Special Edition 2019 with excerpts from Sunday Monitor May, 2015.
On Wednesday, January 29, 1986, while at the veranda of the Parliament Building taking Oaths as new President of the republic, President Yoweri Museveni survived death.
The plot to assassinate Museveni had been sealed by the leaders of the military government under Tito Okello Lutwa, which the National Resistance Army (NRA) had four days earlier routed from power in Kampala.
The assassination plot was to be executed using a missile from a helicopter gunship killing the rebel leader and his top commanders altogether during the swearing in ceremony on the steps of the parliamentary building.
The mission order was assigned to Flight Captain Stephen Ojiambo and his co-pilot Lt. Andama, a gunner from Acholi and the flight technician.
Thousands of soldiers, top National Resistance Movement (NRM) officials, local and foreign dignitaries, would have been murdered in a bomb explosion fired from an enemy helicopter piloted by a captain of the former Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).
Lt. Gen. Olala Okello, who had been made the Chief of Defense Forces (CDF) in the General Tito Okello Lutwa government following the July 27, 1985, coup against President Milton Obote was angry over the January 25, 1986, defeat by NRA fighters in Kampala.
Once he reached Gulu, he reorganized the remnants of the UNLA, especially those who were from Acholi sub-region, and assembled them in Gulu District in northern Uganda ready to fight one last win or lose battle against the advancing NRA soldiers.
From the Gulu airbase, an infuriated Okello, with the assistance of former Air Force Base Commander, Lt Col Henry Obonyo, planned the mission to assassinate Museveni and his lieutenants who had ousted them from power.
The plan was that if Museveni was killed, the NRA would be demoralised and disintegrate and it would be easy to fight and defeat them. And so, the assassination of the NRA chief commander was the best way to demoralise and disorganise the former rebels.
The UNLA remnants forces had seven of 10 newly acquired helicopter gunships from Defense Systems Limited, a British company as well as the Clareville, a Swiss/Canadian firm which had been training and supporting the UNLA against the NRA rebels during the Luweero war.
This was revealed by an American flight engineer and a helicopter mechanic from New Zealand who were arrested at Entebbe military airfield by the NRA soldiers after the fall of Kampala.
Ojiambo sets off from Gulu
After the plot to assassinate Museveni was sealed, the mission order was assigned to Flight Captain Stephen Ojiambo who hailed from Busia in eastern Uganda, his co-pilot Lt Andama who hailed from Arua, a gunner from Acholi, and a flight technician. The names of the last two could not be easily established.
With 38 side-mounted rockets and heavy machine gun attached on the Bell Textron helicopter gunship, Captain Ojiambo and his crew set off from Gulu at the break of dawn ready to execute the mission once he reached within the target range above the Parliament Building unchallenged.
But after taking off from the airbase, Capt Ojiambo had a second thought about the assigned mission. He judged the magnitude of damage he was about to unleash on his countrymen and women all in attempt to kill one prime target Museveni, and suddenly changed his mind. The crew decided to disobey their commanders’ order and opted to save thousands of innocent lives. The crowd at Parliament on that day was estimated to be more than 10,000!
The recorded facts about the attempt on Museveni’s life
In his own words, Ojiambo told a British freelance journalist, Ed Hooper, working with the BBC, the Guardian and the Africa Now newspapers the difficult choices he faced. According to the Africa Now magazine of March 1986, Ojiambo was quoted as having said: “We would have blown the whole building [Parliament] apart…many people would have been killed.”
And Hooper writes: “He [Ojiambo] reflects when I met him two weeks later [after January 29, 1986]. Instead, he flies back north to Nakasongola air base and surrenders with his crew at a nearby police post.”
Later, the helicopter was flown from Nakasongola to Kololo airstrip and then to the Nile Mansions (now Serena Hotel) compound in Kampala. When Hooper interviewed Ojiambo, he was staying on the fourth floor of the hotel. Ojiambo was later integrated into the national air force. At the time of his death in early 2000s, he was at the rank of major.
Worth remembering is that shortly after the NRA had captured power, some security experts felt President Museveni was so disposed to a sniper bullet because his security ring often let him exposed, especially when interacting with the public and more so in Kampala.
In his assessment as a journalist, Hooper wrote in the same Africa Now publication about President Museveni’s personal security: “A bullet from a zealot’s gun could disrupt the new order all too easily. Already, NRM officials and even the foreign diplomats have apparently urged the new President to increase personal security precautions.”
He argued: “Given the man’s importance to the continent and the potential threat he represents there, Museveni would surely be well-advised to compromise some.”
A witnesses’ account as narrated to Monitor Journalist
Lieutenant Nelson Okuku (retired) having spied on the UPC government, and later incorporated in the NRA high command, narrated in an interview about the attempted assassination of President Museveni on January 29, 1986, at Parliament.
Okuku was also a former member of the NRA High Command until 1994 when he left Uganda for studies and never returned till 2006. He was in the famous Mobile Battalion commanded by Salim Saleh which oversaw the security at the Parliament premises.
He said by 09:00 hours, the Parliament and compound was already filled to capacity by thousands of jubilant Ugandans who came to witness the ceremony. “As a people’s army, as many referred to us, we checked everyone who entered the Parliament gate in a disciplined manner.”
“At around 10:00 hours, Democratic Party leader Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, who had been the minister for Internal Affairs during General Tito Okello regime, arrived. Then former president Godfrey Binaisa also arrived and then Abraham Waliggo – former prime minister during Tito Okello regime – also arrived and many other officials who had served in the Obote and Tito regimes. As these leaders entered the gate of Parliament, we the NRA soldiers saluted them as a sign of respect.”
“Thereafter, came the convoy of the commander of NRA Mobile Battalion Salim Saleh. But surprisingly, he [Saleh] did not go where other dignitaries were seated. Instead, he opted to stand aside near the public about 15 metres on the left side from the main gate of the Parliament [bordering the KCCA premises]. What I noticed was that although the people of Kampala had heard and read about the NRA commander known as Salim Saleh, they did not know him personally.” He recalls.
“At around 10:30 hours chairman, “Mzee” Museveni, as he was normally called, arrived at the Parliament in a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz car amidst ululation from thousands of jubilant Ugandans who had waited for this moment.”
“I was in military combat but managed to mingle with many local and international journalists who were covering the occasion. Many of them knew me since I had worked with them,” he said.
Okuku says Salim Saleh was alerted about the looming attack
It seems commander Saleh was the first person to be informed about the attempted assassination of President Yoweri Museveni during the swearing-in ceremony at the Parliament building.
Okuku says: “As the swearing-in programme was going on, I saw Salim Saleh’s military signaler rushing to him with a message book. Saleh read the message. Then I saw his reaction; it was of concern. He then left where he was standing and moved away a bit from the crowd to the gate [northern gate to the KCCA premises].”
“His reaction was a bit disturbing. I was curious and followed him where he stood. I saluted him, he saluted back, then jokingly, asked me in Kiswahili, Okuku namnagani? (Okuku, how are you?).”
I replied fine Afande.
Okuku further narrated: “Then later on, an NRA [soldier] photographer known as Yunus Songolo (RIP) came and told me ‘Nelson, do you know we were about to be bombed?’ I asked him how? I immediately looked at Salim Saleh. He stood quiet and looked straight where the ceremony was being conducted (on the steps of the Parliament).”
“I became inquisitive and demanded to know, who was going to bomb us amidst tight security with the entire Parliament Building cordoned off and above all we had screened wananchi one by one as they entered the gate.”
“I then asked Songolo how he knew of the plot. He told me that he had been told by the signaller that the helicopter was about to bomb us. That is when I realised that the message which commander Saleh had read and then gradually moved to take position where he could monitor everything that was happening.”
Later on when Okuku asked Songolo where the helicopter was, he was told him that it had landed at Nakasongola Airbase and the pilot had surrendered.
Asked if the NRA soldiers at Parliament had the capacity to shoot down the plane had it come close, he said absolutely not.
“We had no capacity to shoot it down. I am 100 per cent sure we would not have been able to shoot it down. We had no capacity,” Okuku said.