30 years after the fall of Amin, causes of 1979 war revealed

Saturday April 11 2009

Thirty years ago today, the military government of Idi Amin was overthrown by a combined force of the Tanzanian army and a motley of armed Uganda groups exiled in Kenya and Tanzania during the 1970s. It brought to an end the eight-year rule of the man who has gone down in contemporary history as one of the most brutal rulers in modern Africa. In Part I of our new series on the fall of the Amin regime, Timothy Kalyegira contests the widely held belief that the war with Tanzania was started by Amin’s soldiers: --

The first question to ask about the 1978-79 Tanzania-Uganda war is, how did it start and who triggered it off?
The commonly held view, widespread in thousands of books, scholarly papers, and now on websites from all over the world is that as usual, the bad man of Africa, Idi Amin, sent his troops into Tanzania for no apparent reason and what Tanzania subsequently did was counter-attack.

In particular, the view is held that the April 19, 1978 car accident involving the Vice President, Mustapha Adrisi, was set up by Amin to get rid of his rival and tensions within the army over this incident led Amin to stir up war with Tanzania in order to divert his army’s growing tensions.

A paper published in January 1979 by the former president Milton Obote titled “Statement on the Uganda situation” attempted to explain the war this way:

“There is plenty of evidence to show that the recent invasion of Tanzania was a desperate measure to extricate Amin from consequences of the failure of his own plots against his own army.”

One of the main problems in attempting to narrate and record Ugandan history is that there has been no effort to seek a balanced view and break with the stereotyping of the villain of Ugandan history, Idi Amin. Statements and interpretations advanced by interested groups against Amin have been permitted by the world media and world scholarship to pass without scrutiny.


What, then, was the situation in Uganda in 1977 and 1978 just before the war?
According to the Compton Encyclopedia Yearbook, 1979, “The high price of coffee on the world market left Uganda with a budget surplus in 1977, the first in several years.”
The same reference book went on, on page 353 to note, “A number of resistance groups had indeed grown up, both inside and outside the country, but attempts (at least four) to assassinate the president or to sabotage the economy were prevented by the vigilance of Amin’s security forces.”

From this American encyclopedia – and the United States in 1978, as well as most of the western press, were no friends of Amin – we learn two facts: The boom in world coffee prices in 1977 as a result of the frost in Brazil and how that boom was so great that it gave Uganda a budget surplus and secondly, there were at least four assassination attempts on Amin but they were foiled by the “vigilance of Amin’s security forces.”
This indicates that the Ugandan economy, at least in gross dollar export earnings, was vibrant in 1977 and Amin’s army and state security service was still loyal enough to him to foil four known assassination attempts.

Presenting a history programme on the Radio Uganda-affiliated station, Star FM, on July 28, 2006, presenter Semwanga Kisolo said that if there is one thing that used to get Amin so angry that he shouted, it was when he got reports that the salary of any Ugandan government employee had been paid after the 25th of the month.

Just as Amin was always punctual at state events and at his office, he saw to it that government civil servants all over the country were paid by the 25th of every month, no matter what the circumstances.

Under Amin, all army, police, prisons, airforce and intelligence officers and most middle-level to senior civil servants lived a comfortable middle-class life, sent their children to the best schools in every town they worked in, drove the brand-new cars that the Uganda government had imported for its civil servants (Fiat Mirafiori 131, cost Shs75,000, Honda Civic Shs35,000, and Honda Accord Shs45,000.)
The exchange rate of the Uganda shilling to the dollar all through Amin’s time in office from 1971 to 1979 hovered between 7shs to 7.50shs, according to records at Bank of Uganda, the central bank. Inflation remained low for almost all the years that Amin was head of state.

Right up to April 1979 when Amin’s government fell, every single bed at Mulago Hospital and other national hospitals across Uganda had a mattress, bed sheets, a pillow, a blanket, and a bed cover and no patients or their visiting families slept on the floor as it is today. Every single room on the sixth floor (the VIP floor) of Mulago Hospital had a colour television.

Treatment for all Ugandans in all government hospitals in all districts was free of charge for the duration of Amin’s rule.
The Uganda Army shop located near Bulange in Mengo, Kampala was always well-stocked with groceries and electronic consumer goods for the army officers.

Despite the international economic boycott of Uganda led by western governments and pressured on by the exiled Ugandan groups, life in 1977 and 1978 for the ordinary Ugandan ranged from fair to good.

In 1977, a new national airline, Uganda Airlines and a new railway service, Uganda Railways, were born from the ashes of the East African Community. National pride was reinforced.
Furthermore, according to Mr Semwanga Kisolo speaking on Star FM, by 1977, ordinary Ugandans had become fed up with the exile groups. By 1977, African liberation groups like SWAPO of Southwest Africa (today called Namibia), ZANU of Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe), ANC of South Africa, had been banned from Tanzania.

Leading exile groups like Kikosi Maalum (meaning “Special Force” in Swahili) which were loyal to Obote and FRONASA under a guerrilla named Yoweri Museveni were in a period of decline or stagnation.

In Tanzania, many people asked Mr Museveni why he was so determined to fight Amin and yet none of his relatives had been killed by Amin’s regime. Prominent exiles in America and Europe raised money ostensibly to fight Amin but embezzled it, much to the disgust of Ugandans at home and in exile.

Given these circumstances, there is no reason to believe Amin faced deep resentment from an army or civilian population that he treated well, so contrary to the widespread image of Amin as a leader and person.

It therefore seems unlikely that Obote and others who have attempted to explain the start of the 1978-79 war gave their readers a broad and impartial assessment of the conditions in Uganda in 1978.

So if this is not what sparked off the war, what did?
The first reports of activity around the Uganda-Tanzania border area of Mutukula came in July 1978.

The Standard newspaper of Tanzania, in its July 3, 1978 edition quoted the commander general of the Western Brigade, General Yusuf Himidi, as saying that Uganda had been involved in acts that could lead to military confrontation. Gen. Himidi made the comments on July 1, 1978 at Mutukula in Tanzania.

Apparently, there were acts of violence against Tanzanian civilians in the area by people who were either Ugandan or appeared to come from Uganda.

According to information that this writer has recently obtained, the first provocation appears to have come from the Tanzania side of the border.

One of the Uganda Army’s senior officers, Lt. Col. Juma Ali (“Butabika”) Rokoni, Commanding Officer of the Malire Specialist Reconnaissance Regiment, was married to a Ugandan woman from the Baziba tribe that lives in the Mutukula side of the Tanzanian and Ugandan borders.

In late 1978, units of the Malire regiment and Bugolobi-based Uganda Marines (nicknamed “Madoi Doi”) were deployed near the Mutukula border area to maintain a deterrent against invaders from Tanzania.

According to the World Book Encyclopedia Yearbook, 1979, “Uganda’s President Idi Amin Dada charged that Tanzania used the territory to infiltrate revolutionary guerrillas into Uganda.”

Who might these Ugandan “revolutionary guerrillas” be, based in Kagera and provoking Uganda?
Although it is not absolutely certain, some helpful light is shed on this by the former guerrilla, Yoweri Museveni, on page 62 of his 1997 book Sowing the Mustard Seed: The struggle for freedom and democracy in Uganda: “The part of Tanzania on the north side of the river is known as the Kagera Salient and that is where we were operating from.”

In his own words, Mr Museveni states that his FRONASA guerrillas were “operating from” Kagera. Might these be the revolutionary guerrillas that Amin referred to, who were staging acts intended to provoke Tanzania and Uganda into war?
Sometime in late 1978, four Ugandans drinking a local beer called malwa had been shot dead for no apparent reason in Mutukula.

Lt. Col. Juma Ali’s brother-in-law was shot dead probably in October, once again by unknown gunmen from Tanzania.
Being the decisive and somewhat erratic person he was said to be, Lt. Col. Ali sent Malire troops into Tanzania to apprehend the gunmen who were provoking the Ugandan troops near the border in the 1,840 square kilometre part of northwest Tanzania known as the Kagera Salient. The Malire troops went about 80 kilometres into Kagera.

A Ugandan newspaper at the time, the Uganda Weekly News, reported on November 5, 1978 that Tanzanian troops attacked Uganda from October 10-31, 1978 and captured 400 square miles of Ugandan territory. Clashes between Ugandan and Tanzanian troops took place near Munziro Hill.

Since the narrative on Ugandan history is overwhelmingly negative toward Amin, reports such as this in the Uganda Weekly News that point to aggression too by Tanzania have tended to be disregarded by Ugandans and the world media and intelligentsia.
Then on October 30, 1978, President Amin ordered the army to invade Tanzania to claim the Kagera province for Uganda.
This, as far as can be ascertained for now, is the correct sequence of the events leading up to the war.

It is particularly interesting to note Museveni’s reaction to the news of the large-scale Ugandan attack on Tanzania, on page 93 of Sowing The Mustard Seed.

“Never since Amin’s coup in 1971 had I felt so buoyant as I did on the day following the invasion. I knew that Amin was finished… I remember walking along State House Drive in Dar es Salaam, on my way to consult with Edward Sokoine, with a feeling of complete satisfaction about the future course of events,” Museveni wrote.

If Museveni’s FRONASA was operating from Kagera, and Amin was constantly complaining about the presence in Kagera of Ugandan guerrillas trying to provoke conflict between Uganda and Tanzania, and the Ugandan invasion appeared to play into Tanzania’s hands, much to the delight of Museveni as he writes in his memoirs, it remains for Museveni to shed further light on the provocations that led to the 1979 war.