April 10, 1979, was when former Ugandan president Idi Amin fled Kampala. Sunday Monitor has been informed by witnesses that until that afternoon, Amin was still in the capital city despite the first bombs landing in Kampala early that morning and intensifying at around midday.
The Tanzanian and Ugandan exile forces shelled Kampala from less than 20km from Mpigi area, mid-south of Kampala, while the infantry entered the city.
As the forces closed in on Kampala, they blocked all access routes from the capital to the west, including the northern route. The Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) forces led by Yoweri Museveni which was supposed to block the Gulu-Arua highway near Karuma Bridge reached there late. But they later engaged the government forces in the Pakwach bridge battle which Fronasa won.
The only route to flee Kampala was through the east that led to Jinja. It has been authored by many that it was intentional to let the Kampala-eastern route open on the orders of the commander-in-chief of the Tanzanian armed forces, former president Julius Nyerere, as an escape route for retreating soldiers.
Amin besieged at Luzira
The blockades around Kampala left Amin besieged at his private home at “Cape Town Villa” as he fondly called it. The villa was near the shores of Lake Victoria in Luzira. Time was running out for Amin because the enemy forces had reached around Kibuye, Wandegeya and Mulago suburbs of Kampala.
Former Uganda Army Staff Sergeant UA: 7757 Taban Alai, told Sunday Monitor from Koboko District that shelling of Kampala started a day before the city fell to the enemy forces.
“That day [April 10, 1979], the enemy had already reached Kibuye, Wandegeya and Makerere areas and they had blocked the roads going to Hoima and Arua from Kampala,” Alai says.
From eye witness accounts, Amin escaped from his Cape Town Villa to Jinja by a helicopter. Ex-combatant in the 1979 war and former Uganda prisons officer who was staying in Luzira prison barracks says he saw the helicopter that is believed to have flown Amin from his home near Lake Victoria.
The ex-officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity says Amin left Kampala less than eight hours to April 11, 1979, the day Kampala fell to the enemy forces.
The source, who is a friend to the family of this reporter, goes by the nickname “Pembe” (horn of an animal in Swahili).
Pembe was one of the thousands of conscripts drafted into the Uganda Army during the 1979 war. Pembe was born and raised in now Rukungiri District in south western Uganda. He joined the Uganda Prisons Service in 1974, but upon completion of the course, president Amin ordered that the 1974 prisons service in-take must leave Luzira training school after a six-month course and do another nine-month commando course at Kabamba Military School.
And when the war broke out between Uganda and Tanzania, Pembe was one of those who participated, but deserted the army when the war intensified. “When the Tanzanian army pushed us from Masaka up to Mpigi and people started deserting, we who were formerly prison officers returned to the Luzira barracks,” he says.
“Kampala fell on April 11, 1979. It should have fallen a day earlier, but there was still fierce fighting throughout in Kampala that day between the government soldiers and the Tanzanians,” he told this reporter in a telephone interview.
“I remember on that day during the fighting, there was a Uganda government soldier who was shooting at the advancing Tanzanians from his position at the top of the Crested Towers building. The Tanzanians killed him; they hit the building with an RPG which blew off the top two floors.”
This, Pembe says, he was told by some of the soldiers who were still fighting around Kampala and escaped to the barracks.
Asked how he knew that Amin escaped using a military helicopter from his home, the ex-combatant responded: “You know when we retreated from Mpigi area, we [former prisons officers] went back to Luzira barracks. And you remember that I was staying in the ‘Soweto quarters’ near the Upper Prison main gate.”
“You know Soweto quarters was at the top of that Luzira Hill overlooking Lake Victoria, Port Bell, Bukasa, Muyenga Hill, Bbina and all the surrounding areas. And so we could see everything happening around Lake Victoria.”
“The helicopter came flying at a very low altitude I think from Entebbe airport and landed at Amin’s home. From Luzira barracks we saw it. And after a few minutes, it took off towards Jinja [eastern direction] flying at a low altitude. It was around 4pm. In fact, the Tanzanians shot at it but failed to hit it.”
“They shot at it from Bukasa area near Muyenga Hill opposite the Murchison Bay prison.”
Asked how he knew that it was that helicopter that evacuated Amin, Pembe answered: “At the time, no plane was allowed to fly in Uganda apart from the president’s plane.”
Since the March 25, 1979 curfew declaration, the Uganda airspace was closed to international and local flights with the exception of prior notification. Any plane that flew in Uganda’s airspace risked being shot down.
Pembe also says: “We saw Tanzanian soldiers that evening when they came to rescue their fellow soldiers who had been captured when Amin’s soldiers attacked Kagera at the beginning of the war in October 1978. You see, when Amin’s soldiers captured the Tanzanian fighters and took them as prisoners of war, they brought them to Luzira Upper Prison and we did not know that until that day [April 10, 1979] when the Tanzanians came to Luzira.”
Tanzanian spy disguised as mad man
When Uganda captured the prisoners of war and incarcerated them at the infamous Luzira Upper Prison Maximum Security, Tanzania sent a spy to gather intelligence.
Near the Luzira prison complex main gate was an old stationary military truck which, unknown to the Ugandan officers, served as the Tanzanian intelligence observation point. It was manned by a Tanzania spy disguised as a mad man.
“In the old, dirty tins we used to see him with was where he kept his equipment, including Tanzanian military uniform,” says Pembe.
“When a Land Rover full of retreating soldiers from Amin’s home reached Luzira market and wanted to loot food, the mad man attempted to grab a gun from one of the soldiers. The soldier made an alarm and the others came and in the fracas shot the Tanzanian. They beat him up and put him in the Land Rover and drove to Kampala. People in the market told us later.”
“I think around Nakawa area, they met the advancing Tanzanians who killed them and rescued their captured spy who brought them to Luzira with his arm wrapped in a bandage. The man was bitter: ‘Munyoka amekimbia (the snake [Amin] has run away). Wajinga wamekimbia (the fools have escaped).”
“It was after that that we realised that whenever we passed this ‘mad man’ while in a truck or prisons bus, he would try to be so observant, but we did not care about it. And he also used to chase away children whenever they attempted to get closer to him.”
Amin addresses public in Jinja
Pembe’s narration corresponds with three former Uganda Army soldiers Sunday Monitor spoke to in West Nile sub-region last week. Sergeant Alai, who was a marine, left their base at Bugolobi flats on April 10, 1979.
“Bombs started landing inside Lubiri Barracks early that morning. I left Bugolobi [marine camp] and went to a big factory in Kampala and ‘got’ a new Tata lorry and proceeded to Nsambya Police Barracks and picked a friend and we went to Jinja,” Alai recollects.
“Amin came to Jinja and addressed us with the civilians at that hotel [Crested Crane] on the right side after you have crossed the Jinja Bridge. He told us to go back and fight the enemy who had invaded our country.”
“I never went back. But some soldiers did. Some of us saw no reason to continue fighting. We had lost the war already. Some of us knew that Amin as fleeing to Arua. So we waited. And when he left, we also continued to Mbale, Soroti, Lira, Karuma and finally to Pakwach in West-Nile.”
Alai says they reached in Jinja before Amin, though he does not know whether Amin arrived by road or by air. “But I remember he came from a State Lodge below that hotel,” Alai says.
Sunday Monitor was able to establish that there was a State lodge below Crested Crane on Wilson Road above Jinja Golf Course where it is believed Amin could have landed and went to address a gathering at the hotel.
“To us [ex-Uganda army officers], we say Kampala was captured that day when bombs started landing in the city. Although that is not the day the capture of Kampala was announced. Amin left Kampala a day before the announcement of the end of his government was made,” the retired sergeant says.
In a separate interview, another ex-Uganda army officer, Lt Col Moses Galla, said Amin met them in Jinja a day before Kampala fell.
The former commanding officer of the Mountains of the Moon Brigade, who had prior to the war been sent on forced leave for misconduct, was recalled when the war broke out. He told Sunday Monitor that Amin addressed them from Jinja Military Barracks and told them to go and regroup in Arua and reorganise to fight the enemy.
Former commanding officer of the Eastern Brigade based in Mbale, Lt Col Abdalatif Tiyua, told this reporter from his home in Arua Municipality that Amin passed Mbale Town on April 10, 1979, on his way to Arua.
“Two days earlier, Amin had come to assess the situation at Tororo barracks after it had been attacked by the enemy. On April 8, 1979, Amin came to Tororo and promoted me from Lt Col to Brigadier.”
About the attack on Rubongi Army Barracks, Tororo, he said: “We repulsed the enemy that had attacked our forces and they fled back into Kenya. We were stronger than them and that is why they fled. I don’t know whether they wanted to advance to Kampala or just wanted to hold territory. I don’t know what their motive was.”
Amin at Arua airfield
When Amin reached Arua Town, he went to his private house that borders Arua Airfield. The house still stands. From there, by radio message, he called all the retreating solders to assemble at the airfield.
Among those present at the airfield was Lt Col Nasr Eagan who arrested and handed over to Amin the former minister for Information, Broadcasting and Tourism, Alexander Ojera, during the September 16 - 17, 1972, botched attack on Uganda by rebels from Tanzania.
This reporter caught up with the aging former soldier at his home in Yumbe District, but he opted not to speak to us. “I am not prepared to speak to you now,” he said.
From Yumbe, this reporter returned to Nyai Sub-county in Koboko District and met two other ex-soldiers – Lt Col Galla and Staff Sergeant Alai – whom Amin addressed, among others, on his last day in Uganda.
Sergeant Alai recalls some of the final words Amin told them: “The gun you are holding is now your father, mother, sister, brother and everything. Don’t ever surrender it to anyone. I am going to Libya to get some support and come back to fight. Be strong and keep Arua well until I come back.”
Fall of Kampala announced
When the Kikosi-Maalum commander, Lt Col David Oyite-Ojok, announced the fall of Kampala, Amin was at his house in Arua listening to Radio Uganda together with other soldiers. That was April 11, 1979, soon after Tanzanian forces and Ugandan exiles had overrun Kampala.
“When the announcement was made on radio that Amin’s government had fallen, we were with Amin at his home in Arua near the airport,” Lt Col Galla says.
Galla says when Amin said he was leaving them under the command of Maj Gen Mustafa Adrisi, Adrisi said he was walking with a limp and was, therefore, not fit for the day-to-day administration of the army. So Amin handed over the responsibility to Maj Gen Isaac Lumago.
Immediately after addressing the soldiers, Amin – dressed in military uniform – with his bodyguards, family members and others boarded a C-130 military jet sent by former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi and left.
Among the people that flew with Amin to exile was his confidant and former minister of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, Abdul Hamid Kamulegeya Jumba-Masagazi.
Last month at his home in Kayunga District, the former minister told Sunday Monitor that while in transit from Arua airfield to Tripoli in Libya, there was hardly any conversation between the passengers. The 77-year-old says they went direct to Libya and Gaddafi, their host, was not at the airport to receive them.
Amin fled Uganda on the afternoon of April 12, 1979, never to return again. He died in August 16, 2003, in exile in Saudi Arabia.
About Amin’s death
Former Ugandan president Idi Amin died of multiple organ failure in a hospital in Saudi Arabia on August 16, 2003.
Amin, who was variously described as 78 or 80 years old, had been in a coma at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah since July 18, 2003.
He was forced from power in Uganda in 1979 by Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exiles.