As has already been stated, the impression most Ugandans have of the brief rule by the Military Council government in the latter half of 1985 is of a total breakdown of Uganda into rival armed gangs, looting by drunken UNLA soldiers and of the main guerrilla group, the NRA, as a disciplined force on which Uganda’s hope’s now lay.
What, though, is the truth about these tumultuous months following the July 27 coup?
A few days before the coup, the Commanding Officer of the army barracks in Fort Portal, Maj Pacific Okwera, who was part of the Acholi-led rebellion, handed the barracks over to the NRA. Okwera together with NRA’s commander Salim Saleh addressed a large rally at Fort Portal Boma grounds.
After the rally, Okwera, some aides and NRA officers went to the Bank of Uganda Fort Portal currency centre, emptied its vault and Okwera drove towards Kitgum.
An attack on the UNLA’s detach at Rubona on the Fort Portal-Kasese road was coordinated by some rebel Acholi officers. As a Lieutenant in the UNLA in Moroto in 1981, Saleh (a brother to NRA leader Yoweri Museveni) had been arrested for poaching animals at the Kidepo National Park but was released after the intervention of the Army Chief of Staff, Major-General David Oyite-Ojok.
In August 1985, the NRA rebels went to the sub-currency centre of Bank of Uganda in Kabale town.
Working with the help of an insider at the bank called Joy Kasirimbi, the NRA made off with the money (or as their critics put it, looted the money). It was Shs400 million.
A rebel commander called Jim Muhwezi got hold of a blue and white van belonging to the district farm institute of Kabale and the rebels drove off to the mining town of Kilembe at the foot of the Rwenzori mountains. The van arrived at the Kilembe branch of Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) at about 4pm, headed by a Muhwezi and an NRA collaborator, a Dr Begumisa, the commissioner of Finance in the “liberated” areas.
Muhwezi and Begumisa summoned the UCB Kilembe branch manager, John Katungi, and gave him instructions to keep their money for use as and when they might need it. They ordered Katungi to open the bank’s safe for inspection and deposited their money separately from the rest of the bank’s cash reserves. They opened a book of accounts for the money and thereafter started transacting business with it, buying fuel, food, vehicles, and so on.
The NRA had also helped themselves to coffee from the Nyakatonzi Growers Cooperative Society in Kasese and gave them to John Sanyu Katuramu to buy cars from Rwanda and Zaire on their behalf. According to residents of western Uganda at the time, the NRA was rather disciplined in their day-to-day dealings with civilians. They paid cash for everything they engaged in. Even if one gave them a lift in one’s private car, they paid for the trip.
That same month, August 1985, the NRA hijacked a Uganda Airlines F-27 Fokker Friendship propeller plane on a domestic flight, with 44 people on board and diverted it to Kasese. Lt. Fred Mugisha, an intelligence officer at the UNLA battalion at Entebbe, was the man who made the move on the plane. Among the other hijackers and collaborators in this hijacking were NRA guerrillas Captain Innocent Bisangwa, Dan Byakutaga and Uganda Airlines officers Abraham Kiroso and Winnie Byanyima coordinating the operation. The plane was piloted by Capt. Justus Tinka.
Coordinating the hijacking of the plane from Fort Portal was an NRA intelligence officer, Lt. Paul Kagame.
The NRA demanded the release of one of their political commissars Landislausi Serwanga Lwanga, who had been arrested by the UNLA, as a condition for returning the plane. About September 1985, the UNLA sent a convoy of trailer lorries to reinforce Kasese. There was an NRA roadblock at Katunguru along the Kasese-Mbarara road, near Lake George and Lake Edward.
The troops were surrounded. A senior NRA official ordered the trailers to be locked up with soldiers in.
Several days later, a major stench came out of the trailers and when it was opened, the decomposing bodies of the soldiers lay on the floors. They had suffocated to death.
The NRA propaganda machinery at this time went into overdrive, portraying the UNLA as an army of mass killers.
Capt. George Nkwanga of FEDEMU was tricked into believing that Bazillio Okello wanted to meet him at the Nile Mansions hotel in Kampala. As he headed for the meeting, he was waylaid near the Silver Springs Hotel at Bugolobi and killed.
Several sources say the ambush was by the NRA whom Nkwanga, now a member of the Military Council, had grown critical of in recent months.
In response to this assault on its image by the NRA, the Okello regime announced a press censorship. Journalists were required to present their political news stories to a government verification committee before they could be published.
The peace talks
During the peace negotiations in Nairobi, Obote, now in exile in Lusaka, Zambia, made frantic phone calls to the army officers who had recently deposed him. Obote urged one of the UNLA’s senior officers, Brig Lazarus Orwotho and others to overlook their disagreement with his ousted UPC government and instead focus their efforts to making sure Museveni’s NRA did not gain the upper hand and take power in Uganda
Obote warned Orwotho, in December 1985, that Uganda faced a grave threat. He said a genocide would occur in northern and eastern Uganda should Museveni ever seize power. Whether or not Brig. Orwotho heeded Obote’s urging is not clear.