RA 084 Mugisha Muntu went straight from the University to the bush. Even before he joined the anti-Obote struggle, he was engaging the government army in hide and seek games. He would rise from a bush-war senior officer to Major General and army commander. Now an East African legislator, Muntu tells Richard M. Kavuma the struggle was every inch worth it; even if some current trends worry him.
I was a student of Political Science at Makerere University and I had just finished my exams when I went to the bush in March 1981. After analysing the situation, I was convinced that there was no other way the situation could be changed other than the military option. You could see that the group in power had closed all political options and they were not acting in good faith.
And when there is a state of repression, people react differently; there are those who sit back hoping that things will get better; others decide to collaborate; and others decide to resist. I happen to be among those who never want to see any injustice in society.
Not that there was anything against me as an individual; and not that I was running away from anybody. But in a state of injustice, even if you are not affected yourself, there are times when you say that wrong is wrong and it must be resisted.
Actually my father was in the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) in Ankole and he was close to the UPC establishment. He ran away to Tanzania in 1971. He fought in the 1972 Mbarara attack and he escaped when they were dispersed. Unfortunately, he died before they came back in 1977.
So, in terms of danger to me as a person, there was none. In fact when I joined the bush – this is something I came to know much later – I was put under surveillance by the senior unit commanders, because they knew that background. They thought I had been sent as a mole or a spy.
But I had attempted to leave earlier, in February 1981. We were trying to make contacts. There was a safe house behind Uganda House, which belonged to Kamu Katafiire and his older brother.
We gathered in that house, trying to get in touch with one of the undercover agents who used to move people from town to the bush. We would check almost on a daily basis and we had been waiting for five days.
Unfortunately, they arrested another agent, Mwanjiki, who had deserted the government army. Under pressure, he compromised that safe house.
They came to arrest whoever was in that house. We were in at that time –around 3 p.m. Fortunately for us, they were using lousy methods. They came with a land rover with this guy on top and stopped with a screech.
Looking out through the window, a lady who knew Mwanjiki cried “Haa, baareta Mwanjiki; twafa!” Everybody scrambled for the nearest exit. We made for the hind exit and climbed the stairs.
We found a man pointing a pistol at us and telling us to stop. We instead ran down and the stairs concealed us. Henry Tumukunde and I entered a shop from behind and sat down. Unfortunately two guys, Perez and Busingye were arrested. We later understood that they were taken to Mbuya and tortured to death.
So, we all dispersed and all contacts went underground. After my exams at campus, I tried again to look for contacts. I was trying to go to Nairobi to see if there was some other way [of joining].
A day before I was supposed to leave, a boy called Ham came very early in the morning and told me that: “Dampa has come. If you are ready, let’s go.”
I just got my jacket and he took me to a room in Nkrumah Hall. He linked me up with this Dampa, a former Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldier.
We walked to Mulago and linked up with others. Later, about seven of us went through Bwaise, Kawempe and Matugga areas, using village roads. We reached a point at around 5 p.m. and we sat until around 8 p.m. They didn’t want us to proceed to where the camp was during daytime.
We found that the first camp was a fighting unit of about 40. They were all armed. Another group had moved to Singo to establish a training unit.
We stayed there for about three days and we set out to Singo on foot, walking only at night. Going through Makulubita, we reached the home of the late Lutamaguzi on the third day.
We found there soldiers and recruits, some wounded; others dog-tired. The group that had gone to establish a training wing had been attacked by a Tanzanian unit at Bukomero and dispersed. They were in disarray.
Surprisingly, we never got scared. But we were waiting to see what was going to happen. All the units came together at Kyererezi near Kapeeka and planned afresh.
That is when they split all the fighting groups into units: Abdul Nasser, Mondrane, Nkrumah, Mwanga and Kabarega. I was assigned to Mondrane where we were about 40. We were given instructors to train in handling the gun, tactics and political education.
Conditions in the bush were tough especially later. In the beginning, when we were in small units we used to link through networks and food was never a problem. We had to get used to walking long distances. Sometimes we were given overalls sent by some of the supporters. Later, when we started attacking police stations, we would just get police uniforms.
At night you would have a blanket or a tent and at times we would share. If you are walking at night and it rains you just continue. But you get used to the elements. The human mind and body adapt very fast. If your mind does not get destabilised, your body can adapt to any situation.
After training, we started having joint operations; but they also established new departments like political education, military intelligence, civil intelligence and finance.
I was, in the first batch, appointed a unit political commissar for Mondrane. I remember in the first operation we went to attack the military barracks in Semuto around August 1981, under the command of the late [Fred] Rwigyema.
Our unit was supposed to ambush any reinforcements on the road from Kanyange. We moved at night and laid the ambush in a forest near Semuto. But the ambush was detected and attacked. We retreated through the forests and camped somewhere for the whole day because we could not move during the day. Fortunately we did not suffer any casualties.
“Muntu, hang on!”
The second attack I was involved in, we went to attack Wobulenzi. We reached an opening where there was a football pitch. We didn’t know we were walking into an ambush. On the left, there was cover [UNLA troops] and on the right it was open field.
I had been carrying an RPG for the late Lumumba and I had just handed it back to him. We entered the ambush and they started firing. I think the RPG that Lumumba had saved those of us who survived that day. We suffered several casualties. I think we had four or five dead.
I was wounded. My gun was shot and it stopped operating. Its metal hit me in the left leg and came out from behind but fortunately it did not break my bone. And then I was shot in the chest. But the ambush had been fought off and dispersed; otherwise, I think I would be history.
We collected our colleagues who were dead and put them somewhere in a ditch, got the guns and started moving back. I had lost a lot of blood; I was very weak. I was feeling totally exhausted.
I remember one of the commanders – I think it was Lumumba – came and told me: “Muntu hang on”. And I think that made me … Anyway, I think it was by the grace of God that I managed to make it.
Had I lost consciousness, that would have been it. Because we knew that you could not tie down the troops. That was agreeable to everyone. Fortunately, we reached a point and they got a bicycle, sat me on the career and kept pushing.
We arrived at Mondrane very early in the morning and we were there for two days when they were still trying to make contact to bring me to Kampala.
I was brought through Kawempe to Kisekka Hospital where Dr. Namara treated me for one month. When I had healed, I went back to Matugga. Later, I served as an intelligence officer, director of civil intelligence and director of military intelligence.
Most scary moment
The most fearful moments for me were out of the bush. Like there was a time I was coming through Kampala in 1983. I had been sent from the bush on a mission in Nairobi.
I came here to Kampala with Brigadier [Matayo] Kyaligonza to have an identity card made. We made contact with the chief of the fire brigade and then went back to Nansana, which was the operational base.
Once I got the identity card, I came back to Kampala, slept in Kasubi, and then they organised for me to go through the border. Those to me were the most scary moments, walking through Kampala and then on the way back, coming through the border. The feeling is that you are exposed; you are not armed; you could be captured. You are like a sitting duck, totally defenceless. And you know that the moment you are arrested – the torture!
In the bush it was different because you were armed. If you are involved in fighting, either you are shot and you die, or you fight and you survive.
What kept me going
I knew the struggle would succeed. There is a friend of mine who says that I am an eternal optimist, and I am. That kept me hopeful.
Secondly, I could see the successes even at a small level – the ambushes; attacking government units; increasing the number of guns; the enthusiasm of the new recruits; the way the population was so committed by hiding us and not leaking any information to the enemy. Some of us believed that we would grow as the government army’s strength diminished.
I have no regrets at all. None at all. It is an experience that enabled us to participate in changing the history of our country and shaping the politics of our country.
Over time, there has been deterioration and loss of that focus but nevertheless the foundation was created. Whatever the outcome of the present struggle is, it will be a continuation of what was built then.
And I salute the civilian population that carried the burden of the war.