Thirty years ago, Idi Amin's military government 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 ended the eight-year rule of the man who has gone down in history as one of the most brutal leader in post colonial Africa. In this second part of our series on the fall of Idi Amin, Timothy Kalyegira reveals new information on the 1979 war, which started 30 years ago
yesterday, that challenges the hitherto generally accepted version of events:-
The Uganda Airforce bombed Bukoba town and Kyaka village on October 28 and 29, 1978. Idi Amin sent 3,000 Uganda Army troops into the Kagera Salient and on October 31, 1978, he announced that Uganda had annexed the territory.
On November 2, 1978, Tanzania announced that it was going to counterattack Uganda in a full-scale military operation.
How Amin expected the annexation to be recognised by the international community is not clear.
In any case, pressure from several African governments and Uganda’s main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, finally persuaded Amin to announce the withdrawal of the Uganda Army on November 17.
In November, Amin, dressed in dark blue jeans and a matching jacket, called on Ugandans to turn out in large numbers at the Botanical Gardens in Entebbe to donate reserve blood for the Uganda Army.
Thousands turned up and made their donation, with Amin himself jovially announcing in English that “I have donated two bottle [sic] of blood.”
Maj. Gen. David Msuguri, the commander of the 20th Division of the Tanzanian army, was selected to head the large assault on Uganda by the Tanzanian army. 45,000 Tanzanian troops were mobilised for the war with Uganda.
What particularly stiffened the Tanzanian resolve were reports that Ugandan troops had engaged in the most appalling looting and destruction of Kagera.
The Kagera Sugar Mill and the Mishenyi cattle ranch were looted. More ominously, bodies of civilians were found mutilated and in a number of instances, many of the corpses did not have heads.
This latter development, insignificant at the time, bears some examination. It had never been the style of the 1970s Uganda Army to mutilate bodies during conflict.
When Brig. Isaac Maliyamungu arrived in Kagera in his Mercedes accompanied by a girlfriend, he shed tears at the devastation that he saw in Kagera. That, he insisted, could not have been the work of the Uganda Army he knew.
It is worth noting that all through the 1979 war, the Uganda Army made a point of evacuating civilians from the battle fronts.
Every time a battle or counter-attack was being planned, units of the Uganda Army were ordered to go to places like Mutukula, Kyotera, Masaka, and Mpigi to evacuate the civilian population.
This is part of the reason that, to this day, there are almost no reports of massive civilian deaths. No records, no books published of the 1979 war speak of civilian casualties at the hands of the Uganda Army.
All books and records, when they speak of civilian deaths, speak of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans at the hands of Amin’s state security service before the start of the war.
There are no reports of the Uganda Army going out of its way to attack civilians, even though many civilians openly expressed their support for the advancing Tanzanians.
It is strange, then, to read that this Uganda Army that took care to protect civilians exposed to the conflict would be the same army to unleash such havoc in Kagera.
Future historians and reporters might have to explain this, especially the fact that the pattern of mutilated civilian bodies and decapitated heads in Kagera in October 1978 was replicated in another war yet to come, the civil war in the Luweero Triangle of central Uganda.
In Sowing The Mustard Seed, the author Yoweri Museveni notes that Amin’s army, as part of its looting of the Kagera Salient, stole cattle from Mishenyi Ranch and “The cattle were driven all the way to Mbarara, 145 km away, and distributed to Amin’s clowns.”
It is strange too that most of the troops involved in the war, having come from Kampala-based army units, would, after stealing this cattle, have taken it to Mbarara rather than in the direction of Kampala, as would be expected, where the beef would fetch higher prices.
Future analysts would have to examine this strange development and ask why the stolen Tanzanian cattle ended up in Mbarara rather than Kampala or West Nile, since it is believed that most of Amin’s army came from West Nile.
This is important because, as explained by Museveni in his memoirs, his FRONASA forces were “operating from” the Kagera area at the outbreak of the war and it is well-known that most of the upper ranks of FRONASA were filled by men from Ankole.
Eventually, the Tanzanians entered Uganda and started their long journey that would lead to the fall of Amin’s government.
Some former Prisoners of War from the Uganda Army insist that it was not the Tanzanian army and armed Ugandan groups they fought exclusively during the 1979 war, but troops from Egypt, Angola, Algeria, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and other African countries.
Certainly Egypt was constantly denying reports that its troops were involved in the fighting. Egypt and some other Arab countries were alarmed at the support Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya was giving Amin and sought to counter-balance the Libyan influence.
Describing the final assault on Mbarara town, Museveni wrote: “On the morning of the 27th, we captured Gayaza Hill and went beyond it up to Masha… 18 km from Mbarara. Again there was little fighting because Amin’s soldiers ran away. Our medium artillery, based at a road camp at mile 14, shelled Mbarara the whole of that afternoon… At midnight on 27 February, we advanced on Mbarara and by morning we had entered the town. We captured it easily because there was no resistance… The TPDF battalions fanned across Mbarara, checking the town up to and including the barracks, which they found abandoned.” (Sowing The Mustard Seed, page 99)
In his 1980 book, Imperialism and revolution in Uganda, Dan Wadada Nabudere mentioned this fact of the invading Tanzanian force facing little resistance and the ease with which they gained territory:
“When Tanzanian troops advanced into Uganda they were met by jubilant crowds. As Amin threatened to punish villagers who were welcoming the advancing Tanzanian and Ugandan fighters, a unity of purpose was cemented between the fighters and the people,” Nabudere wrote. (Page 332)
The overall commander of the Tanzanian troops in Uganda, Major General Msuguri, had warned his soldiers not to destroy any infrastructure in Uganda as they would need it in the event of the fall of Amin’s government.
Here were the Tanzanians, facing little resistance from the Uganda Army in Mbarara and Masaka and being wholeheartedly welcomed by Ugandan civilians.
Then starting February 24, 1979, explosions were heard in Mbarara. Citizens discovered to their horror that many of the best buildings in the town had been destroyed by explosives. The destruction continued in Masaka town, with some of the best buildings levelled to the ground.
Since the Tanzanian commander, Major General Msuguri, had expressly forbidden his troops from destroying any infrastructure in Uganda and since the Tanzanian army was, in general, disciplined and was, after all, meeting light resistance in Masaka and Mbarara towns and therefore there was no need to bombard the towns, the task falls on future historians to investigate who it was that destroyed the buildings in Masaka and Mbarara, towns that 30 years later have never fully recovered from this destruction.
A particularly sensitive and painful chapter of this war has to do with the massacre of Muslims in Mbarara in February 1979 when the invading force arrived there.
Many Muslims were killed and thrown into River Rwizi, mosques were destroyed, women raped, and Muslim-owned businesses in Mbarara and Masaka looted or destroyed.
It is unlikely that the Tanzanian army, coming from a country that is 35 per cent Muslim and 30 per cent Christian, would have spared the mainly Christian population of Masaka and Mbarara that was welcoming them, but chosen to inflict atrocities on the small Muslim population of Ankole.
Who, then, massacred the Muslims? It is still in dispute. However, the attacks on the Muslims of Ankole were the first sign that the post-Amin era would not be the peaceful one that many Ugandans and international observers expected.
Something else also came in the footsteps of the 1979 war. As the war progressed, President Amin, speaking on Radio Uganda or at public rallies, often warned Ugandans against placing all their hope in the Tanzanians.
Amin spoke of a mysterious new disease that, he claimed, the liberation force was going to bring to Uganda. This disease, Amin said, had no cure. But because it was sometimes difficult to know what to believe in Amin’s claims, many Ugandans dismissed his warning.
One of the little-known duties of the State Research Bureau intelligence agency was to monitor and investigate any new diseases in Uganda. Amin, in 1972, had made a point of assigning the State Research Bureau this role.
Reports had been coming to Amin of a deadly new, wasting disease in the Kagera Salient of Tanzania and he thought he should pass this information on to Ugandans.
The medical news website www.iaen.org states that “Kagera is at the epicentre of the African Aids epidemic.
The first case of Aids in the region was diagnosed in 1983, although HIV was most likely present at least a decade earlier.”
This deadly disease appeared to have arrived in Uganda along the path taken by the Tanzanian troops and Ugandan exile groups as they advanced through Rakai, Kyotera, Mutukula, Masaka, and Lukaya.
There is something interesting about Aids in Uganda and the claims that Amin’s soldiers went about raping women in Kagera, abuses that sparked off the war.
Aids was clearly already in Kagera, “the epicentre of the African Aids epidemic”, in 1978 but most soldiers would not have known about it and therefore would not take precautionary measures.
It is intriguing that while the majority of the rank-and-file soldiers in the 1970s Uganda Army were from the Aringa tribe of West Nile and were the majority of the Ugandan troops who attacked Kagera, the scourge of Aids among Uganda’s military in the early years of the epidemic was most devastating, not in West Nile, but in Central and Western Uganda.
Given this whole distortion of Ugandan history, it should leave us wondering who exactly were these Ugandans who destroyed Kagera and raped the women folk in the area and why Aids early on took on a central and western Ugandan ethnic face, rather than a West Nile face.