By Gawaya Tegulle
“Simba?” “Where is Simba?”
The authoritative voice of Maj. Gen. David Oyite Ojok rang out, raising concern in his Kololo home. It was the morning of December 2, 1983.
Uganda’s most respected – and feared – General was about to leave Kampala for a trip upcountry – The Luweero Triangle – and he wanted to say goodbye to his children before departure.
He turned to Jenny, his wife’s best friend-turned-sister (for she’d been born with no other) and said, “Please get Simba for me”. The other kids were within sight, but the eldest was nowhere to be seen.
Michael Simba, born on July 2, 1967, was the General’s eldest son, at least from his wife Rebecca.
Jenny scurried along, eager to oblige the master of the house.
She did find Simba – in some other part of the house, but he was locked in a passionate embrace with his girlfriend whom we shall just call Maureen for now.
Maureen who was the daughter of a judicial officer was a true work of art and had made short work of stealing the heart of Simba, whose name in Swahili means “lion”.
“Your father is calling you,” Jenny told Simba, emphasizing the urgency.
Simba, who was enjoying quality time with his girlfriend waved Jenny away – he was not going to leave his girlfriend for any reason.
The old man (of just 43), he said, could simply scoot along, as he, Simba, was indisposed.
And with that he went back to kissing and caressing his girlfriend in their own little world where, at that time, only two people existed.
Jenny was prudent enough to promptly forget what eye had seen and ear had heard.
She walked back to Oyite Ojok (he was always referred to by both names across the country, often making it sound like one name) and explained, as nicely and tastefully as she could, that Simba was nowhere to be seen.
Oyite Ojok was sad that he had not been able to bid Simba goodbye, but there was no time – he settled for a farewell to the kids who were present.
Outside the house, Jenny and several other people lined up to shake the General’s hands, wishing him farewell and safe journey.
It turned out to be a final farewell; for later that night Oyite Ojok’s chopper crashed and he was killed, along with several others, something that has remained a mystery these 35 years.
The death of Oyite Ojok was a key turning point in the Yoweri Museveni’s bush war that began in 1981 and ushered him to power in 1986.
Oyite Ojok was the Army Chief of Staff, had been instrumental – more than any other Ugandan soldier – in removing Idi Amin from power with the help of the Tanzanian Peoples Defence Forces and was also the most powerful person on the Military Commission that controlled the country between April 1979 and December 1980.
In fact when the second President after Idi Amin – Godfrey Binaisa – tried to assert his authority by dismissing Oyite Ojok from the apex of the Army and deploying him as “Ambassador to Algeria”, the Military Commission reacted by dismissing the President.
Oyite Ojok was loyal to Milton Obote. It was he that ensured Obote returned from exile on May 27, 1980.
It was he that pulled strings to ensure that Obote won the 1980 elections and that he stepped into State House.
And it was Oyite Ojok, as a brilliant military strategist, that propped the Obote regime, in the face of assault from several rebel outfits, including and especially Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA).
If Oyite Ojok had not died, it is highly unlikely Museveni and his NRA would ever have captured power – or it would have taken them much longer; for Oyite Ojok had contained the NRA and other rebel forces just fine. His death weakened the Obote regime – the rest is history.
Back then, with only one radio station, one television station and one limping national newspaper, news was hard to come by, so I learnt of the chopper incident on the morning of December 4, 1983.
“His chopper fell from the sky,” some woman said to a neighbour as she walked along the path, before disappearing into the nearby bush to look for firewood.
The man shook his head – he, quite clearly, didn’t believe a word of it.
I was just 12 by then, having just finished my Primary Seven at Victoria Nile School, Jinja.
But now I was in the village – Kamonkoli, Budaka District, enjoying my vacation. Even as a little fellow I was curious and bold, sometimes to the point on sheer impudence.
I walked up to the man and demanded to know who had died.
“Oyite Ojok, I hear,” he said, still immersed in doubt. Few people thought Oyite Ojok could die.
It is a very small world. I grew up in Jinja and played football with one of Oyite Ojok’s sons – a tall, nice-looking and talkative chap named Ojok. I think the first name was Isaac.
And we knew his mother, a plump lady who was often driven in military landrovers. But even as children we knew that Oyite Ojok’s official wife was in Kampala.
The next month (on the 30th of January 1984) I joined Namilyango College and soon came face to face with Simba, whose House Hanlon was no more than 20 metres from my own House Billington. He was in Senior Four.
He was a good footballer (you had to be very good to play for House Hanlon) and from the terraces one could see that his socks were black-yellow-red, the colours of the Uganda Flag.
And he was a nice chap, but quite stubborn…with bullying tendencies. Bullying was completely illegal and earned culprits instant expulsion. And people did get expelled.
But wait, this is Oyite Ojok’s son we’re talking about. Forget about this Museveni regime where you can expel a General’s child and go home and take tea.
From the way he carried himself, you could tell from a mile away that Simba was a big man’s child. Such was Oyite Ojok’s status that even after his death, we still had it in us to fear Simba.
And for us the small kids, it made good sense; for Simba had no qualms bullying even those in Advanced Level.
One of those he famously bullied was a little fellow who had just joined the College in S5. I’m still not certain what evil wind blew the poor chap to House Hanlon – right into the Lion’s Lair.
Simba pulled him over and demanded to know his subject combination.
“PCB (Physics, Chemistry, Biology)” said the little fellow.
“I don’t like it,” sneered Simba. “Sounds too much like Posho plus Beans Constant. It seems you eat too much.”
Life has its twists and turns though. For when we returned from second term holidays, we found a notice from the headmaster, announcing that Simba had passed on – barely a year after his father.
Mystery still surrounds his death – some said he’d shot himself. Others said he’d been killed “over a girl”. Other sources said “The Girl”. Whatever the reason, Simba the Lion was gone.
So where are the other actors in this story? Maureen, we’ll tell her tale another day. Mama Simba passed away in 2007, from a stroke.
The little PCB fellow that Simba bullied is now one of Africa’s most famous medical doctors – he was in the papers this year (2018) over some new scientific discovery.
And I’d have kept quiet about all this had I not stumbled upon Jenny – who is aging gracefully and is a Kampala businesswoman.
Jenny’s only regret is that amidst his busy schedules, Oyite Ojok always found time for his children; but Simba was too busy to leave his girlfriend and come and bid his father what would have been the final and eternal goodbye.
But then again, how was Simba supposed to know that that was to be the last goodbye?