Museveni, who had strongly supported SPLA/M for many years, was quoted in the media, saying the then Army Chief, Lt Gen Aronda Nyakairima, was later summoned to attend the meeting in Rwakitura.

There is scanty information about what was discussed in that meeting but on August 8, Mr Museveni told the mourners at the funeral service of the Ugandan victims at Kololo Airstrip that they talked about the SPLM negotiations with Khartoum and how the then US president George W. Bush’s official envoy for Peace in Sudan, John Danforth, had been putting Garang under pressure before the agreement was signed.

Before the agreement was signed, Garang had insisted – and told President Bush’s administration – that there were key issues that had not been concluded and, therefore, it was not the right time to sign the accord.

President Museveni would later write to President Bush, explaining Garang’s position and the US president agreed to stop pressuring Garang to sign the agreement.

He even took time during the funeral service to chide the West for pressuring Garang to sign the peace deal when the parties had not agreed on key issues.

“Why guarantee a bad agreement when you can sign an acceptable one? I don’t accept this idea of Western countries guaranteeing for us. Africans should guarantee their own destiny. I told them that how can they guarantee when their governments are seasonal,” he was quoted as saying in the media.

The last flight
The meeting was supposed to have taken only a few hours on Friday and Garang would fly back the same day. However, there was a change of schedule and Garang’s chartered aircraft was instructed to fly back on the evening he arrived. His return flight the next day [Saturday] would be arranged by his host.

After the meeting on Saturday, Garang was supposed to travel direct to New Site (New Cush) in South Sudan, not Juba where his incoming flight originated. The task to fly back Garang fell on the shoulders of the pilot of the presidential helicopter, Lt Col Peter Nyakairu.

According to our sources, Lt Col Nyakairu did not like the idea of flying direct from Rwakitura to New Site (New Cush) because he didn’t want to carry too much fuel.

He decided to fly from Rwakitura to Entebbe to refuel and then continue to New Site (New Cush). President Museveni told the mourners in Kololo that before the plane took off, him, Garang and Nyakairu had sat under a tree and talked about the journey.

The MI-172 helicopter had extra fuel tanks and had been freshly overhauled, Mr Museveni said. Earlier on Thursday, President Museveni had flown on the same helicopter to Mbarara and returned to Rwakitura before Garang used it.

“I told Garang that the plane was very well-equipped with modern gadgets. It also had extra fuel tanks. Nyakairu was confident but did not like the idea of carrying too much fuel,” Mr Museveni said during the funeral service.

The plane took off at 5:30pm, one-and-a-half hours before sundown, and Mr Museveni advised that if it got late, Garang could sleep anywhere in Uganda like Gulu, Soroti or Mbale.

From Rwakitura, the helicopter landed in Entebbe to refuel before setting off for New Site (New Cush). On board, there were three flight crew members, one cabin attendant and nine others.

These were; Col. Nyakairu (pilot), Capt. Paul Kiyimba (co-pilot), Major Patrick Kiggundu (flight engineer), Lt Johnson Munanura (jet officer), Corporal Hassan Kiiza (signaler), Lillian Kabaije (stewardess/hostess) and Samuel Bakowa (protocol officer).

The Sudanese were; Dr Garang, the man who fought Khartoum government for years. There are were also Lt Col Mayin and Lt Col Amat Malwa, Lt Aboki Abur, Lt Juma Mayin and Lt Majok Deng Knany.

They set off from Entebbe and headed for South Sudan with hope of safe travel but after one hour, the plane went off the radar. It is not clear at exactly what time the utility chopper went off the radar but it crashed in the Zulia Mountains, 11 miles from the Ugandan border.

Panic and search
After the plane went missing, President Museveni said he called Garang’s wife, Rebecca Nyandeng Garang and the SPLA leadership.

After his phone call, the SPLA leadership went for a crisis meeting in Rumbek as panic and uncertainty gripped the SPLA rank and file, an army the late Garang had founded and controlled for 21 years.

At the same time, Khartoum was also not sure what would happen. Garang had just signed the peace deal for power-sharing but some SPLA leaders wanted to secede, not-sharing power with Khartoum.

There was a possibility that the group that didn’t agree with the power-sharing agreement would either cause internal revolt within SPLA/M.

Officials in Khartoum were making frantic calls, trying to find out what was happening at the SPLA meeting in Rumbek.

Ugandan and Sudanese forces started searching for the missing plane on Sunday morning. On Monday, President Museveni said the search had been ongoing in Kidepo area without success.
“Since [Sunday] morning, we have been searching the Kidepo area to locate the chopper without success,” a statement issued by Museveni said.

Later on Monday, the wreckage was found with no survivors. The SPLA, Ugandan, US, Russian and Kenyan investigators visited the crash site, inspected the bodies and recovered the black box.
There were reports the pilot tried to make an emergency landing at New Kush region of southern Sudan but failed because of bad weather and headed back south. Mr Museveni said weather reports showed rain in the area.

Garang’s body was later taken to New Site (New Cush) for rebel fighters and civilian supporters to pay their respects to their leader, who swore to die fighting for the “liberation” of black Sudanese.

On August 7, SPLA/M held Garang’s funeral in Juba. South African President Thabo Mbeki, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi attended the funeral. President Museveni had on August 5 gone to Yei, viewed the body of his former ally and returned home.

He told mourners in Yei that there could have been “external factor” that caused the crash.
When asked why President Museveni didn’t attend, the then Information Minister, Nsaba Buturo said the president was devastated.

Mr Buturo, who is currently the MP for Bufumbira East told the media that President Museveni could not comprehend “a situation where you have just been with someone, given him your helicopter and manpower, then he just perishes like that”

But during the funeral service of the Ugandan victims at Kololo, President Museveni dismissed Buturo’s remarks, saying: “Freedom fighters don’t get devastated over tragedies otherwise you lose direction or bearing. We must maintain constant vigilance, constant mistrust and constant mobility. Let us be thorough in our investigation,”

He warned the media over what he called “meddling in security issues without consulting authorities” because of the stories that had been written about the crash.

He described some media houses as vultures. In the same week, KFM radio was closed and Andrew Mwenda, who was the host of Andrew Mwenda Live show was arrested for questioning, after he claimed Uganda was responsible for Garang’s death.

President Museveni set up an investigations team co-chaired by the former Minister John Nasasira, former army boss the late Maj Gen James Kazini, the then Internal Affairs and now Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda and the former Minister Beatrice Wabudeya.

The team visited the crash site, analysed the flight data record/cockpit voice recorder in Uganda, Russia and the US, interviewed key UPDF personnel, and Civil Aviation Authority. JSC Kazan helicopters, the manufacturers of the helicopter were also interviewed.

Report on crash

One year later, the report was released and it indicated a string of pilot errors was to blame for the helicopter crash.

The report cited a decision to fly without the aid of electronic navigation equipment in deteriorating weather and failure to take note of how close the helicopter was to the terrain for the crash.

The report, issued simultaneously in Sudan and Uganda, also said the flight AF 602 accident was partly caused by inadequacies in operational systems.

The report identified the probable causes of the crash as failure to maintain horizontal and vertical situational awareness of the helicopter as proximity to the surrounding terrain, resulting in inadequate clearance and controlled flight into terrain.

The Uganda team, and US expert Dennis Jones of the US National Transport Safety Board who was in charge of the investigation was part of the probe team.

Garang fateful flight

On Thursday July 29, 2005, Garang arrives in Entebbe to meet President Museveni over important issues.

Presidential helicopter
After one-hour at the VIP Lounge, he is flown on the presidential chopper to Rwakitura to meet Mr Museveni

In Rwakitura

The meeting
He spends two days in Rwakitura with President Museveni. Then army chief Aronda Nyakairima attends part of the meeting.

Back to Entebbe
After meeting Mr Museveni, Garang is flown back from Rwakitura on July 30, 2005, with a stopover at Entebbe to refuel enroute to New Site (New Cush) in South Sudan.

Off the radar
The chopper sets off from Entebbe and heads for South Sudan with hope of safe travel but after one hour, the plane goes off the radar.

No survivors
On Monday, the wreckage is found with no survivors. Investigators visit the crash site, inspect the bodies and recover the black box.


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