What you need to know:
Part II. Monday, April 11, marked 37 years since the Tanzanian army and Uganda exiles toppled Idi Amin’s government. In the second part of our series, we look at the aftermath of the Uganda Army victory at Kagera Bridge
During the “Kagera Operation” that lasted 25 minutes, the Uganda Army used heavy artillery and aerial bombardment to defeat the Tanzanian army who had for 21 days occupied Ugandan territory.
The retreating Tanzanian army could not defend their other tactical base inside Tanzania. The Ugandan forces followed them inside Tanzania and occupied a territory where they committed heinous crimes against innocent Tanzanians in revenge.
On November 1, 1978, having occupied the Tanzanian territory of approximately 1,870 Sq. km for a whole month, Amin through the Defence Council, issued a public announcement on Radio Uganda about the annexation of the Tanzanian territory.
“We inform the nation and the world at large that new Uganda/Tanzania border is now up to River Kagera [inside Tanzania]. The captured territory will be made a full district of Uganda soon, although the army occupies it temporally,” Amin’s statement read.
“All Tanzanians in the captured area up to River Kagera must know that they are under the direct rule of the Conqueror of the British Empire, Field Marshal Amin. However, they will be treated as brothers and sisters of the people of Uganda.”
Amin came under international pressure, especially from African countries, to withdraw from the occupied Tanzanian territory. Then Nigerian president Lt Gen Olusegun Obasanjo convinced Amin to withdraw his troops from Tanzania.
Earlier, Amin had vowed not to leave Tanzania until president Julius Nyerere writes a written assurance that he would never again invade Uganda, which Nyerere refused to do. Nonetheless, Uganda finally withdrew its troops on November 1, 1978.
By attacking Tanzania, perhaps in self-defence, Amin had humiliated Nyerere and a military defeat was the equivalent Amin would get from Nyerere.
When Uganda withdrew its troops, it gave the Tanzanian army chance to regroup near the Ugandan border. For two months, Tanzanian forces reorganised as they prepared for war and on November 27, 1978, they re-attacked Uganda and overrun the Mutukula Post in Rakai District. The Mutukula II battle was the beginning of the war that deposed Amin.
In war, propaganda is a must-employ tool. At the time, no one knew its effectiveness better than Nyerere and the Obote supporters who were in exile in Tanzania.
As a result, Nyerere offered 45 minutes on Radio Tanzania to air well-packaged propaganda in form of news, views and analysis in Luganda and Swahili. The late Sam Odaka, the former minister of Foreign Affairs before the January 1971 coup, was the show host. The programme that aired between 10:15pm to 11pm daily did a lot in breaking the morale of Ugandan soldiers.
Capt Taban Suleiman, a former soldier in the Uganda Army, told Sunday Monitor that propaganda was another tool used to demoralise and divide the army which eventually led to the loss of the war.
One of the lies used was that Amin was a cannibal who ate his own son called Moses. In late November 1978, Radio Tanzania claimed that the much feared General Staff Officer class one (GSO/I) in charge of training and operations, Brig Isaac Maliyamungu, had been dismissed and put under house arrest by Amin.
The radio also declared many senior officers missing in action or said they had crossed to what they called the “liberation army”. Indeed some crossed, including Capt Nkwanga.
While the propaganda worked, it also caused death to some officers such as Brig Yorokamu Tizihwayo, the brigade commander of the western command who was killed in Kasese on suspicion that he was in contact with the enemy (Fronasa) with intent to desert and join them. The show kept on until Kampala fell.
Ex-president Amin sends prison, police officers to frontline
When the war intensified, Amin drafted police and prisons officer into the army. Three of this writer’s family friends from Rukungiri District were conscripted into the military and fought alongside the Uganda Army. But they later deserted.
One of the former officers is today a security guard; another re-joined the prison services while the third heads a security department at one of the companies in Kampala. The writer’s father Gerald Bamuhayira (RIP) was drafted into the military as a driver to the transport section which carried ration, troops to the frontline and causalities to the hospital.
But he too deserted with a Tata lorry truck belonging to the Uganda prisons and went to Fort Portal were Fronasa had captured. He returned to Kampala after the war and retired from the prisons service in April 1990 at a rank of Principal Officer Grade II, which is equivalent to a 2nd Lt in the army. Although none of the former recruits was willing to speak, two agreed to speak to this newspaper on condition of anonymity.
“We once fell in an ambush and we fought back. The fighting was in a potato garden in Masaka and I was shot in the palm [shows his crippled fingers]. And when I was brought to Mulago [hospital] I deserted the war,” says the officer still in the prisons service.
The security guard says: “People think Amin conscripted every prison and police officer. No, we who were conscripted had had a military training before. When we joined the Prisons service in 1974, Amin said even prisons officer should have a military training. After a six-month training in Prisons service, we were taken to Kabamba Military School for a nine-month military training. That’s why your father [Bamuhayira] could not be taken to the frontline because he had no military training.”
Asked why they could not speak on record, he says: “You see we left the armed forces unceremoniously in 1981. When [Yoweri] Museveni went to the bush, Obote thought that we who had a military background, especially the Banyankole, were involved in the attack of Luzira Prisons Barracks [on February 6, 1981] and there was an attempt to arrest us.”
“Your father [Bamuhayira] hid us in the barracks and one day we were put in a prisons bus which was taking prisoners to Mengo Magistrates Court. Damba, the bus driver, dropped us at the bus park [in Kampala]. From there we escaped home.”
Amin had many well-wishers and friends. One of them was Col Muammar Gaddafi, then president of Libya who offered him special forces to fight back the Tanzanians. Unfortunately, many of them were killed in the Lukaya battle.
“Some of the Libyan corpses were buried in a mass grave at the Murchison Bay [inside Luzira barracks]. We used to see truckloads of stinking Libyan dead bodies passing near ‘Soweto’ [houses] where we were staying near the Upper Prison junction,” says the security guard.
Amin again calls for peace
When Amin realised that he was fighting a losing battle, he opted to negotiate with Nyerere. This was after he had got intelligence that the invaders were determined to celebrate the 1978 Christmas in Mbarara.
Amin called on OAU and African leaders to prevail over Nyerere.
Amin sent another telegram to then Sudanese president Jaafar Mohamed El Nimeiri and the secretary general of the OAU, Edem Kodjo, to tell Nyerere to withdraw his troops from Uganda.
On December 6, 1978, Nimeiry arrived in Uganda and met Amin at Pakuba Game Lodge and the following day proceeded to Dar es Salaam to meet Nyerere and try to convince him to withdraw his troops from Uganda. But he was unsuccessful.
Amin pleaded with Nyerere through Nimeiry and Kodjo to reopen Mwanza port on Lake Victoria which Nyerere had closed.
“We have the money. We shall pay,” Amin said, “War is only to destroy life and property. Fighting does not give credit to either Tanzania or Uganda; but it costs a lot of money.”
“However, my appealing for peace should not be interpreted as weakness.”
When Nimeiry failed to persuade Nyerere to change his mind from going ahead with the war, Amin sent a Christmas message to Nyerere through his former minister for Transport and Communication, Mr Paul Etyang who had been appointed assistant secretary general of OAU, to convince Nyerere.
The message read in part: “We in Uganda pray and hope that understanding and peace will prevail in our region for the good of our people. We believe in love, peace, unity and respect for one another.”
However, Nyerere refused to heed. There was nothing that was going to stop the Tanzanian leader from overthrowing Amin’s regime.
By December, all indication was that Uganda was losing territory to the enemy, and it was losing it fast. This was partially due to the confusion from the battlefield which was blamed on then army chief of staff, Maj Gen Yusuf Gowon.
When this reporter met Gowon last year in Arua District in West Nile sub-region, he declined to comment on the war.
When asked what sparked the 1979 war, he gazed at this reporter for about a minute before suddenly holding his head as if in sharp pain: “We Mwanahabali, aaaha. Mambo iyo haaa. Wacha nianze nizungumize na wale wazee wenzangu” (You journalist! Aaaha. That issue…haaa. Let me first talk to my fellow old men there).
The consultation near a mosque lasted about 10 minutes. When he finally returned, Gowon told me that his colleagues had agreed that they needed more time to consult and would talk to me in future.
All the ex-servicemen in West Nile sub-region this reporter spoke to blame Gowon for not telling commander-in-chief Amin the truth about the war.
“We would radio him [Gowon] that the enemy seemed to outnumber us by 3-1 ratio, but he would tell Amin lies,” says one of the Colonels.
Next Sunday read about how the Defence Council imposed curfew as the enemy closed in on Kampala