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Muntu’s walk from Makerere to the bush war and back

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By CHARLES MWANGUHYA MPAGI

Posted  Sunday, March 28   2010 at  00:00
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Retired Maj. Gen. Gregory Mugisha Muntu was army commander of National Resistance Army which later became the Uganda People’s Defence Forces for eight years. In the first ever interview he has given on the subject, Maj. Gen. Muntu, who is a senior member of Opposition Forum for Democratic Change shared his revealing experiences of his time at the helm of the army with Sunday Monitor’s CHARLES MWANGUHYA MPAGI:-

“During the 1979 liberation war we were still at university and we closely followed the war and the debate which was going on about a fresh beginning after the country had gone to the lowest point. As students, we followed these (post Amin) debates closely.

RESPECTFUL: Gen. Muntu while still army commander.
During the UNLF days we participated in establishing the 10-cell house (Mayumba Kumi) system, I was working in the Bugisu region. We had been divided into different teams and we went into different camps. I was with Fred Kwesiga and Ivan Asiimwe with some three others, each team had six or eight people—all students. We had hoped that the politicians would have learnt from their mistakes of the 60’s and 70’s. We used to come and sit in the [parliamentary] gallery and watch the debates, interact with National Consultative Council members in the immediate post-Amin administration.

Debating democracy
The debate was on whether the country should go back to [multi]-party democracy, whether Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) as an umbrella organisation should create stability in the country first, create stable conditions for a return to multi party politics first. I got a sense that people had not learnt from the mistakes of the past, I also got a sense that people were being motivated by individual considerations.

A majority of the people seemed less focused on how the country would benefit but rather on how to position themselves regardless of the consequences. These debates often spilled over into the elections of 1980. Of course the country went into multi-party system of governance—in my estimation it was not yet ready for that. I never joined any party in the 1980 elections but I voted for Bidandi Ssali a Uganda People’s Movement (UPM) candidate. I had got a feeling that the political process was not going to resolve the political issues of the time, I had a feeling that we needed to clean the decks and start afresh.

There was a sense of uncertainty. To me, it looked like we were heading for violence. The state was so weak and most of the actors had no sense of what was good for the country. If you were part of the establishment and you are secure, you are vulnerable and you could prosper that is what mattered.

Vulnerable UPC
I was close to some people in Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) circles, but I also got a sense that the senior people in UPC were as vulnerable. They did not seem to have the capacity to think about what was likely to happen. So we went into the elections of 1980 which up to now I think were grossly mishandled. Something within me, something that has always driven me is to see a sense of justice, a sense of fairness (and I did not seem to see that in the arrangement either before or after the elections of 1980).

In all this period, I never knew Museveni as a person, I had heard about him and read about him and he seemed to espouse the ideas I believed in and that is why I had supported Bidandi Ssali who was standing on the UPM (Museveni’s party) ticket. There is only one meeting which I attended where Museveni was present before I met him in the bush. I don’t think he created any particular impression on me during that meeting, I also don’t recall much of what was discussed.

So, until I went to the bush I never knew him as a person. I knew him from what was being written about him and what he said he stood for. He was talking a language of justice, freedom and in my mind that is what differentiated him from the other politicians. So what brought us together was not that I knew him, in fact I knew more people in UPC (Maj. Gen. Muntu was born into a family with strong UPC roots - ED) that I was close to.

Bush trek
Between the elections of December 1980 and February 6, 1981 when the [bush] war started, the language of war was rife in the air. I did not need any convincing, my mind was already set. I never attended any meeting or that anybody convinced me. There was already a sense of uncertainty; there was a sense of no control of the security services. Personally, I was well connected in terms of the fact that I knew people in the security and political apparatus but there was a sense of insecurity for other people. But it has never made sense to me that I should be safe because of who I know.

On March 21, 1981, I joined the bush [war]. I had made initial attempts to go earlier but they failed. We were in a transit home on Nkurumah Road one day where we were waiting for a contact to take us to the bush but while we were there, one of the operatives who was a soldier (in UNLA) got drunk and talked.

Spilling beans
I think he was trying to recruit a soldier so they took him to Makindye and while he was there, he was tortured and he talked about our rendezvous, a force was sent and they bust the place. I was with Henry Tumukunde (now Brigadier) and also with [Goeffrey] Muhesi (now Maj. Gen.) and other colleagues. I think we were about seven people. Fortunately, for me and Henry we escaped and hid in a shop below, Muhesi had gone out at the time, I could see him standing behind Uganda House just at the pavement. The other colleagues, Stephen Busingye and Nyakaitana and Nyebesa were arrested and taken to Mbuya where they later died.

After this incident, the whole network of those who used to take people to the bush went underground. We tried for two days but we could not make contact so we went back to Makerere. I did my exams and finished on March 14. After that I again started looking for contacts and failed. We had been told that we could make contacts through Nairobi and I had a brother living there.

We were also afraid that the other colleagues who had been arrested would reveal our names. I bought a bus ticket ready to go to Nairobi but that morning a young man came to my door in Livingstone Hall and told me that “Dumper” had come.

Dumper was an operative, a hall mate who knew that they we were looking for that man told me so we linked up with him and immediately moved with him from Makerere and linked up with other guys—about eight of them including Kagumire, Ssimba, Kahangura, Ggwende, the late Jet Mwebaze and Kamanzi with whom we linked up at Mulago. We walked through village paths to Matugga, we hid somewhere until it was dark and resumed our journey. We walked through the night to a camp where we met Museveni at a camp fire.

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