Saturday, August 11, 2007


Former Air Force commander tells his life under Amin
Maj. Gen. Zeddy Maruru is a retired air force senior pilot. He has served in all of Uganda's post independence armies, most prominently as air force commander in the 1970s and as chief of army staff after Tito Okello overthrew Milton Obote's second administration in 1985. He spoke to Rodney Muhumuza for this first part of a new series, “What I Know”, in which senior citizens tell their story and experiences about the governments under which they worked
Maj. Gen. Zeddy Maruru
I was born in 1942 in Rushenyi, in Ntungamo District although I am now resident in Kajara. I studied at Rwamanyonyi Boys School up to Primary Four and then to Kitunga near Rwashamaire for my Primary Five and Six. I went to Mbarara High School for Senior One, an equivalent of today’s Primary Seven, before going to Ntare School for my O' Level, which I finished in 1960.
At that time, if you were heading for particular faculties, you would go straight to university, although Higher School Certificate had started. So I went to Nairobi University, which was then the Royal Technical College. I was at its faculty of engineering for two years. [He was not doing engineering at this time, but was studying subjects that would take him to the undergraduate course in engineering--editor]. Due to some family problems, I decided to leave after my A' Levels. My intention was to do engineering but I decided to find a job and help my old father to educate my younger brothers.
In September 1964 I joined the army. The minimum academic qualification was O' Level. I was interviewed to join the air force, which was being trained by Israelis. When they looked at my qualifications, they thought I qualified better for the air force than the [general] army. I had done physics, chemistry and mathematics at A-Level.
We were sent to Jinja for basic military training for three months. Although we had been earmarked as future pilot cadets, when we finished the training the infantry cadets went to Ghana. About 30 of us were recruited directly into the air force. Later, I think the government must have negotiated with Czechoslovakia -- about 32 of us were sent there, 10 cadet pilot and 22 technical officers. We spent there two and a half years.
We came back mid 1967 and were commissioned 2nd Lieutenants. We were flying the L-29, a Czech-made aircraft. It was the best jet training aircraft, and from it you would be promoted to any other aircraft. We came with a few experts from Czechoslovakia and completed our training at Gulu Airstrip, which was opened after our return.
TrainingWe finished basic flying in Czechoslovakia, and also did the instructors' course there. When we got to Gulu, we were both instructors and cadets. We recruited young men, whom we trained.
In 1968 we became full lieutenants. Later in 1968, a group that had been sent to the Soviet Union joined us in Gulu. It included Gad Wilson Toko and a few others. So we were two squadrons-one of L-29s and the other of MiG-15s and MiG-17s. Of the original 10 pilot cadets with whom I trained in Czechoslovakia, only three are still alive, including one who is now disabled.
In 1970 I was sent for a course at the Royal Air Force Staff College Bracknell in the UK. The January 1971 coup didn't find me in Uganda. I had left in October 1970 and returned in December 1971. I was the only Ugandan at the college. At that time people didn't like going for courses because they normally didn't promote people on the basis of courses, yet those who stayed home had a good chance of getting promoted.
When the 1971 coup happened, we had to stay in the UK although there was a problem of remitting finances following the change of government. We were relying on British military aid, but after the coup our salaries and allowances ceased coming until President Amin came to visit Britain in June 1971. He visited us at our colleges.
I was invited to join two other officers at the Staff College in Camberley, near Sandhurst. Sometimes it was interesting when Amin claimed he went to Sandhurst; he went there as a visitor, not as a student.
Yet he used to tell whoever cared that he was once at Sandhurst. The Staff College was in Camberley near Sandhurst. Even the Royal Air Force Staff College, where I was, wasn't far. So after seeing us in Camberley, Amin was invited to see his student at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. I was a Munyankore and one of the officers at the Staff College too was a Munyankore.
The other was a Lugbara. We used to get delayed newspapers from Kampala, especially obtained from the High Commission in London. We had heard on the radio what had happened in Kampala. There had been massive promotions in the army after the coup. Somebody would be promoted from sergeant major to lieutenant colonel or from private to captain.
When Amin came to visit us, I was a lieutenant and the other two were captains. He just promoted me to Captain and the others to majors. We told Amin our problems and he promised to solve them. Indeed, when we came back our allowances and salaries started coming. I must give Amin credit for having been a hands-on man. He would do anything if he put his heart to it.
Leaving the UKI left the UK with the title of First Staff College, but it was mainly an administrative [and operational] course. You would be taught how to run an office, to write speeches for superiors, etc.
They were teaching us what we call staff jobs at the army headquarters. On arrival, I was posted to the General Headquarters of the air force at Republic House in Bulange, Mengo. The air force commander was Gad Wilson Toko but I was senior to him on account of having joined the air force earlier.
Maj. Gen. Maruru during the interview
WORKED UNDER AMIN: Maj. Gen. Maruru in a file photo
I was made Quartermaster General. It was just funny English. In reality, I was chief procurement officer. Although I occasionally flew planes, I was more often bogged down by office work. In the military, you don't have to renew licences. But even then, you had to go with an instructor or a current pilot who would test your competence. Normally, they tested you every year. At the time, we used the G3s, standard army rifles, and not these AK-47s.
In 1973, President Amin wanted to go to Iraq. He selected a few people to go with him. He had his bodyguards and he selected a few officers from the army. Then he asked if anybody in the air force wanted to volunteer to travel with him.
My commander, Brig. Smutts Guweddeko, declined to go. So I volunteered, saying, "You can die anywhere.” Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi sent an executive jet that flew us to Jeddah, where we were told King Faisal was in Riyadh.
I remember it was during the holy month of Ramadhan, and we were still airborne when we were told the king was still in Riyadh. We landed in Riyadh and later met King Faisal at his palace, where he and Amin held talks. We couldn't fly further because it was believed the Israelis might shoot any plane travelling in the direction we wanted to take.
When we went to Saudi Arabia, our pilots-- you can't believe it--- were British Jews and were concerned. They told us it was not possible to fly to Iraq, which was the same briefing from the Saudi intelligence. An alternative route was suggested; we would fly back to the Mediterranean Sea, then along the Mediterranean coast and proceed to Iraq via Syria.
I told Amin--and that fellow had a sixth sense--that if we couldn't fly from Jeddah to Baghdad, then how could we dare fly almost over Tel Aviv! At the time, the Israelis were at war with almost everyone, and I told Amin it would be risky.
I told him: "They are not going to shoot us down. But they can intercept us and force us to land, and these pilots will be free because they are not Arabs...When you land, you will be a prize for Israel because you have been talking against them, you are pro-Arab. If they force us to land, they will free these fellows, the pilots, and maybe even us. But you, they will keep."
He said: Is that so?" I told him: "The decision is yours, but this is the route they have planned for us." I pulled out a map and showed him how close we were. After all, the Mediterranean was teeming with Israeli Navy.
FLASHBACK: Former army commander Bazilio Okello promoted Maruru to the rank of brigadier in 1985. File photo
Journey to IraqAmin told the pilots to return to Libya, and King Faisal gave us his aircraft, which took us to the north of Saudi Arabia. We couldn't go further than that. From there, we went by road through Jordan up to Baghdad, a journey that took 12 hours. We were driving at night and without light. It was feared the convoy would be misunderstood for a military one. We ended up in Baghdad in the morning.
I was not really conversant with presidential communication, but Saddam Hussein knew we were coming. He later gave us dinner and had talks with Amin. From there, Amin said he wanted to go to Damascus. We drove again all night to Damascus, arriving in the morning. During our journey, we watched a few planes being shot down. Iraqis were not directly involved but they sent troops to help Syria.
We even visited wounded prisoners of war in hospital- captured Israeli pilots and soldiers, some with missing limbs. From there, we drove again to Saudi Arabia, where we were given a civilian aircraft that flew us back to Iraq. King Faisal gave Amin his personal jet which flew us back to Uganda.
Strangely, Amin never informed his cabinet until we were flying over Soroti. In fact, we met some of the ministers travelling from Entebbe to meet him when we were already driving to Kampala. We later went to State House Entebbe, where he said we would have three days off. At that time in 1973, I was a major, and during those three days of rest, my friend called to congratulate me upon my promotion to lieutenant colonel.
pparently, Amin went to meet senior officers at Republic House to tell them: "I don't want officer who fear [sic]. I asked for volunteers to Iraq, and some people were cowards...aren't we back? I don't want officer who fear [sic]. I can even promote them. Maj. Maruru is now a lieutenant colonel." That is how I became one in 1973.
Sometime in 1973, Amin had problems with Wilson Toko. Amin was on bad terms with the Lugbara, although they had been involved in the 1971 coup. Only that they had gone to school: the Obitre-Gamas, the Tokos, the Acidris, the Ondogas and some other young officers. Either they were planning something, which I did not know, but Amin took Toko out of the air force and appointed him the general manager of East African Airways.
Smuts Guweddeko was appointed the air force commander. Guweddeko had by that time acquired a factory in Kawempe where he used to spend most of his time after or before work. The factory was making suitcases. So whenever Amin called asking to speak to Guweddeko, he would be told the air force commander wasn't around.
He would talk to me, give me orders and I would brief Guweddeko when he came around. Later, Amin told Guweddeko that it seemed he wasn't interested in working for him since he seemed to love his factory more than anything else. He sent him on leave and told him to concentrate on his factory. But Amin promised him a loan if he ever needed it. I was next in line and in 1974, I became acting Air Force commander.
Then came 1975, the year Amin brought some three Palestinians for pilot training. These guys were indisciplined. They had failed in Algeria and Libya. When we sent them to Gulu Airstrip, they did not want to follow orders. You would tell them to fly at 4,000 metres and they would fly at 200 metres, above rooftops.
My officers in Gulu stopped the training and I informed Amin the Palestinian trainees had been "grounded," which was the word we used, "because of indiscipline". But Amin had his other ways: there was the Palestinian Embassy here and the report which came from there was that since the air force was predominantly Christian, we were anti-Muslim.
Such information could have been supported by the State Research Bureau, [Amin's dreaded intelligence agency]. There were few or no Muslims in the air force, and I think it was because there were few Muslims educated enough to join it. One day, Amin visited Gulu Airstrip without my knowledge.
When he reached Gulu, he sent a message to [Isaac] Maliyamungu demanding an air show in Gulu. He wanted all the aircraft- the MiG squadron was in Gulu but the L-29s were at Entebbe. Amin said he wanted all the 12 aircraft in Gulu. I told Maliyamungu that we had only four serviceable aircraft; four were in the workshop, in pieces, and another four on standby as they had only one hour of service time left. I thought I had made a good technical explanation, but Amin might have thought I was flouting his orders or telling lies. I sent the four aircraft, and the air parade went on.
In his speech, Amin announced that he would from then onwards be the air force commander. Of course, it made headlines. Now when the President has taken over your job, what are you supposed to do? I went and asked Gen. Mustapha Adrisi, the Chief of Defence Forces, what I was supposed to do.
Indefinite leaveIn December 1975 Adrisi, whom I used to joke with, met Amin at the Command Post. He was told to send me on indefinite leave. I was living in Kololo, but I chose to go to the village, leaving my wife in Kampala. I decided to use my leave to build a house for myself, right from scratch.
I was still close to some ministers. Some of them were not even aware I was on leave. I met Brigadier Sabuni, who was minister of industry, at his office and asked for cement. He told me to go and pick whatever amount of cement I wanted from Hima [cement] factory. There was little money and cement was in short supply. Whenever I got cement in excess of what I wanted, I would sell off some. Look at this: a bag of cement cost Shs37 at the factory, but on the black market it went for Shs200!
I was down here in the village, going about my construction work, but things in Kampala were getting out of hand. Guweddeko had disappeared in 1976, around the time when [Ministers] Erinayo Oryema and Oboth Ofumbi went missing.
In 1969, Brig. Pierino Okoya had been murdered, Guweddeko had been arrested and charged with the murder of Okoya. But after the coup, he was among the first to be released. Now when Guweddeko disappeared in 1976, I knew something was terribly wrong. He was believed to be close to Amin. Nobody would have picked Guweddeko from Wandegeya, where he was playing omweso (board game), except on Amin's orders.
Continues next Sunday
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