On January 25, 1971, Maj Gen Idi Amin Dada, hitherto the army commander, came to power in a bloodless coup.
As a new president, his technocrats, who included professors, who had served in the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) government under president Milton Obote, advised Amin to shed off everything regarded as “UPCism” or “Obotism”, including titles and institutions that were established under the UPC era and were unpopular with Ugandans. Among the first to be abolished was the General Service Unit (GSU), which had been abrasive to the citizens, more so those in the opposition. In its place, the State Research Bureau was formed.
What was State Research Bureau?
The State Research Bureau (SRB) was established in February 1971 as a military intelligence agency by a decree. It replaced the GSU, which Amin had earlier in his inaugural speeches accused of terrorizing Ugandans.
Initially, when it was started, with the help of Israelis, it was called the State Research Centre (SRC). This is partly because it was established as centre for collecting and sieving intelligence from informers. Later, the name was changed to SRB in 1972 after Amin had expelled Israelis and brought in the Russians to help him rebuild it.
While the agency changed name, its headquarters remained at the Nakasero Hill in Kampala next to State Lodge Annex.
Maj Amin Ibrahim Onzi from Arua, West Nile region, was the SRC founding director in 1971. Not much is known about Maj Onzi’s military and education background. But in June 1987, President Museveni appointed Maj Onzi deputy minister of Works in his “broad-based” government. Maj Onzi had been the vice president of the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF), one of the rebel movements that operated in West Nile region against Obote II government.
Amin was well aware that he had internal and foreign political and military enemies. In order to keep ahead of them, there was need for good intelligence on them. Amin the soldier knew the advantage of having effective intelligence machinery, especially if you have hostile neighbours like Tanzania and Sudan were at the time.
So the SRB was established as a military intelligence agency. Its core role was to gather military intelligence and also do counter-intelligence.
Bob Astles, a British national, who was Amin’s friend at the time, was the overseer of the Uganda counter-intelligence department, while the mainstream unit was headed by Lt Col Francis Itabuka, who hailed from Busoga, eastern region.
KGB remodels SRB
Israelis were expelled in early 1972 and immediately, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), came in and started training SRB operatives on the KGB model of spying. Many Ugandans went to the USSR (as Russia was known then) for intelligence and military training.
One of the officers trained in USSR was Lt Col Francis Itabuka, a very smart spy, according to those who knew him. Not many Ugandans knew him and it is said no photo journalists ever took his photos.
In recruiting undercover agents, some daring pretty Rwandese Tutsi girls were also recruited and planted at airports, frontiers, in banks, hotels, restaurants, government offices, as well as in hospitals.
But soon, those involved in subversive activities became aware of them and knew how to avoid them. Besides avoiding such places, through their fellow Rwandese relatives, they befriended them and turned them into double-agents.
While Tutsi girls and young men donning “Kaunda suits”, bellow-bottom pants and dark glasses became the brand face of SRB, the informers remained under cover. Bell-bottoms (or flares) were a style of trousers that become wider from the knees downward, forming a bell-like shape of the trouser leg).
Change of mandate
Soon, the SRB, which had been established as a military intelligence unit, transformed into an all-purpose security unit targeting civilians not just for intelligence, but for torture and extortion. This shift was perhaps based on a 1971 presidential decree that gave sweeping powers to anyone in uniform.
Having abolished the Constitution and Parliament, Amin ruled by decree and on February 2, 1971, he made a proclamation that in effect gave the soldiers and security agents absolute powers to abuse the rights of citizens of Uganda.
It reads: “No action or other legal proceedings whatsoever, whether civil or criminal, shall be instituted in any court for or on account of or in respect of any act, matter or thing done during the continuation of operations consequent upon or incidental to the said take-over of the powers of the government if done in good faith and done or purported to be done in the execution of his duty or the defence of Uganda or the public safety or for the enforcement of discipline or law and order or otherwise in public interest by a person holding office under or employed by a person holding office under or employed in the public service of Uganda or a member of the Armed Forces of Uganda or by any other person acting under authority of a person so holding office or so employed”.
On several occasions, in print or audio, Amin is recorded to have said to the soldiers that “if you get a Zionists, someone spying for foreign agents, you should not wait for Amin” to come and tell you what to do so long as what you are doing is the interest of the government of Uganda.
Because of that, many innocent people were summarily executed or tortured, while many others disappeared without trace. Because of such heinous crimes against civilian, the regime came under international pressure to stop it. Particularly, the Public Safety Unit (PSU) was on the spot as well as SRB. In 1974, the Justice Foyeh Commission of Inquiry was instituted to investigate into the violation of human rights by security agencies. Incredibly, not a single security officer was implicated.
Public Safety Unit (PSU)
Wavamunno arrested. From his book, “The Story of an African Entrepreneur”, on page 165, businessman Gordon Wavamunno narrates his ordeal with the brutal security agencies during Amin’s era.
“In 1976, I was arrested and held at the notorious Nakasero State Research Bureau detention Centre on the orders of Ali Toweli allegedly because I had refused to repair his wife’s Mercedes-Benz car.
Again, in 1977, I was arrested and held at Naguru by the Public Safety Unit and tortured and my car was permanently confiscated by the so called state security agents… as usual, there was no arrest warrants. I was not required to make any statements nor was I produced before a court of law”.
On April 27, 1976, Amin suspended Ali Toweli as director of training and operations of the Uganda police and made Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police, Moses Kassim Obura, the acting Commissioner of Police, as well as head of the PSU.
The PSU was another notorious security agency that operated alongside SRB. It was a Uganda Police intelligence unit established in 1973 to gather intelligence from the public.
The suspension of Toweli came as a result of personal and professional arguments between him and Commissioner of Police G. Odria, who confronted Toweli and accused him of murdering innocent people. In the course of argument, the two went “native and tribal”, with Odria accusing Toweli of being a Sudanese. There was a near shoot-out between the two senior police officers at Naguru PSU headquarters.
When the matter reached Amin, he put Toweli on forced leave, while Odria was retired in what records from the Defence Council termed as “in public interest pending investigations into divisions and misunderstandings in the PSU operations”.
In mid June 1976, Amin directed Toweli to resume work and later elevated him from director training and operations to head the PSU.
In October 1977, Amin transferred Lt Col Itabuka to command the Mountains of the Moon Battalion in Kasese in western Uganda following the mysterious escape of the six soldiers who had been arrested for plotting to overthrow him [Amin].
Lt Col Itabuka speaks out
Commission of inquiry. In 1987, Lt Col Itabuka appeared before the commission of inquiry into violation of human rights in Uganda from October 1962 to January 1986. The commission, chaired by Justice Arthur Oder, lasted from 1986 to 1988.
Lt Col Itabuka denied having knowledge of anyone killed by an SRB agent and challenged anyone to pin him on any death that occurred at the SRB headquarters when he was head. Not a single witness before the commission accused Itabuka of any crime.
Further in his defense, Lt Col Itabuka told the commission that while he was the director of SRB, his deputy, Maj Farouk Minawa, had more powers than him. This is also recorded in the book, “Inside Amin’s Army” written by six soldiers who escaped from the SRB dungeon at Nakasero on September 22, 1977.
They wrote: “…although Lieutenant Colonel Itabuka was the official head of the bureau, Minawa was the executive power and worked with president Amin on all his activities. He was the No 1 killer in Uganda…”
Nevertheless, Lt Col Itabuka gave the Justice Oder commission the following leadership structure of SRB by October 1977.
Director: Lt Col Francis Itabuka
Deputy director: Maj Farouk Minawa
Head operations: Capt Mzee Yosa
Administration adjutant: Lt Jackson Kyalikunda
Head technical: Lt Adam
In charge Transport: Lt Abdulattif