Lawmakers on the Defence and Internal Affairs committee have expressed scepticism about the competence of President Museveni’s younger brother, Gen Salim Saleh, in handling investigations into the crash of three Mi-24 combat helicopters in Kenya.
The choppers were en route to the Somali city of Baidoa as part of the UPDF’s African Union (Amisom) mandate to stabilise Somalia. MPs argue that the government does not have the willpower to handle such probes given its past record.
They cited the anticlimactic probe into the helicopter crash involving the South Sudan statesman John Garang in 2005. The inquiry’s findings have never been made public.
We have learnt that the committee chairperson Milton Muwuma (Kigulu) and his deputy, Simon Mulongo (Bubulo East), met with the junior Defence Minister, Gen Jeje Odongo, at his office on Tuesday and raised several issues regarding the Mount Kenya chopper crashes.
The two MPs suggested a parallel investigation but Odongo discouraged them, pointing out that the President had already constituted a probe to establish the circumstances that led to the crashes.
Not convinced, the duo summoned Odongo to the committee. The former army commander, who had to attend a special cabinet meeting at State House, Entebbe, to discuss the saga, postponed the Wednesday meeting from 10a.m. to 2p.m.
Muwuma, Mulongo and other members of the committee consequently used the morning to deliberate on how to put Odongo on the spot when he made an appearance. They resolved to carry out their own investigations.
Later that afternoon, Odongo appeared in the company of Lt Gen Katumba Wamala, the commander of Land Forces, who also doubles as an army representative in Parliament, and Col Felix Kulayigye, the army spokesperson. The proceedings have been presented in an abridged verbatim report below.
Gen Jeje Odong[State minister Defence]: On Sunday August 12, we dispatched four helicopters for [Amisom] duty in Somalia. The departure on Sunday followed a period of three months preparation during which the helicopters were serviced, refurbished and inspected by the United Nations and [deemed worthy]. Even the personnel were passed as competent.
We were in touch with colleagues in Kenya to prepare the routing as well as the logistics. During these discussions with our counterparts, the most viable route was determined as Soroti-Eldoret-Nanyuki-Garissa-Wajir-Baidoa into Somalia, the theatre of operation.
Four landed safely in Nanyuki. Only one made it to Garissa. Mi-17 arrived safely. Three Mi-24 combat helicopters went missing. When this anomaly was noticed, a search team was instituted and on Monday one helicopter was found and all passengers rescued.
We have lost three comrades [and] are still searching for four comrades. The dead are Captain William Letti, Second Lt Patrick Nahamya and Second Lt Robert Tushabe. Twenty one comrades are alive and well.
They are undergoing medical check-ups. I would like to thank the Kenyan authorities for the assistance they have given us in the recovery of the personnel. The Commander-in-Chief [Museveni] has instituted a probe team headed by Gen Salim Saleh with Major Philip Mugisha, Brigadier Eng Andrew Lutaaya and Col Ramadhan Kyamulesire.
It is supposed to be a seven-man team, but [Museveni] has delegated the CDF (Chief of Defence Forces), Gen Aronda Nyakairima, to name the other three. They have been given three weeks to report back. Preliminary findings show that it was bad weather that caused this incident, but the inquiry will dig into the matter.
Kezekia Mbongo[Budaka county, Ind]: I want the minister to clear my doubts as a lay man. May I know how many people were on board? Secondly, the names of the probe team instituted by the President are from one region. I fear that they might be compromised. In fact, the person who is chairing the committee is a brother of [Museveni]. I don’t know if he can give a true report of what happened to our jets (sic) in Mount Kenya.
Odong: First of all the aircrafts are not jets, but helicopters. We are discussing helicopters. About the probe team, I have given you an incomplete list. I think you should air your concerns to the appointing authority. About Gen Saleh, he has been appointed not by accident. I want you to remember that this is an accident that has happened outside Uganda and we need a committee that is heavy. By the way, the CDF has been directed to complete the list of the probe team.
Peter Okeyoh[Bukooli Islands, NRM]: I have found out that one region has got many soldiers on this list of soldiers who were on board. Many soldiers are from the western region of this country. This is our country and we have a stake.
Then when you say that Gen Saleh heads the probe committee because he knows Kenya and he is heavy in regional matters, it is not a question of who knows Kenya; it a question of who knows the helicopters. I don’t think Gen Saleh is competent.
Odong: As to whether this probe committee has the capacity, we have to understand that in an investigation you don’t necessarily have to be technical. It is about asking the right questions. This investigation will throw the net as wide as possible. The question of officers coming from one region doesn’t arise because the mission is well represented in terms of regional balancing.
Gen Edward Katumba-Wamala [UPDF MP]: I feel very uncomfortable if this is the line this committee is taking. If we are going to continue along that line of tribe, I beg to leave. I am very strong on this one, and I must say I am not comfortable. [The soldiers] are guys we have been with through thick and thin, and during our operations we don’t talk about tribe.
Phenehas Katirima [UPDF MP]: Can one member of this committee tell me which region I come from? I am called Katirima and some people here might say that I come from the West. How do you start to tell someone’s region by hearing his name?
Simon Mulongo[Bubulo, NRM]: It is very important that both sides remain calm.
Milton Muwuma [Kigulu, NRM]: This thing of tribe imbalance in the army has been around for some time, it is not new. Maybe, it is the timing that is wrong and bad.
Peter Ogwang[Youth Western, NRM]: I am not a pilot, but my observation is very simple – why didn’t we go direct from Soroti to Lodwa other than going through that difficult route?
Odong: There were a lot of consultations between us and our colleagues in Kenya, but the exact answer will come from the investigations as to why that route was taken. However, the main reason was the logistics.
Peter Eriaku [Kapelebyong, NRM]: We want to know who these four missing soldiers are and why did the helicopters fail?
Odong: We know all the 28 who were on board. Twenty one survived, three have been confirmed dead. We are not able to tell you the names of the missing four for one reason – we have to first tell their families or next of kin.
Katumba: And we are still on a mission of search and find. We cannot come out and say anything about these soldiers.
Eriaku: About the cost of the helicopters, I want to know whether they are insured and if the African Union and the United Nations will compensate us.
Odong: I don’t want to start guessing. What I know is that the AU and UN take responsibility in the mission area, but we are studying these documents (memoranda of operation) to see if we can be compensated.
Eriaku: Were the choppers faulty? You might blame the bad weather when they were junk.
Odong: I don’t want to speculate. Let us wait for the probe team. Indeed, there are soldiers who were on board and they survived, they will relay their story and the truth will come out.
Katumba: We think we paid a lot of attention to this mission. We met the Kenya Defence Forces chief and did the planning. Our pilots were tested by the UN team. We didn’t just wake up and decided that let’s fly to Somalia. We paid attention.
At every landing site, there was a liaison officer put up by the Kenyan military. The UN okayed the equipment. They specifically inspected the helicopters and trained the crew to the standards of UN.
The reason we are talking about bad weather is because that is what we know, but we are not restricting ourselves to that. I have just talked to the boys in Mogadishu, and they are touched by this loss. So, any negative comments will just add salt to the wound.
Mike Mukula [Soroti Municipality, NRM]: We have had a number of committees that have been set to investigate several aircraft crashes, including that of the late John Garang, but nothing comes out.
We have to ensure accountability and of course it is important that you show goodwill and provide these reports. In this case, people want to know that the Mi-24 helicopters were not junk. We also need to know the terms of reference of this probe team.
Odong: I take your concern for the need of the reports to be availed and that there is a need to make the terms of reference of this committee public. Now, these helicopters weren’t junk because they have seen battle before.
Importantly, members need to know that we are not dealing with a situation that has happened in Uganda, but a crash that has happened in Kenya where we don’t have a jurisdiction. So, we need to be highly guarded because if we just speak we might spark off a conflict. So, I plead that we remain within the facts.