Amin was an intelligent man, although people used to say he was a fool,” says Abdul Hamid Kamulegeya Jumba-Masagazi, who was the last minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development in former president Idi Amin’s government.
Jumba-Masagazi told Sunday Monitor this last month in an interview at his home in Kayunga District.
“In a meeting, while you would be still trying to explain to him, he [Amin] would tell what to add,” he added. “Amin was an intelligent man but had his other problems that caused him to make so many mistakes.”
So why did the intelligent Amin handle the Tanzania-Uganda political conflict – which escalated to the 1978 war that Uganda lost – the way he did?
Genesis of the war
Contrary to the popular view that Amin deliberately provoked Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere (RIP) into war, former Uganda Army soldiers Sunday Monitor recently spoke with disagree.
They all blame Lt Col Juma “Oka” Ali, aka Butabika, who October 10, 1978, ordered Ugandan troops to invade Tanzania at Mutukula Border Post.
However, this was in retaliation after a Ugandan soldier, who had sneaked into Tanzania for a drink, was assaulted by Tanzanians. The enraged soldier returned to Uganda, picked his gun and shot into Tanzanian territory. Miraculously, no one was injured – they all escaped when they saw him coming towards them with a gun.
Later when he reported the matter to Lt Byansi, his detach commander at Sango Bay, who in turn informed his superior Lt Col Juma Ali of the Malire Mechanised Specialised Reconnaissance Regiment in Kampala. Ali ordered him to attack Tanzania for insulting a Ugandan soldier.
Lt Byansi, under the orders of Lt Col Ali, made the first incursion and the few soldiers and police officers manning the Tanzania frontier ran away when they saw Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs) approaching.
Lt Col Ali, aka Butabika, took a personal decision without informing anyone, including Amin, the supreme commander of the Uganda Army, as he was called then.
Lt Col Butabika, nicknamed after the national referral mental hospital in Kampala and was said to be a bhang smoker, later informed Amin about what had happened.
It is worth noting that when Amin became president of Uganda, his government made a proclamation protecting the Uganda Army, especially soldiers who accidentally caused the January 25, 1971, coup that brought him to power. The proclamation to protect the soldiers when Amin ceased to be president as was initially agreed to after the new Defence Council was established on February 2, 1971, by a decree.
Section 7 of the proclamation read in part: “No action or other legal proceedings whatsoever, whether civil or criminal, shall be instituted in any court for an account of or in respect of any act, matter or thing done during the continuation of operations consequent upon or incidental to the said takeovers of the powers of the government if done in a good faith and done or purported to be done in the execution of his duty or for the defence of Uganda or the public safety or for the enforcement of discipline or law and order or otherwise in the public interest by a person holding office under or employed in the public service of Uganda or a member of the armed forces of Uganda or by any person acting under the authority of a person so holding office or so employed.”
Many soldiers misinterpreted and misused this law in execution of their duties. And this was because Amin himself always told them not to wait for his orders if the security of the country or Ugandans was in danger.
“Don’t wait for Gen Amin to give you orders when you can solve the problem completely,” Amin used to say.
Many Ugandans were killed by soldiers during Amin’s reign because of that law which they had been told would protect them from prosecution as longer as they killed anyone involved treason.
Why Lt Butabika acted alone in sending orders to Lt Byansi to attack Tanzania is a puzzle yet to be solved. Nonetheless, Butabika’s action should have warranted him to face the court martial. And Amin had instructed the chief of staff, Maj Gen Yusuf Gowon to have Butabika court martialed, but he never did. Butabika and Amin were both from the same sub-county in present Koboko District in the West Nile sub-region.
Lt Col Butabika also lied to Amin that the Tanzanian forces had gathered at the common border with Uganda in readiness for war.
To Butabika’s surprise, Amin decided to conduct an aerial reconnaissance to ascertain his claim. Capt Isaac Bakka, who was a military chaplain for the Gulu Airforce base, told this reporter that Amin did not want war with Tanzania and warned his commanders not to provoke the neighbours.
“We flew with Amin from Entebbe to access the Uganda-Tanzania border from Rwanda border to Lake Victoria. But we did not see any military movements or camps near our border with Tanzania,” Bakka recalls.
However, Amin had warned his soldiers that: “Don’t think because you have these Armed Personnel Carriers, tanks and artillery that you can fight and defeat the Tanzanian army which is being backed by several African countries with military equipment from China and other European countries to attack us.”
Amin’s warning thus meant he was well aware of the repercussions of fighting Tanzania. Amin knew well that the economy had been devastated by embargos since the 1972 expulsion of Indians coupled with mismanagement.
Tanzanian army crosses into Uganda
On the night of October 10, 1978, the Tanzanian army crossed into Uganda and occupied a territory of approximately 400 square miles in Isingiro County, then in East Ankole District in south western Uganda.
They looted, killed and destroyed property. On October 12, 1978, the soldiers from the Simba Mechanised Battalion Mbarara engaged them in a fierce battle that left many casualties on both sides. But the Tanzanians stayed put.
On the same day, Amin sent a telegram to Nyerere. It read in part: “If there is any misunderstanding, this should be solved peacefully in an African spirit under the auspices of our organisation, OAU. You as a founder member of our organisation and who loves our organisation, I hope you will heed to my appeal which I am making to you, Your Excellency.”
But, Amin also warned Nyerere: “If your troops continue to attack and destroy lives and property of innocent civilians in my country, Uganda will not hesitate to in defending the lives and property of her people.”
Amin also sent copies of the telegrams to president Jaafar Mohamed El Nimeiri of Sudan who was then the chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the secretary general, Mr Edem Kodjo.
Other leaders Amin sent a copy of the telegram were the presidents of Rwanda, Burundi, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Kenya and Zaire (now DR Congo). It is evident from the telegram that Amin did not want a war with Tanzania. But to Nyerere, now was the time to kick Amin of Uganda for good. Because Nyerere was determined to fight and defeat Amin, he could not relent to OAU’s call for ceasefire.
While Amin was still waiting for OAU’s intervention, on October 27, 1978, the Tanzanian forces attacked Uganda from three different fronts; Minziro forests in Isingiro, Mutukula frontier and near Lake Victoria in Rakai District.
Tanzanian jet fighters also violated Uganda’s airspace in Kampala, Entebbe, Jinja and Masaka but did not emit any bombs.
Amin had intelligence that several countries supported Nyerere to attack Uganda and that Cuba could also be involved.
On October 31, 1978, Amin hosted the Cuban charge de affaires to Uganda, Mr Edmundo Remero, at Entebbe airport to clarifying on the allegations. It is said that Remero admitted that there were Cubans in Tanzania, but said they were not fighting alongside the Tanzanian forces.
The meeting was attended by the secretary for Defence, Maj Gen Emilio Mondo, among others. Sunday Monitor was not able to locate the retired major general for a comment.
Uganda attacks Tanzania
While Amin tried to avoid war, the Tanzanian provocation of violating Ugandan airspace was too much to endure and On October 27, 1978, the “Kagera Operation” started.
Ugandan troops engaged the enemy forces in present day Isingiro District but suffered many causalities because the enemy had dug-in and were also using the BM 21, a modern artillery which the Ugandan army could not counter.
Since the Ugandan army artillery regiment encountered difficulties to successfully engage the enemy, Amin decided to use jet bombers to dislodge the dug-in enemy.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, October 31, 1978, Flight Lt Omita took off from the newly renamed Idi Amin Air Military Base (now Airforce base in Entebbe) in a MiG 21 bomber. His mission was to intercept any Tanzanian jets in the Ugandan airspace and also bomb the Kagera Bridge as well as the tactical headquarters of the enemy at Kyaka in Tanzania. Omita attempted but failed to hit the target.
While still in the Tanzanian airspace, Omita’s jet fighter was hit by an enemy missile. But he managed to parachute out of the jet before it caught fire. He landed inside Tanzanian territory and miraculously escaped back to Uganda on October 31, 1978, and joined the Ugandan forces at the border in Rakai.
Kagera Bridge is destroyed
By October 31, 1978, the Tanzanian forces had occupied Ugandan territory for 21 days. The enemy had penetrated more than 10 miles inside Uganda and were still advancing partly because they had a steady supply route from Tanzania, across the border over the River Kagera Bridge to the front line in Uganda.
For that reason, the Ugandan army decided to blow out the German-built bridge using explosive experts from Kilembe Mines in Kasese District in western Uganda. They were three Ugandans and one Italian.
The Ugandans included a Mukonjo, a Munyankole and a Muganda who on November 3, 1978, successfully blasted the Kagera Bridge. The blowing out of the bridge was done on the last day Ugandan troops withdrew from Tanzania where they had stayed for a month unchallenged.
During the “Kagera Operation”, Amin personally instructed his commanders to use the word “Mugulugusu” to confirm that they had succeeded in blowing the enemy headquarters at Kyaka in Tanzania.
On December 4, 1978, when the army held a success party at Bombo after the “Kagera Operation”, Amin said: “During the operation, I directed members of the Uganda Army to use the word Mugulugusu after bombing Kyaka while tank companies from Malire and the marines with the infantry personnel advanced forward until they captured Kyaka [Kagera Bridge].”
But due to excitement, the word Mugulugusu superseded Kagera and while at the party Amin said that the mission should be known as “Operation Mugulugusu”.
Amin wish to kiss Nyerere
Still in a jubilant mood, Amin said if he had met Nyerere at Kagera, he would have kissed him to show him whom Amin was.
During the success party at Bombo, soldiers of Malire Mechanised Regiment staged a play called “Love affair” between Obote and Nyerere. The play depicted how Nyerere would have been Amin’s wife if Nyerere was a woman and without grey hair. The play also showed Amin repulsing Obote and Nyerere from Uganda up to Kagera.
In appreciation for the explosives, the Italian who had lived in Uganda for 22 years, was offered Ugandan citizenship by Amin. This reporter has been informed that the Mukonjo who was part of the explosive experts, was killed in 1979 by the Tanzanian soldiers when they reached Kasese.
Obsessed with the Kagera victory, when Madina, one of Amin’s wives, gave birth to a baby boy on November 5, 1979, at Mulago hospital, he was named Ismail Amin Kagera.
Uganda attacks Tanzania
While Amin tried to avoid war, the Tanzanian provocation of violating Ugandan airspace was too much to endure and On October 27, 1978, the “Kagera Operation” started. Ugandan troops engaged the enemy forces in present day Isingiro District but suffered many causalities because the enemy had dug-in and were also using the BM 21, a modern artillery which the Ugandan army could not counter.