Thirty two years ago, for six days, Uganda mourned. Friday December 2, 1983, became one of the darkest days in Uganda’s history.
On that fateful day, the former chairman of the defunct Coffee Marketing Board and also the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA)hief of staff, Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok, died in a tragic air crash.
He was also an MP representing the army.
Until December 9, when he was laid to rest, the country was in grief. Then president Milton Obote’s driver was one of those overwhelmed by grief.
“President Obote [from viewing the body of Oyite-Ojok in Parliament] was led to his car, but his driver, who had been awed with grief, could not start the vehicle.
Dr Obote slowly walked across to his office. The driver was helped out of the presidential Mercedes Benz to another one,” reported The Uganda Times of December 8, 1983.
Such was the grief that engulfed Ugandans, especially government officials and army officers.
How the accident occurred
On December 2, 1983, at about 6:15pm, an Augusta Griffin transport helicopter carrying Oyite-Ojok, six UNLA officers, one unnamed Tanzania and one Canadian military personnel crashed at Kasozi village in Luweero District, killing all occupants.
According to a press statement issued by then minister for Internal Affairs, Dr John Luwuliza-Kirunda, a day after the accident, two other officers had boarded the helicopter from the UNLA detach where it had stopped to refuel. But their identity was not revealed.
However, there was a contradiction in the information released by the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) government.
While the minister’s statement said 10 people died in the crash, a statement issued by then vice president Paulo Muwanga on December 4, 1983, mentioned only nine.
Luwuliza-Kirunda’s statement also stated that the chief of staff had at about 12 noon flown from Kampala to visit troops in northern Uganda as well as Luweero, a war zone where the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels (or bandits as were called by government officials) led by Yoweri Museveni were fighting to overthrow president Milton Obote.
At around 6pm, according to the statement, Oyite-Ojok arrived at the UNLA detach to refuel the helicopter and proceed to Kampala. However, 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, something unusual happened.
In less than a minute, the aircraft nosedived, crashed and immediately caught fire. Kasozi, the scene of the accident, about 150km north of Kampala, was under the control of the UNLA. While the NRA rebels claimed to have brought down the helicopter, their assertion was immediately rebuffed by the government.
“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,” said the Internal Affairs minister.
President informed about the accident
Luwuliza-Kirunda told the media that immediately after the plane crashed and caught fire, soldiers from the unit near Kasozi went to the scene of the accident and from there two soldiers were dispatched to Kampala to inform the authorities.
Among the first to be informed were vice president and minister of Defence Paulo Muwanga, prime minister Otema Allimadi and the Chief of Defence Forces, Lt Gen Tito Okello Lutwa.
President Obote was not in the country at the time, but was also immediately informed. He had travelled to New Delhi, India, for a Commonwealth conference.
While there has been information of Obote being indifferent to the news of Oyite-Ojok’s demise, pictures of his arrival at Entebbe airport, at Oyite-Ojok’s home at Acacia Avenue in Kololo and at Namirembe Cathedral show a devastated commander-in-chief.
In fact, Obote cut short his stay in India and returned home with his wife Miria and other delegates. They arrived at Entebbe airport late afternoon on December 3, 1983.
Journalists flown to scene of accident
In order to prove to the world that the helicopter was not brought down by the NRA rebels, some local and foreign journalists were flown from Kampala to the scene of the accident, which was said to be about one and half kilometres from the UNLA unit.
According to soldiers from the unit journalists spoke to, there had been another helicopter hovering around the area on December 2, 1983, the day of the crash.
It landed at the UNLA unit, refuelled and left, with the one that would carry Oyite-Ojok still at the encampment.
According to The Uganda Times of December 6, 1983, two other soldiers boarded Oyite-Ojok’s aircraft after it refuelled.
Although their names were not mentioned, from other records seen by Sunday Monitor, the two unnamed soldiers were Private Martin Atenyi, who was buried on December 6, 1983, at his home village Padibe, Kitgum District and another soldier only identified as Corporal Olwoch.
He was also buried on December 6, 1983, at his ancestral village Lokung, Kitgum District.
Because at the time of the accident the identity of the two soldiers was unknown, it caused suspicion that they could have been suicide bombers.
However, Sunday Monitor was able to establish that Corporal Olwoch was related to the helicopter pilot, Captain Harry Olwoch, who also came from the same village in Kitgum.
Soldiers from that unit also told journalists that immediately the helicopter was airborne, it started making an unusual sound before nose diving.
Radio Uganda, the sole radio station in the country then, used to open at 6am, but on Saturday, December 3, 1983, it opened earlier than 6am.
The station played martial music and at 6 O’clock, the death of the former chief of staff was aired as a special announcement to the nation.
Oyite-Ojok laid to rest
On the night the accident occurred, the remains of Maj Gen Oyite-Ojok and others were retrieved from the scene and taken to Mulago hospital for treatment.
The following day, his body was taken to his official home at Acacia Avenue Kololo in Kampala where it stayed until December 5, 1983, from where it was taken to lie in state at the National Assembly.
Oyite-Ojok was among the 10 MPs representing the Army in Parliament. On December 8, 1983, his body was taken to Namirembe Cathedral for prayers, and in the afternoon of December 9, 1983, he was laid to rest at Loro, Apac District.
Local and foreign dignitaries from Rwanda and Tanzania attended the burial. Oyite-Ojok was given a 13-gun salute.
Then Church of Uganda Archbishop Yona Okoth led the service and he consoled the bereaved family. “Flesh and blood will never inherit the kingdom of God. So man must die as Jesus did in order to resurrect,” he said.
Other officers who died with Oyite-Ojok
At least six other officers travelling in a military helicopter with the former Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA)hief of staff, Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok, died in the crash at Kasozi village in Luweero District, about 150km north of Kampala.
They included Col Dr Wilson Okwonga, chief army surgeon and head of Mbuya Military Hospital. He was buried on December 7, 1983, at his home village Lokung, Kitgum District in northern Uganda.
Lt Col Alfred Otto, the director Uganda Air Force, who was buried on December 7, 1983, at his ancestral home in Limule village, Kitgum District. Maj Stephen Abili, the director engineering, was also buried on December 7, 1983 at Inono village Apac District.
The helicopter pilot, Capt Harry Olwoch, was buried on December 7, 1983 at Lacekocot village Kitgum District. Lt Kiragga Kato, a helicopter technician, was buried on December 6, 1983, at Kitende village, nine miles on the Kampala-Entebbe highway.
The body of Sgt Charles Kamara, an army photo-journalist, was buried on December 6, 1983, at his ancestral home in Kabarole District.