Today, JOSHUA KATO brings you the life and times of Brig. Pierino Okoya, a brilliant soldier who led the western brigade in 1970, and whose murder has remained an unresolved because the circumstances of his death seemed to fit many situations in a huge gig-saw puzzle
To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and profling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOSHUA KATO brings you the life and times of Brig. Pierino Okoya, a brilliant soldier who led the western brigade in 1970, and whose murder has remained an unresolved because the circumstances of his death seemed to fit many situations in a huge gig-saw puzzle
He is remembered as having been a jolly fellow who liked soldiering, which is why he rose through the ranks to become the deputy army commander of the Uganda Army at a young age. Some say he was even destined for bigger things — either as full commander of the army or even as president of Uganda. But early on the night of January 25, 1969, his life was cut short.
Born in 1928 at Palaro, sub-county, Gulu district, Okoya joined the King’s African Rifles (KAR) in 1950, joining a long line of Ugandan soldiers in the outfit. Those who had joined earlier included Idi Amin, Tito Okello and Shaban Opolot. By the time Okoya died in 1969, he was only 41 years old and obviously with a long soldiering life ahead of him.
He was commissioned lieutenant in 1962 after independence. Others appointed to the same rank by the Presidential Commission of the Kabaka were Omoya and Albertino Langoya. The only other lieutenants in the country at the time were Idi Amin Dada and Shaban Opolot who were commissioned by the Queen. Before that Okoya was the second in command of the B Company in the 4th regiment of the King’s Africa Rifle (KAR) at Jinja which was the nucleus of the post-independence army. Okoya’s fellow lieutenants suffered mixed fate in their soldiering life.
Opolot was later arrested by Milton Obote and imprisoned, but Amin went on to become the Army Commander and President of Uganda. Albertino Langoya, the other lieutenant was, however, one of the top officers to be murdered when Amin overthrew Obote, while Omoya died mysteriously at the rank of colonel in 1968.
Brigadier Pierino Yere Okoya was the deputy army commander to Idi Amin and the commander of the Second Infantry Brigade of the Uganda Army in Masaka, by the time he was killed.
Following independence, Okoya rose through the ranks, becoming a captain, major and colonel by 1965. He was made brigadier and army chief of staff in 1968 due to his leadership ability, dedication and discipline; which, according to those who knew him were of admiration to other officers and won him respect in the rank and fi le of the Ugandan army.
Death so soon
A giant, whisky-loving soldier, Okoya was additionally the brigade commander of what was at the time known as the Western Command, based in Masaka. He was killed, together with his wife Anna on January 25, 1970 at their Gulu home in northern Uganda, a few kilometers away from the army barracks in Gulu.
Anna Okoya had gone out to take a bath on the veranda when the killers struck. Brig Okoya came out on hearing the gunshot and was in turn killed in the doorway. It is not clear if it was a robbery gone wrong or an assassination. The media the next day carried the grisly photo of the brigadier and his wife.
Acholi leaders and Acholi officers and men of the Uganda Army failed to hold Obote’s government to account for the death of Brig. Okoya which came almost immediately after the mysterious death of another Acholi soldier, Col Omoya in 1969. Brig. Okoya’s murder complicated the relationship between Obote and Amin on one hand and Amin and the other Acholi officers on the other.
Okoya had earlier denounced Amin for cowardice because he fled to a military base instead of taking charge of the army following an attempted assassination of Obote in December 1969. This is why some fingers pointed at Amin as having master-minded the murder. On the other hand, Okoya’s death marked the beginning of the blood bath that the people of Acholi are still facing to this day, years after Okoya’s death.
According to Brig. Bernard Rwehururu, the murder of Okoya pointed to several sources. “Since Okoya was an Acholi, he was viewed as a threat to Obote,” Rwehururu wrote in his book Cross to The Gun. “The decision lay in having Okoya eliminated,” he adds.
Following this, Brig. Smuts Guwedeko, then a captain, and Maj. Geoffrey Kasule were arrested. Okoya’s death was never properly investigated, even after numerous calls for an independent inquiry. Rwehururu says having trained with and worked with the two accused, it would be surprising if they had a hand in the assassination.
“Those of us who knew the two officers received the news of their arrest with shock. …under normal circumstances, they could never harm a fly,” Rwehururu said. “We concluded the two officers were being used as pawns in a game of chess whose real players we could not really point at,” he wrote. The two officers were later released by Idi Amin when he took over power in 1971. Guwedeko even rose to the rank of colonel. On his part, Obote believed that Okoya was killed by Idi Amin.
“A few weeks later, Okoya was killed. Investigations in both the attempted assassination on me and the murder of Okoya were leading to Idi Amin by the time I left the country for Singapore in January 1971,” Obote wrote in one of his life stories in 1991. Obote said by early 1971, he had ‘finalised’ investigations in the murder of Okoya and he was sure Amin was the killer. On the other hand, Henry Kyemba, author of the much acclaimed State of Blood concluded that Okoya was murdered by Amin.
“A month later, at a meeting of senior army officers, Brig. Pierino Okoya, Amin’s number two, an Acholi, quarreled violently with Amin on the subject of army discipline as related to Amin’s behavior after the attempted assassination,” Kyemba remembers. But whether it was an assassination or a robbery gone wrong, Uganda lost a soldier whose prospects looked good.
Brig. Pierino Okoya: Young soldier dead too soon