On March 23 and 24, 1974, Uganda’s president Field Marshal Idi Amin was nearly ousted. Known as the “Brig Arube Coup”, it was the first military attempt to overthrow Amin since he became president after his 1971 coup that toppled president Milton Obote.
The two chief plotters of the coup against Amin were Kakwa from Koboko, in West Nile sub-region, just as Amin.
Brig Charles Arube, a former acting Chief of Staff of the Uganda Armed Forces, was the initiator of the plot. He shared it with his trusted friend Lt Col Elly Aseni, a former commanding officer of the Malire Mechanised Specialised Reconnaissance Regiment based at Lubiri in Kampala.
The two chief architects of the coup leaked the plot to other trusted soldiers below their ranks, who in turn conveyed the message to their juniors.
The soldiers were less than an hour away from capturing or killing Amin and announcing Arube the new president of Uganda.
Unfortunately, Arube had made a tactical error. When he was captured and killed, the coup was aborted.
Arube and Aseni had drafted the mission well. The word “sort out” all non-Ugandan officers serving in the armed forces electrified soldiers, especially of the low ranks as they too had lost someone by extrajudicial killings of the regime.
The most prominent foreigner officers targeted in this mission were, Lt Col Hussein Malera, the commanding officer of the Military Police, who was an Avukaya by tribe from South Sudan, and Ali Toweli, the head of the infamous security police, the Public Safety Unit. Toweli was a Nubian from Congo who disguised himself as a Mutoro from western Uganda.
Other targeted officers included Lt Col Isaac Maliyamungu, the staff officer in charge of training and all operations, a Kakwa from Congo, and Brig Taban Lupayigana, the commanding officer of the marines, who was a South Sudanese.
Because Arube and Aseni had openly reprimanded Amin for the presence of foreigners in the Uganda Army, enmity erupted between senior foreign officers and those from Uganda.
Such animosity resulted into the shooting dead of all Aseni’s family members by Lt Col Malera.
Malera went to Aseni’s home around Nateete, a Kampala suburb, to kill him. But when he did not find him, Malera shot dead Aseni’s wife, children and house help.
Earlier, Malera had shot dead Aseni’s driver in Bwaise. At Aseni’s home, Malera left a note taunting him, saying if Aseni was a man, he should face him.
In a vengeance stupor, Aseni looked for Malera for the whole day, but did not find him.
“Malera had been looking for Aseni for some time. Aseni was always above Malera and that is why he was not killed. Aseni was a very intelligent soldier. He was a professional soldier and that’s why he did not kill Malera’s wife. He did not want to do what Malera did to his wife,” says Isaac Bakka, a retired Captain of the Uganda Army.
Bakka, a former associate of both Arube and Aseni, revealed this to Sunday Monitor in Kampala on Wednesday. Bakka is son of Brig Barnabas Kili, a former minister of Education during Amin’s era. He was born on September 15, 1949, and joined the army in 1967.
In February 1979, he was taken prisoner of war together with other soldiers by the Tanzanian troops. They were taken to Tanzania where they stayed until 1981 when they were repatriated to Uganda and imprisoned before being set free.
Aseni meets Malera
“One day, Aseni met Malera at the quarter-guard of the Malire Barracks [at Lubiri in Kampala]. Malera jumped out of the car ready to shoot. But Aseni also had his pistol ready and the two men put pistols at each other’s stomachs, each saying ‘you shoot, I shoot’,” Capt Bakka narrates.
“They remained there until Lt Col Musa Eyega, the commanding officer, came from his office and disarmed both of them and took them to Amin who forced them to reconcile.”
“Did you witness this incident, or someone else told?” I ask.
“I saw it myself,” Bakka responds.
Indeed, some foreign officers in the armed forces had ruined Uganda. And undoubtedly, concerned Ugandan-born officers wanted the york of humiliation and subjugation removed.
And because the president of the country couldn’t be held accountable, a coup was the only solution.
Brig Arube and Lt Col Aseni had clandestinely mobilised a sizeable rebel force within the Uganda Army who were willing to execute the mission and eliminate all known foreigners in the armed forces. From a hideout in Kampala, the two commanded the ‘war’.
From around 8 O’clock, when the last briefing is believed to have been held, Arube instructed his men to execute the mission within three hours, short of which, the most wanted foreign soldiers in the army, State Research and police, as well as Amin, would get wind of it and escape.
The forces under the command of Arube swiftly went into action across the country to arrest or kill any foreigners in sight.
Col Kisule defies order to arrest Malera
Having failed to locate Malera in Kampala, the search for him shifted to Kigumba in Masindi District where he had a country home.
In an interview with Sunday Monitor at his home in Nagojje, Mukono District, last week, Lt Col Abdul Kisule, the former commanding officer of the Masindi Artillery Regiment, revealed how he defied Brig Arube’s order to arrest Malera.
Kisule told us that while in Masindi without knowing what was happening in Kampala; at around 1am in the morning of the coup, Brig Arube contacted him on phone and ordered him to arrest Lt Col Malera on sight.
“I asked him [Arube] whose order it was to arrest Malera and why. He did not explain, but I also remember him asking me, ‘Don’t you see the disappearance of people in Uganda?’ And he also mentioned Fr Kiggundu [editor of the Catholic Munno newspaper],” Kisule says.
“He said if I did not arrest Malera, they [from Malire Mechanised Specialised Regiment] he would come and attack our regiment. I immediately telephoned the commander-in-chief [Amin]. I asked him if it was him who had ordered for the arrest of Malera. He said no.”
“So that night, I deployed my forces ready to fight the enemy, but they did not come.”
Asked what Amin’s reaction to Arube’s order to arrest Malera was, Kisule says: “He didn’t say anything about it, apart from telling me that ambassador Ondoga had died.”
On why he was appointed to chair the commission of inquiry into the Arube coup plot, Kisule says: “After that incident, we were at a senior army officers’ meeting with the president at Entebbe and I made a comment. I said if anyone attempted to attack us [Masindi Artillery Regiment], it would have taken them three months to capture it.”
“I think Amin felt confident of my forces [at Masindi]. I think that was the reason I was appointed to head the inquiry.”
However, his statement at that meeting nearly caused him death by officers who thought he was so boastful. Asked how, Kisule says he will reveal it another time.
Although the inquiry was about “the Arube case”, the outcome was rather about a different person – president Amin. Why?
Lt Col Kisule says instead of pinning Arube, all the officers [witnesses] blamed Amin for the trouble.
“Amin went around the country and personally selected officers who appeared before the commission as witnesses. One of them was an operations officer from the State Research Centre/Bureau, who reported directly to Amin about what every officer said before the commission. All the high-ranking officers appeared before the commission and all stressed the disappearing of Ugandans, ordered by the presidential bodyguards, State Research Bureau, Military Police and Public Safety Unit,” Kisule recalls.
“Some individuals such as Malera, Toweli and Kassim Obura were also mentioned in the disappearance of people in Uganda.”
The inquiry also discovered that the West Nilers were unhappy with Amin because he did not attend the burial of Uganda’s former ambassador to the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Michael Ondoga.
Asked why the attempted coup was not mentioned at all in the inquiry, Kisule said: “The planning of the coup was not mentioned partly because most of the witnesses were Arube’s friends.”
Kisule also adds that around September 1973, there was a world peace conference held in Moscow, Russia, involving senior military officers from other countries and he was a member of the Ugandan delegation.
The Ugandan delegation later visited Arube at the military academy in Russia and he realised how much respect Arube commanded from the Ugandan soldiers who visited him. Kisule further says he suspects that Amin may have sent some officers to observe Arube’s conduct while in Russia.
Kisule also recalls that it was shortly after Arube had returned from Russian that the attempt coup occurred.
Intimidation from Malyamungu
Lt Col Kisule says he was physically intimidated on the day he read report to president Amin.
“There are two occasions in my life when I have felt like choking. The first was the day I read that inquiry report and the second was when I was arrested in 1979,” Kisule says.
“On that day, I almost failed to talk. Every time I opened my mouth to say a word, I felt as if I was going to bite my tongue or choke.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Do you know what it meant to sit next to Amin while [Isaac] Malyamungu is standing behind you to ensure that you do not miss a word? I felt threatened.”
Although the notorious Malyamungu was not a member of the commission, and neither Amin’s bodyguard nor Kisule’s escort, he was ordered to stand behind the seated Kisule to ensure that he altered no word.
Amin instates an inquiry
Amin could not believe that Arube and Aseni, fellow West Nilers, had plotted to oust him. And so, he wanted to know why.
In April 1974, a commission of inquiry to investigate what led to the coup plot was established. It was chaired by the Uganda Army officer No: UO.110 Lt Col Abdul Kisule, the commanding officer of Masindi Artillery Regiment.
On May 16, 1974, at the Republic House (Bulange) Mengo, the Defence Council, chaired by Amin himself, heard the plenary report about the inquiry.
The Sunday Monitor obtained a faded page of the plenary which read in part: “The Defence Council also heard that the report of the commission of inquiry set up to probe the circumstances that led to the March 23 and 24, 1974, incident when soldiers of Malire Mechanised Specialised Reconnaissance Regime took up arms and drove armoured vehicles through Kampala firing rifles, therefore disrupting the peace of the people.”
The commission recommended for the trial of those involved.
Aseni faces Court Marshal
After the inquiry was finished, Amin appointed a military tribunal to try the coup plotters.
The military tribunal sat for the first time on June 4, 1974, at Makindye Military Barracks in Kampala.
On that day, the tribunal heard that: “Army officer NO:UA.403 Lt Colonel Elly Aseni, former governor of north Buganda province, attempted to incite persons [soldiers] to commit at act of mutiny contrary to section 25(a) of the Penal Code Act on the night of March 23 and 24, 1974.”
“He [Aseni] gave orders to Malire Mechanised Specialised Reconnaissance Regiment soldiers to take arms to attack Makindye Military Police and arrest Brig Hussein Malera who was the acting Chief of Staff of the Uganda armed forces.”
The tribunal also accused officer NO: UA.637 Lt James Ayoma of the Kifaru Mechanised Regiment of murder, contrary to section 183 of the Penal Code Act. It was said that on March 24, 1974, he ordered six soldiers from Bondo Battalion [in Arua] to kill three soldiers related to Brig Malera.
As a result of his order, two soldiers; namely NO: UA 15986 Sgt Samson Gugu and NO: UA.15920 private Abdullah Jumna, both of Bondo Battalion, were murdered. The tribunal was chaired by Col Zed Maruru. Other members were Col John Mwaka, Lt Col Isaac Lumago, Lt Col Yusuf Onek and Lt Col Cyril Orombi.
On June 4, 1974, the tribunal sat for the second time, according to the records available.
Lt Col Aseni had just returned from exile from Congo, and as soon as he returned, he was arrested and court marshalled.
He was accused of treason and therefore would be hanged if convicted. But the soldiers had resolved that in the event that he was sentenced to death, they would organise for another coup. Amin got that military intelligence and secretly told Col Mwaka, chairman of the military tribunal, to alter the judgment and exonerate Aseni of all charges.
Aseni was, therefore, released and was later appointed to the USSR as Uganda’s ambassador.
He died in battle in 1980 near Bondo, Arua, in the war against Tanzanians and Ugandan forces that had ousted Amin a year earlier.