How bar fight sparked the 1979 Uganda - Tanzania war

Former Uganda President Idi Amin Dada and Former Tanzania president Julius Nyerere. FILE PHOTOS

On the evening of October 9, 1978, one Ugandan soldier stationed at Mutukula military camp near the border sneaked into Tanzania for a drink.

At the bar, a quarrel started and he was roughed up by Tanzanian civilians. He later returned to Uganda disappointed.

Ready for revenge, the soldier picked his gun from his station near Sango Bay the following morning and went back to Tanzania alone, with intent to kill.

Luckily, people saw him and ran for their lives. But still filled with anger, the soldier shot in the Tanzanian territory; but no one was hurt.

He then returned to his base and reported the matter to his commander, Lt Byansi who in turn communicated to his superior, battalion commander in Kampala Lt Col Juma Oka of the Malire Mechanised Specialised Reconnaissance Regime at Lubiri.

Instead of informing his superiors, Lt Col Oka, aka Butabika (mental case), ordered Lt Byansi to immediately attack the Tanzanian territory as reinforcement came from Kampala. This is according to former Uganda Army officer UO 824, Lt Muzamir Amule, who was a friend of Lt Byansi.

While it has been recorded that Amin invaded Tanzania because of egotism, the new account suggests that it was Oka’s rush action and lack of self-restraint and diplomacy that sparked off the war. In fact, by the time Amin was informed, war equipment from Lubiri in Kampala had already advanced as far as Mutukula.

“Why would any sensible commander reinforce his troops at the Mutukula border with soldiers from Kampala?” says Amule, who was stationed at Masaka Barracks.

In his book Cross to the Gun, Maj Gen Bernard Rwehururu (RIP) mentions Lt Amule as good tank commander and driver in the Uganda Army by 1979.

In his book Sowing the Mustard Seed, while commenting on Uganda invading Tanzania in 1978 on page 92, President Museveni writes: “ Hopelessly, out of his depth, Amin was always fond of doing and saying outrageous things…he appears to have thought that by invading Tanzania, he was ‘teaching president Nyerere a lesson’! Nyerere said Amin’s attack had given Tanzanians the cause (sababu), and they had the will (nia) and the means (uwezo) to fight him.”

Immediately after Uganda invaded Tanzania, the retaliatory war started. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania mobilised the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces, that was later joined by Ugandan exiles Kikosi Maalum and the Front for National Salvation led by Yoweri Museveni that fought and defeated Amin’s troops in a war that lasted five months and four days.

Brig Kasirye-Gwanga’s side of the story
Then a Staff Sergeant in the Artillery Regiment, Kasirye Gwanga, then 27, fought that war.

Recently at his home in Makindye, a Kampala suburb, Brig Kasirye Gwanga told Sunday Monitor what caused the war, but on condition that he reserves some information for an autobiography he is writing.
“The funny part is that a lot of people have come up with so many stories about that war. But the war was started by the brother-in-law of Lt Col Juma Oka, aka Juma Butabika,” Brig Gwanga says.

“He was a Kyotera [half-caste]. Juma Oka was married to his sister. And after marrying his sister, the boy [whose name Gwanga cannot recall] wanted to join the army because of excitement. And Juma Oka took him into the army and after the cadet course, he was made an officer.”
“After the military training, he joined Malire Mechanised [Specialised Reconnaissance Regiment based at Lubiri in Kampala] and was given the command of Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs). I think he had six [APCs] and he was taken to guard duty at the Mutukula border with Tanzania.”

“One night, soldiers decided to cross over to Tanzania for a drink. In the process, they met Tanzanian soldiers and they had a fight and the Tanzanians beat the hell out of these ones [Ugandan soldiers].”

“After these [Ugandan soldiers] had been beaten up, they ran back to their camp in Uganda and got their Armed Personnel Carriers. They went back, now for war. When the Tanzanians saw these armed vehicles, they took to their heels.”

“And when they [Tanzanian forces] ran, they sent a message to Dar es Salaam, saying they had been attacked. Because there had been tension between Uganda and Tanzania, they sent a company [more than 100 soldiers].”

“The heaviest weapon that company had was the 81mm Mortar Tampera. It is a very effective weapon; even now they are used in the Middle East. So they [Tanzanians] started throwing bombs because Ugandan soldiers had Armed Personnel Carriers, tanks and all that. When bombs started exploding, the Ugandan soldiers panicked.”

“At the time, the Tanzanian soldiers had attempted to avoid a direct rifle fighting since they were not sure of the response from the Ugandan soldiers. Besides, they had seen the few APCs that had attacked them and, therefore, they were even not sure whether the Ugandan soldiers had dug-in.”

“I was called in because by then I was training the battery [soldiers who shoot artillery] of artillery 120mm Mortar Tampera. I was in Madi-Yope, in Kitgum [northern Uganda] close to the border with Sudan. So a certain Colonel called [Isaac] Maliyamungu sent a message that I should report to Mutukula with my battery. We reported to Mutukula.

By then there was a general panic about the bombs. And the Tanzanians intensified because they had already discovered that Ugandan soldiers feared bombs.”

Asked if the 1979 war that toppled Field Marshal Idi Amin was actually started inside a bar at Mutukula, Brig Kasirye Gwanga says, “Oh, that boy, Juma Oka’s brother in-law, brought us trouble.”

Ex-service men speak
Lt Amule, also known to Brig Kasirye Gwanga, disagrees with him and insists that it was only one soldier who went to Tanzania without authority and was beaten by civilians.
“It was a very simple thing that caused a big problem. One day, a Ugandan soldier went to Tanzania and was beaten while in the bar. He was beaten by civilians. He returned to Uganda, picked his gun and shot into the territory of Tanzania. But he did not shoot anyone,” says Lt Amule.

On the identity of the soldier, Amule and two other soldiers disagree with Gwanga. “That soldier was an Acholi,” Amule says.
“When the special forces from Tanzania fired back. The company [more than 100 soldiers] returned fire. And the office in-charge of artillery, Lt Byansi, ordered the shooting of the 106 artillery [into Tanzania]. So the following day the war started.”
“From Kampala, Lt Col Juma Oka, the commanding officer Malire Mechanised Specialised Reconnaissance Regiment, ordered the attack of Tanzania without consulting anyone.”

Lt Amule blames Lt Col Oka for what followed. Amule, who told this reporter that Oka is his relative, insists that the Lt Col was married to a Muganda woman and did not know of any half-caste wife or concubine.

Uganda Army officer UO: 606, Lt Col Moses Galla, then commanding officer Mountains of the Moon Battalion in Fort Portal who was called in to the frontline in 1978, and former Uganda Army officer UO: 671, Capt Suleiman Taban, who was in the records department at the army headquarters Mbuya, Kampala, also disagree with Brig Gwanga’s account.

The two ex-servicemen, who hail from Koboko District, say the Ugandan soldier was roughed up by civilians, and not by the Tanzania soldiers, after the argument in the bar.

They, however, say if the people who beat up the Uganda officer were soldiers, then they were not in military uniform. They add that the Ugandan soldier was also dressed in civilian clothes.
But Galla and Taban agree that when the soldier returned to Uganda, he shot into the Tanzanian territory out of anger.
“It [bar brawl] could have been over women, beer, anything,” says Capt Taban in fluent English.

Why Uganda lost the war
Asked why Uganda lost the war, Brig Gwanga says: “Like I told you, I am writing a book. There is the much I cannot tell you. But all I am telling you is that we were let down by the officer core. Officers let us down. Because, most of them never wanted to participate in military exercises, they just wanted to enjoy life in Kampala. And when things got real thick, they all disappeared.”

“Like the late Rwehururu [a Major in 1979]; that one ran away. When I saw a book written by him [Cross to the Gun], I remembered and I laughed.”

Gwanga told Sunday Monitor that Rwehururu and other officers ran from the frontline and left junior officers and soldiers to command the war. And when Gwanga and others finally retreated to Kampala, he says, they found Rwehururu already disguising himself as a businessman.

One of the soldiers recognised him and confronted and asked, “Aren’t you Major Rwehururu?” He denied ever being a soldier.

But when the angry soldiers threatened to shoot him, he accepted and apologised.

“By that time, he was drenched in sweat due to the fear of being shot dead,” Gwanga says.

On why the Uganda Army lost the war, Brig Gwanga says: “When Amin took power, he never trusted the indigenous people here.

So most of us who joined the army, he just took us away to West Nile and got Sudanese, mostly the Gimla tribe, and they took over the marines, Malire, name them. So when the war got hotter, they decided to run back home [either Sudan or Congo]. We were left holding the back. We were young, by then I was 27 years old.”

For Capt Taban, he says: “When the war started, there was division in the army. There are those who said its a war started by the West Nilers. ‘It is, therefore, a West Nile war and let them fight it’. And that demoralised soldiers. And when the war reached here [West Nile], others said ‘it a Muslim war, let Muslims fight’. We were really disorganised and demoralised. There was also negative propaganda about the war from Tanzania.”

“We were also outnumbered; we were a force of about 20,000 men fighting a force that was about 10 times bigger than ours. We also lacked enough ammunition.”

Lt Col Galla says Uganda Army lost the war because the officers at the general headquarters and tactical headquarters deceived Amin about the real situation from the frontline.
“And soon the commanding officers started running from the frontline. And the soldiers were really demoralised. They started deserting. We would wake in the morning only to find that several soldiers have deserted,” 67-year-old Galla recalls.

Best commander dies
It is also said among the reasons that contributed to Uganda losing the war was the sudden death of one of the best commander, Lt Col Sule.

While his mysterious death has been recorded as treacherous by insiders, Lt Amule disagrees.

“I was not with Lt Col Sule, but I don’t think he was killed intentionally,” he says, adding that Sule died at night while commanding a tank battery.

“Under the cover of darkness, he was commanding the forces that were shelling Tanzanians. Then a bomb landed in front of the tank he was standing behind and dug a ditch which the tank could not surpass. And when the tank driver was reversing to surpass the ditch and advance as commanded, it ran over him.

The soldiers did not know that Sule had been run over by the tank and died until the following morning when we went looking for him. His death demoralised soldiers,” Lt Amule explains, dismissing the claim that the death of Sule was deliberate.
He, however, acknowledges that death of the Sule was a turning point in the war.

“When he died, we lacked a brave soldier to command the war and all the soldiers were demoralised. Sule, though a Sudanese, was determined to defeat the enemy, but was accidentally run over by one of the tanks he was commanding,” Amule says.

The ex-servicemen Sunday Monitor spoke with agree that the war was avoidable and solely blame it on Lt Col Juma Oka for sending the troops to attack Tanzania without informing the commander-in- chief or any other senior officer above him. It is said that Juma Oka is today living in Khartoum, in Sudan.