Costly mistake. In a continuation from last week, retired Captain Isaac Bakka, Brig Charles Arube’s accomplice in the March 1974 attempted coup against president Idi Amin, narrates how Arube blundered. He says Arube changed the initial plan and ended up in Amin’s ambush at his famous command post at Kololo Hill in Kampala where the president had been trapped, writes Faustin Mugabe.
Once the two architects of the coup, Brig Charles Arube and Lt Col Elly Aseni, were convinced of loyalty and the undented will from their soldiers to oust Amin and his foreign officers, the two daring commanders gave orders to several officers to carry out the coup.
It is believed it was around 9am of March 23, 1974, when the last soldiers were informed to act, and the mission was to be executed in less than three hours.
Wanted dead or alive
Of all the commanding officers in the coup plot, the most risky mission fell on Capt John Maturima. He was a Lugbara from Maracha County, in the West Nile sub-region. He was one of the best tank commanders in the Uganda Army and was based at the Malire Mechanised Specialised Regiment.
Maturima was ordered by Arube to take Amin, dead or alive, to his secret location in Kampala where he was coordinating with Lt Col Elly Aseni, the battle to topple the president. The forces that were to hunt Amin and his wanted military police commanding officer, Brig Hussein Malera, were all from the Lubiri-based garrison in Kampala.
The assignment to capture or kill Malera was given to Second Lieutenant Moses Mawa who was also from West Nile. With his men, Mawa was to capture Malera from Makindye Military Barracks. Luckily, Malera got wind of the orders and escaped to Kitubulu village near Entebbe Town.
Mawa’s and his team sealed off the Entebbe Road in case of reinforcement from Entebbe. Other places under his command were Nateete, Katwe and areas surrounding the Makindye Barracks.
Capt John Simba from Kabale, Kigezi sub-region, commanded the forces that blocked the Busega junction, while Capt Birimbo, who is believed to have either been from Bushenyi or Mbarara, was assigned to capture the Bank of Uganda, the Post Office and the immediate buildings and installations.
Lt Mazamir and Sgt Anguyo commanded the forces that captured Radio Uganda and Uganda Television. They later secured Wandegeya, Mulago and Nakasero areas.
The team was also in charge of sealing off the Jinja Road junction [around Airtel House] to block the Bugolobi flats-based marines, commanded by a Sudanese, Brig Taban Lupayigana, in case the marines were to come to Amin’s rescue at his Kololo command post.
Had Brig Arube not altered the original plan, the coup might have certainly succeeded.
Initially, Arube had ordered Capt Maturima to bomb Amin’s command post if his forces met stiff resistance from Amin’s special guards.
“We had agreed before I left that Arube will by no means appear in the picture, he should be in a hideout somewhere. He should be the one directing until the whole operation is confirmed successfully across the country, only then would we take him to Radio Uganda and make a broadcast declaring that the leadership had from today [March 23, 1974] changed hands,” Bakka recalls.
As the overall commander of the forces fighting Amin and the foreigners in the Uganda Army, Arube erred by stopping Capt Maturima from executing the mission.
According to Bakka, Maturima, who had a special platoon travelling in Anti-Personnel Carriers with some good weapons, had reached the Golf Course when Arube called him saying he had decided to execute that mission himself. Maturima was advancing from Malire Barracks and heading to Amin’s house at Kololo Hill.
Within minutes, Arube arrived where Maturima’s forces were, took charge and advanced to Amin’s house.
“I was informed that he [Brig Arube] altered this arrangement saying Amin was a Field Marshal and so to capture him, according to military traditions, he should be captured by a senior officer. Since there was no other Field Marshal or General – the only General was Mustafa Adrisi who was not near [Adrisi was in West Nile] – it was Arube, a Brigadier who is nearer to a General in rank, to bring Amin in dead or alive. But then he changed that. So changing that cost us the whole plan,” Captain Bakka expressively regrets.
During the battle at Amin’s place, Arube entered the house to search for Amin, leaving his soldiers behind.
And Bakka continues: “Amin was a brave soldier, let us recognise that. Despite being besieged, he was still struggling to arrest the situation. He did not attempt to flee. He wanted if he was to be captured, it must be after a bloody battle. He was prepared for that and Amin was a good marksman of both the pistol and the rifle. Therefore, capturing Amin wasn’t going to be a tea party.
Amin shoots Arube dead
After a few moments of exchange of fire between our men and Amin’s men – a full platoon of about 30 soldiers of Amin’s guards were totally wiped out. Arube had about 60 soldiers.
“Maturima had been told to go with at least 100 men because Amin might reduce that. Amin was well guarded; he had surrounded himself with the best men and best arms – because presidents are normally guarded by the best soldiers. So the men we sent were equally very good and that is why they managed to overpower Amin’s people.” Bakka says.
In the battle that lasted about 30 minutes, Arube’s forces had killed all the Presidential Guard Unit forces at the premises.
After about 10 minutes of total silence, perhaps out of anger than bravely, Arube made the second mistake, attempting to capture the Field Marshal by himself.
“Arube decided to enter the house because the door was open. He entered, moving slowly,” Bakka says. “This I was told by Toburo, a sergeant related to Elly [Aseni]. Toburo was a younger brother of Elly. He had been deployed with our men. He survived. He was among the men who invaded.”
“He told me that as Arube entered, Amin hid behind the main door. It did not cross his mind that it would be possible [for Amin to take cover behind the door]. Arube ignored the door and just passed.”
“He thought the target [Amin] was hiding inside other rooms in the house. His attention was on the other rooms. Unfortunately, he had left Amin behind. Amin fired three bullets which hit Arube from his back.”
“He fell face down – meaning the bullets came from behind. The hole where the bullet comes out is bigger than where it enters from. I happened to see Arube’s body at the Mulago hospital mortuary, it had three bullet holes.”
“Immediately Amin recognised Sgt Toburo, he put him at gun point, saying ‘I’m going to kill you. Where is your brother?”
“Then he said [to Toburo], ‘you say Arube killed himself. You must never say I killed him. [You must say] after he [Arube] realised he couldn’t succeed, out of fear of embarrassment, he turned the gun on himself. I want you to maintain that.’ Now, that is the story which many people believed.”
Sgt Toburo was taken to Radio Uganda and said what Amin had told him to say.
After Arube had been killed
It would seem that as soon as the fighting at Amin’s command post started, he sent for reinforcement from the marines based at Bugolobi flats. Because no sooner had he killed Arube, than the marines arrived.
“Our men could no longer fight because the marines came with more men and stronger weapons. These soldiers had to surrender. As they surrendered, the marines came to Radio Uganda and arrested our men who had taken over Radio Uganda,” Bakka recounts.
“There, they were able to go on air and make announcement saying ‘we have regained control and that some officers, Brig Charles Arube and a few others still at large, had attempted to overthrow the government but the loyal troops have overpowered them. However, they are dangerous and still at large. If seen, shoot on sight’.”
“The order to shoot to kill the coup plotters: Col Elly Aseni, 2nd Lt Mawa, Capt John Maturima and myself, was issued by the commander-in-chief, Idi Amin, and was read by the minister of information and broadcasting, Col Juma Oris.”
Why Arube’s men stayed outside Amin’s House
“Arube had ordered them to stay behind. And when they had the bullets from inside the house, they couldn’t tell where they were coming from. They could not tell whether it was Amin shooting or Arube. While waiting for Arube to come outside and tell them what to do, they had a voice calling for reinforcement,” retired Captain Isaac Bakka says.
“The voice said ‘I have killed one, come quickly to my rescue.’ The soldiers outside did not know that it was Amin calling Brig Lupayigana [commander of the marines] for reinforcement from Bugolobi.”
“In less than 10 minutes, Lupayigana had surrounded them and they simply surrendered. With Arube dead, the coup too was dead.”