Mombasa — On the night of August 12, three Ugandan army Mi-24 helicopter gunships operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) umbrella crashed in mysterious circumstances over Mount Kenya. The combat helicopters were en-route to Kismayo to combat the Islamist militants al-Shabaab when the crashes occurred, killing seven crew members and leaving twenty-one injured.
The event has raised a number of questions. In the aftermath of the incident, Jeje Odongo, Uganda's Minister for Defence, was quick to assert that "preliminary information suggests that it was the weather to blame", while Colonel Felix Kulayigye, Uganda's military spokesperson, commented "an accident is an accident".
Some, however, believe that the reasons behind the crashes go a little deeper and that the tragedies were avoidable, pointing to Uganda's poor record with helicopters, corruption in the armed forces, and history of buying outdated military equipment at inflated costs. Uganda has begun a probe into the crashes - with Kenya committing to cooperate - but with the investigations being led by General Salim Saleh, who may have had a role in purchasing the vehicles originally, some are concerned a conflict of interests could compromise the findings.
Uganda's military has an unfortunate record of disastrous aircraft crashes. In 2005, the south Sudanese rebel leader John Garang was killed when the helicopter he was riding in - supplied by the Ugandan army - crashed into a mountain. And just last year, a Russian-made fighter jet was reportedly forced into a crash-landing at the Entebbe airport.
The three helicopters which crashed in August had been acquired by the Ugandan military in 2003, and some have pointed to the quality, age and maintenance of Uganda's aircraft in explaining the country's record.
Kulayigye believes Mi-24 helicopters can have a life span of twenty years if well-maintained, but engineering expert David Morara Okioma, speaking to Think Africa Press, explains: "There is no doubt that the age of the Russian-made Mi-24 helicopter gunships was a major contributory factor".
He continues: "They first appeared in the Russian arsenal more than 30 years ago. The Russians used these gunships in the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They were also used by Russia's allies in the Angolan civil war, in the South African invasion of Namibia, and in the Mozambique civil war among others - they are very old machines.
"No matter how well you maintain them, there comes a time when you cannot do anymore - aerodynamic stresses will have negatively affected the structural integrity of the aircraft."
Following the break up of the Soviet Union, the country began to dispose of much of its arsenal to allies. But the procurement of ex-Soviet equipment sheds light not just on the nature of the Cold War and Russia, but on Ugandan politics.
"If you factor corruption and nepotism into the procurement processes of states like Uganda, then one can never rule out the possibility that...someone could have happily signed off the purchase of what were effectively junk Mi-24 attack helicopter gunships," Okioma continues.
Since the late-1980s, Uganda has been dealing the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group which terrorised areas of northern Uganda up to the early-2000s. In this battle, Uganda enjoyed considerable foreign donor support, and as defence spending grew from $42 million in 1992 to $260 million in 2010, it is believed the Ugandan military began acquiring larger supplies of 'junk' vehicles and weaponry at inflated prices in deals involving bribes and kickbacks.
In a scandal that cost the government millions in 1996, for example, General Salim Saleh purchased four second-hand Mi-24 helicopters without inspection, which were later declared not airworthy. Indeed, large and non-transparent military expenditures have become common - possibly because such practices work as a form of patronage for military chiefs by President Yoweri Museveni.
In the crashes over Mount Kenya, however, logistical failures were also crucial. Okioma explains: "The Russian Mi-24 attack helicopter gunships are very sophisticated aircrafts. Compared to fixed wing aircrafts, the Mi-24 gunships have a lot more piloting controls and many moving parts. They therefore require precision training to fly them.
"We must also ask whether the Ugandan helicopter pilots were familiar with the geo-morphological features - such as valleys, mountains, and bodies of water - which their flight path took them through.
"The Mi-24 gunship is a heavily armoured aircraft. In fact some sections of its body are built with up to eight inches of strong titanium steel. Since the gunships were headed for combat, it is also very probable that they were carrying extra ordinance or ammunition - and of course the eight crew members.
"With all that weight, therefore, the aircrafts needed to have been flying at very low altitude to maximise their engine performance - which was not the case with these tragic Ugandan choppers. High altitude flight places very high fuel demands on an aircraft as heavy as the Mi-24 gunship - and that automatically limits its flying range."
Questions also remain about the formation in which the pilots were flying and the competency of those performing maintenance on the planes.
Okioma continues: "Under normal circumstances, Mi-24 gunships are supposed to leave base for short 'sorties' [attack missions] and return to base for routine maintenance, refuelling, and ordinance replenishment.
"Did the long trip from Uganda to Somalia via Kenya mean that the Mi-24 gunships were pushed to fly way beyond their strict flying range? Were the gunships bought with extended range fuel tanks already fitted? If not, then had Uganda developed the necessary technical expertise to install extended range fuel tanks and effectively maintain the Russian made Mi-24 gunships?
Secondly, before embarking on the fateful leg, the Uganda army Mi-24 gunships stopped over in Eldoret [in western Kenya] for refuelling. Two questions arise here: Did Kenya have the right kind of fuel for these Russian made Mi-24 attack helicopter gunships? And did Kenya have competent engineers and technicians to carry out routine maintenance after the long flight from Uganda to Kenya?"
An impartial investigation?
As of yet, the investigating committee set up to probe the incident has not released any findings, but many MPs are already sceptical. Many in Uganda have contested the make-up of the committee, headed by General Salim Saleh, a man who has no record of aircraft expertise but who does have a record of procuring junk helicopters.
Furthermore, Uganda does not have a good record on publicly releasing the results of military-headed investigative commissions; the probe into the 2005 crash killing Garang being one example.
Whatever the reasons and circumstances for the crashes, for enquiries to be fruitful, they must also be honest. Given the hand of politics not only in acquiring the helicopters but in probing their downfall, one can only wonder if this investigation too, will crash and burn.
Charles Okwir is a Ugandan journalist, writer and political analyst currently based in the UK. He is the author of Portrait of a Despot and is on attachment with Think Africa Press. Follow him on twitter at @COkwir.