Muntu’s walk from Makerere to the bush war and back

Sunday March 28 2010


Retired Maj. Gen. Gregory Mugisha Muntu was army commander of National Resistance Army which later became the Uganda People’s Defence Forces for eight years. In the first ever interview he has given on the subject, Maj. Gen. Muntu, who is a senior member of Opposition Forum for Democratic Change shared his revealing experiences of his time at the helm of the army with Sunday Monitor’s CHARLES MWANGUHYA MPAGI:-

“During the 1979 liberation war we were still at university and we closely followed the war and the debate which was going on about a fresh beginning after the country had gone to the lowest point. As students, we followed these (post Amin) debates closely.

RESPECTFUL: Gen. Muntu while still army

RESPECTFUL: Gen. Muntu while still army commander.
During the UNLF days we participated in establishing the 10-cell house (Mayumba Kumi) system, I was working in the Bugisu region. We had been divided into different teams and we went into different camps. I was with Fred Kwesiga and Ivan Asiimwe with some three others, each team had six or eight people—all students. We had hoped that the politicians would have learnt from their mistakes of the 60’s and 70’s. We used to come and sit in the [parliamentary] gallery and watch the debates, interact with National Consultative Council members in the immediate post-Amin administration.

Debating democracy
The debate was on whether the country should go back to [multi]-party democracy, whether Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) as an umbrella organisation should create stability in the country first, create stable conditions for a return to multi party politics first. I got a sense that people had not learnt from the mistakes of the past, I also got a sense that people were being motivated by individual considerations.

A majority of the people seemed less focused on how the country would benefit but rather on how to position themselves regardless of the consequences. These debates often spilled over into the elections of 1980. Of course the country went into multi-party system of governance—in my estimation it was not yet ready for that. I never joined any party in the 1980 elections but I voted for Bidandi Ssali a Uganda People’s Movement (UPM) candidate. I had got a feeling that the political process was not going to resolve the political issues of the time, I had a feeling that we needed to clean the decks and start afresh.

There was a sense of uncertainty. To me, it looked like we were heading for violence. The state was so weak and most of the actors had no sense of what was good for the country. If you were part of the establishment and you are secure, you are vulnerable and you could prosper that is what mattered.

Vulnerable UPC
I was close to some people in Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) circles, but I also got a sense that the senior people in UPC were as vulnerable. They did not seem to have the capacity to think about what was likely to happen. So we went into the elections of 1980 which up to now I think were grossly mishandled. Something within me, something that has always driven me is to see a sense of justice, a sense of fairness (and I did not seem to see that in the arrangement either before or after the elections of 1980).

In all this period, I never knew Museveni as a person, I had heard about him and read about him and he seemed to espouse the ideas I believed in and that is why I had supported Bidandi Ssali who was standing on the UPM (Museveni’s party) ticket. There is only one meeting which I attended where Museveni was present before I met him in the bush. I don’t think he created any particular impression on me during that meeting, I also don’t recall much of what was discussed.

So, until I went to the bush I never knew him as a person. I knew him from what was being written about him and what he said he stood for. He was talking a language of justice, freedom and in my mind that is what differentiated him from the other politicians. So what brought us together was not that I knew him, in fact I knew more people in UPC (Maj. Gen. Muntu was born into a family with strong UPC roots - ED) that I was close to.

Bush trek
Between the elections of December 1980 and February 6, 1981 when the [bush] war started, the language of war was rife in the air. I did not need any convincing, my mind was already set. I never attended any meeting or that anybody convinced me. There was already a sense of uncertainty; there was a sense of no control of the security services. Personally, I was well connected in terms of the fact that I knew people in the security and political apparatus but there was a sense of insecurity for other people. But it has never made sense to me that I should be safe because of who I know.

On March 21, 1981, I joined the bush [war]. I had made initial attempts to go earlier but they failed. We were in a transit home on Nkurumah Road one day where we were waiting for a contact to take us to the bush but while we were there, one of the operatives who was a soldier (in UNLA) got drunk and talked.

Spilling beans
I think he was trying to recruit a soldier so they took him to Makindye and while he was there, he was tortured and he talked about our rendezvous, a force was sent and they bust the place. I was with Henry Tumukunde (now Brigadier) and also with [Goeffrey] Muhesi (now Maj. Gen.) and other colleagues. I think we were about seven people. Fortunately, for me and Henry we escaped and hid in a shop below, Muhesi had gone out at the time, I could see him standing behind Uganda House just at the pavement. The other colleagues, Stephen Busingye and Nyakaitana and Nyebesa were arrested and taken to Mbuya where they later died.

After this incident, the whole network of those who used to take people to the bush went underground. We tried for two days but we could not make contact so we went back to Makerere. I did my exams and finished on March 14. After that I again started looking for contacts and failed. We had been told that we could make contacts through Nairobi and I had a brother living there.

We were also afraid that the other colleagues who had been arrested would reveal our names. I bought a bus ticket ready to go to Nairobi but that morning a young man came to my door in Livingstone Hall and told me that “Dumper” had come.

Dumper was an operative, a hall mate who knew that they we were looking for that man told me so we linked up with him and immediately moved with him from Makerere and linked up with other guys—about eight of them including Kagumire, Ssimba, Kahangura, Ggwende, the late Jet Mwebaze and Kamanzi with whom we linked up at Mulago. We walked through village paths to Matugga, we hid somewhere until it was dark and resumed our journey. We walked through the night to a camp where we met Museveni at a camp fire.

We found there about 40 soldiers, this was a fighting unit called Abdu Nasser, we were teamed up with another group, we were about 20 or 30 and on the second day we moved again at night to Rukoora, Singo where the training camp was. However, on the second day of moving to the training camp we reached Makulubita, we found there soldiers who had been training at the camp we were moving to. Unknown to us and the camp at Matugga the camp had been attacked by Obote soldiers. There was a sense of panic, we retreated to Kakinga and the whole group, fighters and trainees, were brought together to plan afresh.

At that camp we were again divided into six units, Mondlane, Kabalega, Mwanga, Abdu Nasser and Ruta. Museveni briefed us and asked us questions; what we had been doing before we went to the bush, he briefed us on the objectives of the struggle and his keen interest to recruit intellectuals—graduates and students—we were told that the force was large and well equipped. This we later found was not true.

The first unit in which I served was Mondlane, we were about 40 and had only three guns, the strategy was to let each unit recruit, train and build capacity locally. That’s basically what happened. Shortly after, Museveni left the bush (about April/May). We got the first batch of guns and ammunition from Libya about July/August. They included about 100 AK 47s and some medium guns, RPGs and some land mines. They were distributed to all the units. We would put units together and carry out attacks against police stations and military barracks to get more guns that is how we built capacity.

Museveni returned around September/October. On my second operation, I was shot and injured. We were going to attack Wobulenzi and we were ambushed at Bukalasa. I was brought back to Kampala and admitted at Kisekka Hospital for about a month I healed and went straight back.

Internal contradictions developed because I remember when I returned from hospital I found the commanders were being influenced by the old culture where the commanders were everything. The Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and the young graduates were being branded “intellectuals.”

Disagreements develop
Some of the commanders had been trained in Munduli. [Tanzania] and had served in the UNLA, they used to have a practice called “size ya commander” (fit for the commander). You would go for an attack and charge things like new uniforms or boots and other things and the commander would say, “hiyo ni size ya commander” meaning you should hand it over because the size fits the commander. It was a small thing but it would tell the thinking and this was early in the struggle. We challenged that.

It reached a time when where we had planned to split the camp. We linked up with NCOs, we were led by Enoch Mondo we wanted to pick up our things and leave at night. We wanted to walk away but continue the struggle separately until this issue was resolved. It seems Museveni had heard of the unrest in the bush because before we effected our plan he came back. We held a meeting and throughout the meeting it was the intellectuals who took over the discussion of what direction to take. We needed to chart a new direction. We said we were not careerists and that this was a political struggle executed through military means.

I think we won the argument because a number of things changed, things like Unit Disciplinary Committees were established, finance committees, we also started having regular baraza discussions where soldiers could express themselves without fear of reprisal from the commanders and policy and administrative committees and for fair and equal distribution of whatever came our way.

Fresh foundation
We felt we had now set up a new foundation. Corporal punishments were outlawed. Previously, a commander would just flog a soldier or order any punishment anyhow. From there, we went into operations. Through the use of mines we made it impossible for the government military to reach us, we created a secure zone and some of the commanders could even drive vehicles in some areas of Luwero until the government forces carried out a major offensive around 1983 and pushed us out of Bulemezi and we retreated to Singo and Ngoma.

What sticks out for me are the contradictions: You ask yourself; what kind of future did you want? That sense of entitlement that first emerged in the bush, which still lingered and later emerged to derail the objectives for which we went to the bush.

Bright future
It was so stark as the war progressed and we were sure we would take over power people started talking about what they were planning, where they wanted to live, or saying ‘I will be this, I will live in this neighbourhood.’ It became intense when we took over power. After taking over our intentions were to all go into barracks but that was heavily resisted as soon as we arrived here. People started running to live in Kololo, Nakasero and I think that is where we lost it.

Our argument was that let us all go into the barracks—all the commanders, officers and men regardless of who you were but we unfortunately lost the argument. It took long for the negative forces (within us) to erode the culture we had started to create as a people’s army.

The moment officers went into houses in Kololo, Nakasero etc, that was it. I think that started promoting the sense of acquisition and that went into business and the feeling of everyone getting in to get something for himself. It has now gone into what we see today.

We discussed it several times but it soon became a status symbol and part of the status quo. Nobody wanted to reverse that and I don’t know why. There used to be an argument between traditional careerists officers (and those who thought different of the purpose of the struggle). A kind of warlord mentality emerged—that you fight to take power you must be recognised for it. That sense of entitlement.

As we moved on, President Museveni’s long term plans and the warlord mentality found a meeting point. He found it difficult to deal with or punish those that participated. Eventually he became a key representative of that very mentality. He says he killed his animal, there are those who said “hii ni size ya commander” which he said he opposed. I ask myself, were those the ideals that motivated our struggle?

Varsity days
Before going to the university where I studied political science, I wanted to study journalism to use it as a vehicle to influence the way things were going. Right from primary school I followed closely the liberation struggles across the world and by the time I was grown enough to participate in the political process I already knew that a part cannot be well without the whole being well.

In 1983/84, I was appointed Director Civil Intelligence, Jim Muhwezi was then head of Military Intelligence, and David Tinyefuza was Director General. About 1984/85 we were switched and I became director military intelligence and Jim took over civil intelligence.

I held the position until 1987 when I was sent out to the Soviet Union study, when I returned in 1989 I was appointed commander of the army unit based in Lira where I stayed for about six months until November of the same year when I was appointed Army Commander.

For me I would see no problem in carrying out a probe of any nature into the killing sin the Luwero Triangle during the bush war [as demanded by UPC president Olara Otunnu] over any period because I think that is what will cause us to confront our past.

Luwero questions
I think many people are trapped in it and that is what is distracting our future. Establishing the truth will create the healing necessary for establishing our future. But if any probe is motivated by us trying to prove who was right and who was wrong according to what we believe it will not lead us anywhere.

I think those of us who are political actors in the present need to know that none of us will change the past. But the manner in which we approach the past will most likely affect the future that we want to construct.

We were able to build the foundation for professionalism, the army established terms and conditions of service for officers and men. We started putting in place systems of accounting in the force and administrative management systems. We also moved towards equipping the force, training, establishing discipline among officers and improving the welfare of the force. Of course, we faced challenges building a force amidst conflict.

At one point we had seven conflicts including Nalu in the Rwenzoris, Funa in West Nile, UPDA in eastern Uganda, the late Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, Fedemu, UFM among others. By the time I left command peace had been established in all these areas, other than Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the north. There were also other conflicts like the conflict between us and Kenya and between us and Sudan which were handled and diffused politically.

On ghost soldiers, we tried to manage the situation but we were failed. I had appointed a unit led by the Late Col. Sserwanga Lwanga deputized by Col. Bogere but when I wanted to start arrests a debate emerged that the same commanders we were going to arrest were the same who were fighting the war against Kony. The Army Council said don’t arrest. At one time “they” tried to establish a unit from outside to do a head count but it did not do much.

There were incidents where a number of commanders lost control and all those were tried. There was time where a whole unit was arrested. The 35th battalion in Namukora was arrested after the incident at Burchoro where civilians were killed. There were cases where some officers had two military minds. There were commanders by winning hearts and minds, there were commanders who could break down under pressure, it is in such cases when there were incidents [of atrocities against civilians in the north].

What I contest is that there was a deliberate policy of extermination. There were operational mistakes. Initially some commanders were faced with a challenge, they had no mechanism to establish a difference between former soldiers (turned rebels), rebel allies and others.

In tough circumstances the majority of commanders did what they could. [In answering what drives my disagreement with President Museveni], questions of democracy and governance, were we fulfilling the promises we made to the people when we went to the bush? The objectives we fought for, many shed their blood for? Honesty, transparency, equality before the law, principles of separation of power? How do you explain a situation where someone breaks the law but he is not punished and another breaks the same law and is punished.

We had hoped to have a government that tames the executive and promotes the legislature and the other arms of government so that there is separation of powers. The country is now being run like a bull in a china shop where one arm of government occupies the space of the others. We are seeing systematic undermining of all the other arms of government by the executive.

We knew we would not perfect the system but that we would learn from the mistakes of the past, but we see the reverse. The 1996 elections were better than 2001, which in turn was better than 2006 and everyone is holding their breath for 2011.