Who killed Acholi, Langi soldiers ?

Tuesday April 21 2009

In part 11 of our continuing series on the fall of Idi Amin’s military government, Timothy Kalyegira explores the question of who killed the Acholi and Langi soldiers in 1971 : -

In yesterday’s part, we read the psychological profile of Amin by his enemies the Israeli foreign intelligence agency Mossad which portrayed Amin as being of a sound mind. It is also significant that in the books written by Israelis, bitter with Amin after the 1976 hostage crisis at Entebbe, none describe him as a mass killer.

Having now seen Amin for who he is, not as he is portrayed in the history books and world media, we can start the process of tracing back his reputation of mass murder and here comes a very interesting side to this growing alarm at Amin’s influence.

The director of the General Service Unit (GSU), Naphtali Akena Adoko, who was also a cousin to Obote, plays a role little known to history.
After President Obote was seen off at Entebbe International Airport, on January 21, 1971, by senior government and military officials, including Naphtali Akena Adoko the director of the General Service Protection Unit (or General Service Unit as most Ugandans incorrectly call it), Adoko flew to London. ***image1***

On the night of January 24, 1971, Adoko held a party at the London home of Ben Etonu, a London-based Ugandan who had been hired by the High Commission.
The party was attended by Adoko, Emmanuel Ssendawula (later a deputy Katikiiro of Buganda) who was the Information Officer at the Uganda High Commission, Fred Semaganda (later a Mayor of Kampala City) who was a GSU officer attached to the embassy.

The Military Liaison Officer (or Military Attachè) was a Special Branch officer called Erisa Kanagwa. As the party progressed, Adoko rang up Kanagwa and asked why he had not joined in the party. When Kanagwa said he did not know about a party, Adoko remarked that Kanagwa was a “black sheep of the family” for not being part of the party, according to Kanagwa recalling this extraordinary January 1971 night in April 2008.


What was the celebration for? An impending military coup against Obote, planned by Akena Adoko! Kanagwa rang up a contact within the domestic British security service, the MI5, and asked what this meant. The contact wondered why Kanagwa did not know what was going on. Back at home in Uganda, said the MI5 officer, there was a military coup underway.

As I mentioned in the June 2007 series, the 1971 military coup by Amin was in reality a counter-coup. This extraordinary new information provided and verified by Kanagwa (who stands by his story) indicates that Akena Adoko, Obote’s cousin and head of the GSU, had planned to overthrow Obote in a coup backed by the British.

But as Akena, Ssendawula, Semaganda, Etonu and others were celebrating in London what they thought was the impending overthrow of Obote, little did they know that a soldier called Isaac Maliyamungu --- who spoke a range of languages from English to Lusoga, Luganda, Runyoro, Kakwa, Kiswahili, Luo, among others --- had overheard some Acholi and Langi soldiers based at the Malire Regiment at the Lubiri in Kampala discussing the coup plans.

Maliyamungu alerted his colleagues in the army and soon a group of non-Acholi and non-Langi, fearing that they were about to be arrested by the coup plotters working for Akena Adoko, staged a fight back that culminated into what we now know as the military coup that brought the army commander, Major-General Idi Amin to power.

The British, realising perhaps that their backing of an Adoko coup had failed quickly came up with a Plan B and threw their support behind Amin.
It is important to digest this angle because it explains the bitterness that Akena Adoko had with the new head of state Idi Amin after 1971. Amin had pulled off a brilliant move, countermanded Adoko’s coup plot, and launched himself into power.
And so, unsurprisingly, the first person to launch a major international campaign against Amin in 1971 and accuse him of being a mass murderer was Adoko.

Speaking on the BBC World Service radio programme “Focus on Africa” on October 7, 1971, Adoko denounced the Amin government and accused Amin of having massacred 75 per cent of the Acholi and Langi soldiers in the army at the time of the coup in January.

In a statement issued on February 18, 1972, the Amin government refuted the accusations of the mass killings of Acholi and Langi, saying: “It would not have been possible for 4,000 to 5,000 Langi and Acholi to have been overpowered and annihilated as claimed by a mere 1,000 troops comprising the balance of the armed forces… A number of persons that were presumed dead or missing at the time of the military take-over have turned out to be the very persons who have either been writing back to their colleagues or friends in Uganda or who have since joined the ranks of guerrillas and are actively campaigning against the government of Uganda.”

At that time, world opinion dismissed Amin’s explanation but in 1979 after the fall of Amin, many of these “massacred” Acholi and Langi soldiers, now fighting under the Kikosi Malum force that made up half of the UNLA, returned to Uganda and claimed their army numbers from the pre-1971 period.

Many others died during the fighting in September 1972 when guerrillas attacked Mbarara in an abortive attempt to overthow Amin. As for the others, the Uganda Human Rights Commission set up in November 1986 to investigate the bloody history of Uganda since independence visited Gulu and Kitgum in 1990.

As the government-owned newspaper The New Vision reported on November 12, 1990, “Among evidence first heard, was the massacre of 417 people said to have been killed by Idi Amin and Joseph Lagu, leader of the then Anyanya fighting group from Sudan. Narrating the story, Abdon Okumu, a primary school teacher in Lokung, Kitgum said the victims were massacred in April 1971 at a place known as Ogwech corner.

He told the commission that these people were captives who had tried to go into a military training camp with an intention of coming back to topple Amin’s government. But that they were captured on their way back by Lagu’s men who brought them back and subsequently massacred them all.”
We have thus accounted for the majority of the Acholi and Langi allegedly massacred by Amin.

Then there is a disturbing story I first heard in 2007 from a woman from western Uganda who knows both the Amin and the first Obote governments well. She says Acholi and Langi airforce pilots and technicians who had been abroad for training at the time of the coup returned to Uganda, were attacked by Bantu-speaking airforce officers.

Amin’s former senior aide, Major Bob Astles, in an email to me on November 14, 2007, confirmed the harassing and killing of the Acholi and Langi pilots and technicians by their Bantu colleagues: “Most of these young men were returned by Russia.

Certainly one large group of mainly air force were lined up at the Old Entebbe airport when leaving the aircraft from Russia and then badly beaten up on the command of a Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM ). Amin was in England at the time. Certainly at the time Bantu were killing Nilotics.”

In the next part, we examine the role of another armed exile group called FRONASA in the anti-Amin struggle.