Saturday, August 18, 2007


How former air force boss fled Amin's hatchet squad
Maj. Gen. Zeddy Maruru, a retired air force senior pilot, spoke to Rodney Muhumuza for this continuation of the first part of a new series in which senior citizens tell their story and experiences about the governments under which they worked. Here he recounts how he managed to escape arrest by Amin's State Research Bureau agents
Maj. Gen. Zeddy Maruru
One morning in 1977, I decided to go and live in Kamwezi, Kabale, near the Rwanda border. I stayed there for three days, not knowing that State Research Bureau operatives would arrive on the day I left.
NARROW ESCAPE: Maruru during the interview. Photo by Uthman Kiyaga
I had told my workers I was going on safari. When I came back after three days, I drove straight away to my cousin's house as I was still building mine. As I approached my cousin's home, his wife emerged from the house. She knew the sound of my car and I noticed there was something strange.
My cousin had gone into hiding after State Research Bureau agents were advised by local Muslims to arrest my cousin if they wanted to know my whereabouts. He had walked almost up to Ishaka [about 120kms], got transport to Kasese, before connecting to Kampala.
I took a panya route [village path] and went to my parents' home, where I damped the car and went to Kabale town. I had a few friends who advised and promised to help me sneak into Rwanda, but I knew well enough that State Research Bureau boys manned the borders.
I decided to come back to Kampala in disguise. I avoided using the taxi park and fortunately I saw [Lt. Col] William Ndahendekire, who was the chairman of Uganda Development Corporation. I walked up to him and told him I had a transport problem.
He took me to his house, went back to town and returned later for lunch. He then gave me a lift to Kampala, where my wife, who was working in National Housing, was staying in the Bukoto Flats. She had been chased from our home in Kololo.
I went to her flat and lay low as I organised myself. I was in that flat for nine days, and my car had been brought from the village for sale. I wanted to give it to my brother, but we had to transfer ownership. And it was a requirement that both buyer and seller must present themselves at the revenue office. Luckily enough, I found the licensing officer was my old boy at Ntare School. I quickly told him I couldn't be around any more than I had done. I signed something quickly and left through the backdoor.
I headed to the railway station, where I took a taxi to Bukoto. There, I picked only my luggage, a briefcase, and went to the Law Development Centre in Makerere. When my brother left the licensing office, he found State Research Bureau boys had surrounded the vehicle.
The car was parked outside. They asked him where the owner of the car was and he told them he had bought it long ago. But they were so illiterate that they could not ask for the logbook to see that the transfer had been done that day. They were confused and they let him go.
They rushed to Bukoto and laid an ambush near my wife's flat. Immediately my wife entered the flat and switched on the lights, they came. They asked for me, saying I was not in the village and my car was in town. They looked for me everywhere and luckily enough they did not harass her. I spent the night at LDC and at 6 a.m.
I was in the taxi park heading to Jinja and later to Tororo, where I had a sister who was married to the headmaster of Tororo Girls' School. I told her it was time to leave the country.
I contacted somebody I knew in Customs who promised to help. I spent the night in Tororo, my Customs' contact having told me he would pick me at 8.30 a.m. the following morning. We drove up to Malaba border post. He left me in the car. I could see policemen and State Research Bureau agents moving around, but I had all sorts of guises. When he came back, we continued from immigration to police, where he leaned out of the car window and said we were going for a drink at Malaba Safari Hotel, just across the border. There was no beer in Uganda anyway.
When we crossed the bridge, we indeed went for a drink at the Safari Hotel. I left Uganda without an exit visa, but I was given an entry visa on the Kenyan side, as they understood what was happening in Uganda. Just as I was at the immigration, a Tanzanian friend who was working at the East African Development Bank was also going to Nairobi.
He was alone in the car and he gave me a lift to Nakuru, where we had lunch. We spoke on many issues except why I was leaving Uganda. It was at Nakuru that he asked me if I was not running away from Uganda. He told me he would not keep with me once we reached Nairobi, because the Kenyan capital was teeming with State Research Bureau agents. He dropped me in Westlands.
Having studied from there, I knew my way around. I picked a taxi and went to the home of Yonasani Kanyomozi. I found there several Ugandans in exile. I met Akena P'Ojok, Tarsis Kabwegyere, Gad Wilson Toko, Ephraim Kamuntu and many others, most of whom were teaching at the University of Nairobi.
It is unbelievable, but they had been talking about me how I risked being killed by not leaving Uganda. "Stupid fellow, we have been talking about you and now you are here," they said on seeing me.
I first stayed with Kanyomozi for a while in 1977, but soon Amin's agents learnt of my arrival. They saw me in town, reported to Kampala and my wife was dismissed from her job in National Housing. She also travelled by Akamba bus and joined me in Nairobi. I later found somewhere else to stay and besides many people were willing to help. Later, my brother brought our car to Nairobi, ostensibly for repairs. It was a Mercedes Benz and we immediately sold it. I used the money to rent a flat. Nairobi was very expensive at the time. But the money sustained us for a year.
I got in touch with Ateker Ejalu in Arusha. He was, I think, an information officer with the EAC. I moved to Arusha in 1978, and the anti-Amin struggle had already started. Mr Ejalu, having stayed in Arusha for some time, was well connected. He told those that mattered that I was a colonel from Uganda, and Tanzanian intelligence seemed to be interested in getting the latest information from me.
I was given a house and my wife was given a job somewhere. So when Tanzanians started mobilising Ugandans to participate in the anti-Amin war, I was part of that process. I joined the war as part of David Oyite-Ojok's Kikosi Maalum, and we were here in 1979. We came all the way through Mutukula and Masaka up to Kampala.
In terms of politics, I subscribed to the Save Uganda Movement. After the fall of Kampala, the Tanzanians wanted me to stay with them at their headquarters, so I didn't continue beyond Kampala.
When the war reached Koboko, we went to Mubende and Kabamba to select qualified fighters to go for a cadet officers' course at Munduli, Tanzania. The Amin I knew was unpredictable, but he was also a sociable guy. You could ask for anything from Amin. And he could listen. But unfortunately, most people feared him. There’s the case of the British professor, [Dennis Cecil], who was charged and sentenced to death for treason after he called Amin a village tyrant in his book.
That is when a senior British officer, Gen. Blair, was sent by the Queen to plead for him. Amin called us to the Command Post for a meeting with him before Gen. Blair arrived with the British High Commissioner. Amin asked what he should do to Cecil, but unfortunately everybody was inflaming Amin, reminding him how he had been insulted by the professor. Amin was asking individual officers and nobody was trying to challenge what he had already decided on.
Then, asking me, he said, "You air force, ona sema nini [air force officer, what do you think]?" I told him that a court was a court, but that we had to look at the issue objectively. I reminded him that our army ran on British equipment, that all our vehicles were Land Rovers and Bed Fords, etc.
I told him that our armoured vehicles, the so-called Saladins, were British-made, and that we had been in the process of negotiating with Britain for Harrier jets. I asked him if, after killing the man, he thought the British would give him spares for what he had already purchased or even what he had already paid for.
I said, "This character is about to die of old age. If you kill him and lose all these privileges, will it be worth it?" He kept quiet, started sweating, and just wiped sweat off his brow with his [bare] hand.
Then, Blair came and told Amin almost exactly what I had told him. So after that, there must have been a question mark about me. How did I dare talk like that and, two, how come General Blair spoke exactly what I had said? I was under surveillance after that and it was not surprising in 1975 that he dismissed me.
I wouldn't blame Amin for all the deaths that occurred, because his henchmen would take it upon themselves to kill well knowing that nobody would care to crosscheck if Amin had given the order. Secondly, the henchmen were too close to Amin that even if the facts came up, it was believed that getting them prosecuted was not possible.
I don't think he ordered all the killings. It is interesting when they say most of the State Research Bureau boys were Nubians, but they were Banyarwanda. They were literally mercenaries. And I am not sure they are not back in [today's] Internal Security Organisation.
After the fall of Amin, I joined the Uganda National Liberation Army and stayed at the headquarters at Republic House until 1981 when there was some reorganisation. They formed three Brigades and I was to be in charge of the Northern Brigade in Gulu for one year.
I was later transferred to the Western Brigade in Mbarara where I was removed in 1983. I had had a few problems with UPC functionaries in Mbarara especially the youth wingers. [Yoweri] Museveni was already in the bush at the time.
These youth wingers would go out- maybe they had good reason--and pick a few Bahima [Museveni's tribe-mates] from Nyabushozi in Mbarara and dump them in jail. There would be no statements to explain why the men had been arrested. I was getting reports that civilians were being locked up by military police.
I ordered that those men be sent to the police, which had the capacity to investigate. But they would be released, as there were no statements from the arresting officers. So reports came to Uganda House [UPC headquarters] that I was releasing Museveni's guerrillas. I was recalled to the army headquarters on special duties but I had no appointment and no office until [Tito Okello] Lutwa's coup [in January 1985].
During the Obote government, we were in the National Consultative Council. So I was one of the MPs representing the Army in Parliament, but we hardly attended. I was in Gulu and the war [against Obote II] had already started. I said no to politics, but technically the ten of us were MPs. There was Oyite-Ojok, Sam Nanyumba, Anthony Bazalaki, Francis Agwar etc.
So in 1983 I was on katebe [without deployment], but I would give advice on military issues. William Omaria and Peter Otai were registering militias in Teso, Tito Okello and Bazilio Okello had theirs in Kitgum, and Oyite-Ojok had his in Soroti. So they would send me there to solve some problems. Many things were happening; there was no discipline, and Obote's soldiers were looting villages.
The National Resistance Army rebels were closer to civilians than the UNLA. The rights and wrongs of that war is not my problem. I am looking at it as a military man. If you want success in a war, you must be close to civilians. Otherwise you will have no access to information. From the beginning, Museveni had the upper hand because he had the support of the masses, although he later experienced some logistical problems.
Then they needed a lot of improvement on the command structure so that by the time Ojok died, Luwero had become almost impossible for NRA guerrillas. Then wrangles, especially between the Langi and the Acholi officers, developed within the UNLA. They literally joined the NRA at a time when Museveni was withdrawing to make Mount Rwenzori his operational base.
I was still here on katebe and I got wind of an imminent coup through my own sources. Although I was a senior officer, I got information from some of the younger officers who could read messages passing through. It all started in Kitgum and when it came to Kampala it was a misunderstanding between [army chief of staff] Smith Opon-Acak and the Okellos.
Opon-Acak was a Langi and couldn't stand the fact that the man in charge of tanks and armoured personnel vehicles was an Acholi and moreover a major. Opon-Acak ordered that the vehicles, which were in Lubiri, be taken to Makindye barracks where a Langi officer was in charge. The Langi refused, and there were some clashes in Mbuya.
Then there was the so-called uncoordinated movement of troops, as [Paulo] Muwanga announced. When the coup plotters started moving from Acholi, even the other tribes joined. There was a lot of frustration; there was a shortage of goods in the army, even uniforms. I was staying in Hotel Diplomat Muyenga because when I left Mbarara I was not given a house in Kampala. I was told to stay in a hotel. Someone came and told me that the coup plotters had come from the north and were now in Bombo.
I knew the coup would be on the night of January 24, 1985. But I was wrong, as it really unravelled the following day at 11 a.m. I had never seen a daytime coup. I was seated at the balcony of Hotel Diplomat when I saw smoke going up near the Post Office. They came all the way to Muyenga, some of them to loot. I told [hotelier Bonny] Katatumba to give them a crate of beer to make peace because they could have taken anything they wanted.
Announcements were being made that all officers should report. I said I would not report with all the bullets flying around. They sent officers to take me to Kampala Club. I asked them, "You think you have captured the whole of Kampala to sit and call officers here, a targeted place?"
Obote had artillery on Summit View, putting Kampala Club well within target. I told them I wouldn't sit there and we relocated to Kololo. I asked those who had been involved in the coup plot, especially Bazilio Okello, to tell us what was happening. Eventually Bosco Oryem, who was the chairman of Gulu, came with a statement from Bazilio.
I could tell from its tone that the statement- in English- had not been written by Bazilio. It was a statement to be aired on radio and it was different from what Walter Ochola had already announced. Oryem was saying it was to be read verbatim, that not even a coma was to be added. I told him that I had been around for a while, and that in all coups the first logical thing to be done is to suspend the constitution.
Otherwise, if there is a counter-coup, you face treason charges. Then I told them that since Parliament was still working, we needed to dissolve it and dismiss the whole cabinet. I told them to close the airport, and to stop all foreign exchange transactions in the central bank.
Oryem said those bits had been forgotten. They were incorporated in the statement I read on Radio Uganda. It remained Bazilio's statement, and I came to read it by default. Eventually, having settled down, they began making appointments. They appointed the chief of defence forces, the central brigade commander, the chief of logistics etc. But they hadn't appointed the chief of staff; there was a fight over who should take it. Tito was the head of state and Bazilio was the chief of defence forces.
They wanted another Acholi to be the chief of staff. Then they remembered they had been accusing Obote of tribalism, and that's how I came into the equation. Tito made me chief of staff. I was a colonel, in fact the highest-ranking officer from Ankole [available to the Okellos]. I was promoted to brigadier on appointment, and later to major general, after it was noticed that Bazilio, the lieutenant general who was my immediate boss, was two ranks higher than me. I stayed until 1986 when the NRA came in.
I didn't go into exile and Museveni knew me from Tanzania. He sent his chaps to look for me on the night they entered Kampala [January 25, 1986]. I met him at Republic House that very night. I told him, "My friend, I have gone through hell, a lot of bad times...Now that you have arrived, if you want me as prisoner of war--fine. I was chief of staff of the army you were fighting.
If you want to let me free, let me go now." He said: "You have worked for everybody, but you can't work for me or with me?" I said it was not the case, but he insisted: "No, we shall think about it. You sit down and relax." So I stayed in the army, without any real appointment. I remained in my house in Kololo and [President Museveni] would give me some money whenever he felt like. Later, in 1990, I became the general manager of Uganda Air Cargo, a company with one aircraft. I was in the village when Museveni's boys came looking for me, saying he had a job for me.
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