Kenya Defence Forces’ combat helicopters
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Air Force pilots grilled in General Francis Ogolla death probe

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Gen Francis Ogolla who died in a chopper crash on April 18, 2024. Right: Kenya Defence Forces’ combat helicopters during Operation Linda Nchi.

Photo credit: File

Kenya Air Force pilots who previously flew the chopper that crashed and killed former Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) Francis Ogolla and nine others last month are among people who have been questioned by a team probing the air disaster.

Investigators have also interviewed the two Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) personnel who survived the crash as the investigation, which the military says will be “lengthy and thorough”, gets underway.

In a statement sent to the Nation following our queries on the status of investigations, KDF strategic communications office did not disclose what information was asked of the pilots who had earlier flown the aircraft.

The plane went down shortly after take-off at 2.20pm on April 18 in Sindar area of Elgeyo-Marakwet County.

“Additionally, the team interviewed witnesses at the crash site and first responders,” added the statement.
KDF also said that a number of items had been collected from the crash site.

Involved in the probe, KDF said, are experts “with diverse professional competencies to appreciate a wide range of factors which may have led to the air accident”.

General Francis Ogolla Memorial

General Francis Ogolla's memorial service at the Ulinzi Sports Complex on April 20, 2024.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“The team comprises aviation specialists, pilots, technicians, engineers, forensic experts, among others. The investigation is guided by KDF aviation protocols, established aviation industry standards, and best practices to determine the cause of the crash,” stated the KDF.

The KDF said Brigadier Mohamud Salah Farah, the base commander of the Laikipia Air Base, has been leading the probe since April 18 when the crash happened.

This suggests a quiet change of the leadership of the investigations team because President William Ruto, the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, had announced after the crash that it was Major-General John Omenda who was leading the investigations into the cause of the first death of a serving CDF. 

Ruto announces death of CDF Francis Ogolla in chopper crash

“I have full confidence that Major-General Omenda and the team he has appointed will make sure that details are laid bare,” President Ruto said then.

Maj-Gen Omenda has since been promoted to Lieutenant-General and appointed the Vice Chief of Defence Forces.

The KDF also noted that all the 10 people who died in the accident have been buried in accordance with their wishes, the wishes of their families, and the military protocols. 

A scene where a KDF helicopter carrying Chief of Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla and 11 others crashed

A scene where a KDF helicopter carrying Chief of Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla and 11 others crashed at Sindar, Kaben Location at the border of  Elgeyo Marakwet and West Pokot counties. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

“Further to this, (a) board of inquiries commenced immediately and are enabling families access commensurate gratuity and benefits,” said the statement.

KDF says it has also had engagements with Bell, the manufacturer of the aircraft, in the probe.

The Nation wrote to Bell, the US manufacturer of the ill-fated Bell Huey II, asking whether the firm had been contacted to join the fact-finding mission.

“Bell cannot comment on any ongoing investigations,” the company’s senior public relations specialist for global communications, Ms Alexis Baird, responded on Wednesday. 

It is an international standard practice for the manufacturer to be invited to join the investigation where their aircraft has been involved in a crash.

On April 19, a day after the crash, Bell had told Nation: “We extend our deepest condolences to those involved and their loved ones. Bell stands ready to assist with support as needed.” 

Gen. Francis Ogolla

Gen. Francis Ogolla and his team during their tour of the North Rift on April 18, 2024.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Amid the many tough questions, KDF notes that it is going to the very core of the accident, and will leave no stone unturned.

“The investigation is in progress. Notably, there are several factors to be considered thus the process will be lengthy and thorough to provide certainty as to the cause of the air crash. We shall update on the findings upon completion of the investigation,” said the KDF’s strategic communications office in response to our queries.

But as the probe goes on, a number of hard questions linger, and the KDF overlooked them when we sought answers last week.

For instance, why was there no standby chopper during the CDF’s trip that day?

There has been observation that the CDF, given his high-profile position as the head of the military, is accorded treatment almost similar to that of the president during travel.

This would include a standby chopper, if he is flying, and a doctor and a blood bank in case of any eventuality.

Francis Ogolla and William Ruto

President William Ruto with the late Chief of Defence Forces General Francis Ogolla at the National Defence College in Karen on May 25, 2023.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

However, this was not the case when General Ogolla flew to the volatile North Rift region where a military operation against bandits has been ongoing for months. 

Those in the know, and some military officials who spoke to Nation in confidence given the sensitivity of the matter, say that when flying on such missions, the CDF either has a Puma helicopter or a double-edge-propelled helicopter at his disposal. 

None of these were available to General Ogolla that day.

Instead, the CDF and his delegation flew on a single-engine propelled chopper, the Bell Huey II. 

There is a concern is that military boss was on an operational mission and in such a situation, a general officer — in this case a major-general in charge of the Western command where he was touring — was supposed to be accompanying him or on the ground to receive him then escort him to the various schools he visited for inspection. 

This was not the case.

Gen Francis Ogolla

Chief of Defence Forces, General Francis Omondi Ogolla.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Instead, the senior officer who was travelling with the CDF was a brigadier, who is a rank below a major-general.

Another concern is that Gen Ogolla was touring schools but the KDF colonel in charge of education was absent, and so were other relevant senior government officials since the security operation is a multi-agency campaign. 

With Operation Maliza Uhalifu being a multi-agency task, representatives from other security agencies involved ideally would have been expected to be present. 

On that day, both the Defence Cabinet secretary and his principal secretary were at Uhuru and Central parks in Nairobi, respectively, to hand over the facilities to Nairobi City County Government.

Sources also say the ill-fated chopper was assigned to fly the general since other preferable aircraft were being used by other senior government officials. 

KDF did not respond to the questions around Gen Ogolla’s travel logistics and the officials who were supposed to be with him on his tour.

Francis Omondi Ogolla

Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) Francis Ogolla.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

General Ogolla’s death raised even more eyebrows considering his controversial role after the 2022 General Election, when he was then a vice CDF. 

He was among members of the National Security Council who visited the national tallying centre at Bomas for a mission that is disputed.

That visit would subsequently put him in an awkward position with the incoming Kenya Kwanza administration that alleged the mission was to block Dr Ruto’s imminent victory. 

During the memorial service at Ulinzi Sports Complex in Lang’ata, President Ruto uttered a statement that some interpreted as suggesting the man who rose to the very top of the military was not wanted by some powerful figures in government.

“All the recommendations that I got on the next CDF, and on the advice I got about the next CDF, did not include the name of General Ogolla, unfortunately,” President Ruto said. 

Opposition leader Raila Odinga had said during the memorial service: “Because of the manner in which Ogolla died, a lot of rumours are flying all over, we want these rumours to be put to rest. All this can only happen if there’s a thorough investigation to tell us the cause of the death, how the helicopter came down.” 

Since then, calls have intensified, especially by opposition leaders, for a judicial or parliamentary inquiry to be established to publicly investigate the crash. 

The opposition, for instance, does not want the probe to be left to the Kenya Air Force alone. 

“When an accident occurs, it’s a security issue. [It raises] concerns which deserve an answer for the nation,” Azimio principal Martha Karua said. 

Whether the update will be forthcoming, and whether President Ruto’s word on not hiding anything regarding the crash will come to pass is a matter that can only be left for time to tell.