Ugandans call it the 1979 Liberation War while Tanzanians call it the Kagera War. Its seeds were sown as early as 1972 soon after the coup that brought Amin to power.
The relation between Uganda and Tanzania started going bad because Tanzania played host to more than 20,000 Ugandan exiles, according to documents in the TPDF museum.
The first attempt by Uganda exiles to overthrow Amin was on September 17, 1972 when a convoy of 77 trucks full of armed Ugandan exiles crossed into Uganda from Tanzania with the sole purpose of capturing Masaka and Mbarara towns. The mission failed when Amin’s air force intercepted the mission.
In retaliation, Uganda jet fighters hit Bukoba and Mwanza towns in Tanzania. The two incidents were resolved by the October 1972 Mogadishu Agreement, where the two countries agreed to withdraw their forces 10km away from their respective borders.
However, according to the document “TPDF: An Operation History”, Amin’s ambition was to annex some northern parts of Tanzania for Uganda to have access to the sea through the port of Tanga. From the Ugandan perspective, this does not appear to have been the case.
On October 27, 1978 Ugandan forces carried out a surprise invasion of the Tanzanian territory, annexing the Kagera Salient (area north of Kagera River).
The area had been defended by the 202 Brigade commanded by Brig Gen Yusuf Himid. Within two days of the invasion, Ugandan troops occupied 1,850 sqkm of Tanzanian soil, after bombing Bukoba and Kyaka towns and blowing up the Kagera Bridge which connected the salient to the rest of Tanzania. Amin went ahead and announced that the Kagera Salient was now part of Ugandan territory.
Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere’s first reaction was to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict through the Organisation of the African Union (OAU) now African Union. When the OAU failed to act, President Nyerere on November 2, 1978 declared war on Uganda calling on the TPDF to defend the national sovereignty and integrity.
“The world must understand our reason for wanting to hit Amin hard. Sababu za kumpiga Amin tunazo, nia tunayo, na uwezo tunao” meaning “We have the reasons to hit Amin, we have the ability to hit him and we have the determination to hit him),” said Nyerere at the Diamond Jubilee Hall in Dar es Salaam as he formally declared war on Uganda.
Preparation for the war
Maj Gen Abdallah Twalipo was TPDF’s Chief of Defence Forces but the responsibility to respond to Amin’s invasion fell on Brig Gen Tumainieli Kiwelu who had to reorganise the army from different parts of the country. By then, TPDF had only one army division with four infantry brigades in different parts of the country.
Brigade 101st, nicknamed Nyuki (Bee) was based in Zanzibar, 302nd in Dar s Salaam, 202nd Faru in Tabora and 401 Tembo in Songea. The youth who had participated in National Service training were transformed into a reserve force; trained militias were prepared for battle, police and prisons personnel were mobilised, while the ordinary civilians offered food and livestock, private companies surrendered their vehicles to transport troops and hardware.
At the same time the Uganda exiles living in Tanzania also united to form the Uganda National Liberation Army, which included groups like FRONASA of Yoweri Museveni, Save Uganda Movement of Akena p’Ojok, Ateker Ejalu and William Omaria and Kikosi Maalum (Special Unit) led by Lt Col David Oyite Ojok and Col Tito Okello. They established a joint training camp of close to 1,200 recruits at Tarime near Musoma on the shores of Lake Victoria.
From Brig Gen Kiwule’s reorganisation, a 20th division was created with different brigades like Brigade 206th under Brig Gen Silas Mayunga – later taken over by Brig Gen Roland Makunda, 207th under Brig Gen Butler Walden and 208th under Brig Gen Mwita Marwa.
As the war progressed more brigades were formed, including 201st under Brig Gen Imran Kombe, 205th under Brig Gen Herman Lupogo – later taken over by Brig Gen Muhidin Kimario, Brigade Minziro under Brig Gen Takadiri Kitete and Brigade Kagera under Brig Gen Ramadhan Haji.
The overall commander of the operation was Brig Gen David Msuguri who was promoted to the rank of Maj Gen as Brig Gen Kiwelu went back to the headquarters as Chief of Staff. Within weeks, the TPDF had mobilised its numbers from 40,000 to 100,000.
With his new responsibility to liberate Kagera Salient, Maj Gen Msuguri saw this as a personal battle with Amin, with whom he had served in the King’s African Rifle (KAR) during the colonial times. Msuguri’s thoughts soon after the appointment as documented in TPDF: An Operation History was: “I knew I was going to win the war. I knew him, he was a recruit at Kahawa Camp in Nakuru Kenya in 1949, and I was a corporal. Amin was a sportsman and a naughty soldier. Above all he put his personal agenda before that of the military”.
The first TPDF operation was codenamed “Operation Chakaza”.
There were no serious clashes when Operation Chakaza started and on December 4, 1978 the Tanzanian side of Mutukula had been recaptured by the Tanzanian forces and by early January 1979, all Uganda forces had been expelled from Tanzanian soil.
The advance to the Ugandan border was planned along two axis; the main axis was along Kyaka- Mutukula road and the western axis was from Kyaka to Kakunyu The main axis was to take Masaka and proceed to Kampala and eastern Uganda while the second was to take Mbarara and seal off the Rwanda, Zaire (now DR Congo border) and move on to the Uganda-Sudan border.
With the fall of Mutukula, Amin’s forces regrouped at Sanje, 30km from Mutukula and gave the Tanzanian forces a hard time for two weeks. The rainy season made it hard for the TPDF making the movement of their equipment like the heavy trucks and amoured personnel carriers (APC)s almost impossible.
Fall of Masaka
Brigades 201, 205 and 208 were tasked with capturing Masaka and moved close to 100km fighting small battles along the way. At Kasasa, they met their first real test when Amin’s soldiers backed by the air force put up a real fight. TPDF deployed rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns and SAM-7 missiles, shooting down two jet fighters, destroying two battle tanks and killing 24 Amin soldiers while TPDF lost two soldiers and 20 were wounded.
The next town was Kyotera where Maj Gen Msuguri assigned two brigades having got information that Amin’s forces had deployed heavily in the town.
Brigade 201 blocked the road from Rakai to Lyantonde, while brigade 207 aka Amphibious, moved towards Bikira. When they entered Kyotera, Amin’s troops had already moved to Kalisizo. Plans for the assault on Kaliszo were drawn only to find the place deserted. TPDF took Kalisizo on February 20, 1979 without firing a shot. Amin’s troops had relocated to Kabuwoko hills.
When they took Kalisizo, TPDF knew Masaka was next but expected stiff resistance knowing that it would be heavily defended. TPDF knew the notorious Revolutionary Suicide Specialist Mechanised Regiment (RSSMR) units which invaded Tanzania to be based in Masaka.
Before the final assault on Masaka there were small fights around Kabuwoko and Kakondo hills, brigade 208 on its way to take Kiziba fell into an ambush of Ugandan troops withdrawing from Kalisizo.
Using BM-21 multiple rocket launcher, TPDF dislodged Amin’s men from their bases enabling brigade 208 to take Kiziba town. After Kiziba’s fall, they planned a final assault on Masaka Town.
The 40-barrel BM-21 multi-rocket launcher was nicknamed Saba-Saba by Ugandans. According to some of the Tanzanian field commanders, the word Saba-Saba was a Ugandan creation. Retired Maj Gen Ben Msuya says he first heard of the word when he entered Uganda.
“I was told that Ugandans were told that Tanzanians are firing from Saba-Saba in Dar es Salaam,” Maj Gen Msuya told this writer in Dar es Salaam in early April.
Saba-Saba is a trade show ground in Dar es Salaam and has no connection with the military.
Retired Col Isaac Mtemihonda, a former battalion commander, also said he first heard the BM-21 multi-rocket launcher being referred to as Saba-Saba while in Uganda.
He says “within the TPDF, the BM-21 was known as Baba Mtakatifu (Holy Father)”.