On June 17, 1977, an attempt was made on president Idi Amin’s life, the second in a period of 12 months. The would-be-assassins waylaid him near Abaita-babiri trading centre on Entebbe Road.
But Amin had been informed about the planned attack a day earlier. This gave him time to plan for a military encounter with the attackers, and because of the army’s weaponry superiority, the assassination attempt was foiled.
Many of the attackers were killed and seven of them taken captive and detained at the State Research Bureau (SRB) in Nakasero.
The commander of the would-be assassins was Maj Patrick Kimumwe who was second-in-command at the Malire Mechanized Specialized Reconnaissance Regiment. Kimumwe, then 31 years old, joined the army in 1965. He had been promoted and posted to Malire by Amin’s influence. Kimumwe was born in Kamuli District.
Others in the group included Flight Lieutenant Sylvester Mutumba, 26, from Busowa village, Iganga District. Mutumba was also second-in-command of the Squadron of Fighter Jet trainers. He had more than five and half years of flying experience with the Uganda Air Force.
Then there was Flight Lieutenant Boswal Nambale, 24, who was based at the Gulu air base in northern Uganda. Nambale was from north Bugisu. Others included helicopter pilot officer cadet Nicodemus Kassujja, 27, from Bulemezi in Buganda; Warrant Officer Eddie Sendaula, 34, an airframe technician based at the Entebbe air base and from Masaka District; Warrant Officer Christopher Ssekalo, 31, also from Masaka District and an airframe technician based at Entebbe air base; and Warrant Officer John Okech, 35, was from Tororo District.
Following their arrest, the seven were dumped at the SRB dungeon Cell 2.
Once put in Cell 2 of the dungeon, only death was guaranteed. Pardon of the inmates was rare and escape was unthinkable.
“No one had ever escaped from Nakasero [State Research Bureau], but we had nothing to lose,” wrote Kimumwe and Mutumba in their book Inside Amin’s Army which was released in 1978.
On the afternoon of September 9, 1977, twelve Ugandans were removed from Cell 2 and executed by firing squad at the clock tower; three days after they had been convicted by the Military Tribunal on charges of treason. It was after the removal of the 12 that the seven assassins started seeing their death. This forced them to work out a plan to escape death.
The plan was initiated by Sendaula. He had carefully observed the ventilator above them and suggested that if they could remove the grille, they would escape through the ventilator which was slightly a few inches above the level ground from outside.
That night, the Ssekalo, the tallest, climbed on two wooden crates and reached the ventilator. But he noticed that the grille was too hard to bend physically. It was then agreed that the iron bars needed to be bent.
For the next two weeks, the inmates worked on bending the iron bars with Okech and Sendaula doing the donkey work. After the job was done, they decided that September 20, 1977, would be the day they broke out.
Ssekalo, who was the shrewdest of all and second fattest, was the first to be pushed up, but he got stuck at the chest.
They realised that since Ssekalo could not go through, then Okech who was much heavier him was also doomed. They agreed to postpone the escape by 48 hours in order to try and bend the bar further.
The next day, they spent all their time and energy trying to bend the second bar, and they succeeded. But Okech still could not go through the narrow space. The following day, they again made an attempt at bending the iron bar, but in vain. It was then obvious that Okech would not escape.
At 2am on Friday, September 23, 1977, the inmates started their escape. “We sat in a semicircle and prayed to God to bless our escape,” the book says.
They all tried to lift and push Okech through the ventilator, but his size couldn’t let him. But time was running out. After a brief meeting, it was agreed that Okech would be left behind.
“What made it so tragic was the fact that it was Okech who had played a large part with efforts on the bars that had brought us where we were. Deeply disappointed and bitterly hurt, at first he was reluctant to let us try our luck without him, especially as he had no hope of concealing his involvement with us from the authority,” Kimumwe and Mutumbe wrote.
“But Okech had the seeds of greatness in him and at last we agreed between all of us that he would not only let us go, but, would wait two hours after our departure before he raised the alarm.”
Okech accepted his fate. He then willingly participated in lifting and pushing escapees through the ventilator which was about seven feet high. Ssekalo was the first to be lifted, followed by Kimumwe, the one-legged Kassujja, Ssendaula was the fourth followed by Kato. Mutumba lifted Nambale and finally Okech lifted Mutumba.
Mutumba then bade farewell to Okech.
Okech responded: “Good bye. You go. I will die for you.” Nothing was ever heard of him again.
From Kampala, one by one they escaped to Kenya from where Kimumwe joined a rebellion against Amin’s regime.
He died in 1978 in a tragic boat accident on Lake Victoria as guerrillas coming from Tanzania to attack Entebbe Airport drowned.
Upon the escape of the inmates, an infuriated Amin removed Francis Itabuka from the post of director SRB and appointed him the commander of the Mountains of the Moon Brigade based in western Uganda. Itabuka, from Busoga sub-region, was an Israeli-trained spy. It is said that he lives a quiet life in Busoga. Sunday Monitor was also informed that Nambale later joined the NRA, but we were unable to get his contacts.