What you need to know:
In our fourth part of the Kagera War series. Maj Gen Ben Msuya, who led the battalion that captured Radio Uganda and other key installations in Kampala and eastern towns, speaks to Sunday Monitor’s Henry Lubega.
Continued from yesterday
I had three chances of killing Amin but I never wanted to. The first time was near Buwama on Masaka Road when he came to inspect his troops in early March 1979. I would have taken him with just one shot from a tank. It was very easy.
The second time was in Kajansi in early April. There is an elevation when you are heading towards Kampala where there is a gymnasium. He came and stopped where there is a statue of a macho man. He had come with about 10 Mercedes Benzes and three APC’s. He got out and stood next to the statue with binoculars checking the enemy. He could not see us because we had already dug in. I decided to scare him. So I went to a tank man and told him to bomb one of the APCs. He targeted it and it was six feet up in the air. I saw Amin running on foot with all his entourage.
The third time was when we were entering Kampala on April 10. After capturing Makindye Military Police Barracks slopping towards Lubiri, Amin appeared at the Queen’s tower coming towards Entebbe side. He wanted to see what was happening after the fall of Makindye without firing; the only problem now was Ugandans coming to jubilate. From there, I don’t think he went back to command post he knew we were in town.
After capturing the Kabaka’s Palace in Mengo, a barracks itself, we went down to Bank of Uganda, Post Office, the Parliament, Radio Uganda, and the Nile Mansion. By 9pm, I had captured the city and I reported back to the base that Kampala was secure. The only serious resistance in the capture of Kampala was at Crested Towers and at the Internal Affairs ministry offices.
There were policemen up on Crested Towers shooting down at us. I turned my four barrel 14.5mm gun and fired up at Crested Towers, and all the glasses went down.
I deployed two companies to guard Radio Uganda, the Central Bank and other installations and I proceeded to Kololo through the golf course.
It was pitch dark and difficult for us to make our way to the command post. But we located it. As we combed the city centre, General Boma took over Mbuya military barracks and Bugolobi before getting to Luzira where he released all the prisoners.
At the command post
We got to the command Post around 11:30 in the night; Amin’s men had already fled. On the ground floor was a big living room, on the side of the stairs going to the first floor were portraits of all the tyrants and generals who had taken power, people like Pinochet, Gaddafi, Pol Pot, Bokasa, Castro and others.
On the raid of the command post, there was a utility house; in one of the rooms in this house were deep freezers and refrigerators with all sorts of drinks. In two of the refrigerators in the top part of the freezer, I saw two human heads and opened the fridge. This is not a myth, it is a reality.
After checking out the place, I told my boys to take up defensive positions, knowing I would evaluate the situation the next morning. When I came back the next morning, everything was gone; Ugandans had looted the command post clean, including the fridges with human heads.
The one platoon left to guard the place just looked on as Ugandans looted the place.
The platoon commander just told me he could not kill the people as they looted. My boss, the brigade commander, Gen Mwita Marwa, gave me a hard time since he had instructed me to keep the command post intact.
When I found the command post looted, I sought out Oyite-Ojok and summoned him to Nile Hotel, he came with another Ugandan major. I told them the people of Uganda didn’t know that we were in Kampala, but it was not me to do so because I was under strict orders not to say a word about Tanzanians being in Kampala. And keeping quite was equally dangerous. I sat with Oyite Ojok and the major he had come with to draft a communiqué, to be aired on Radio Uganda.
At Radio Uganda there was no body to operate the machines for us. When we got into the studio with Oyite-Ojok, I turned every switch which was down up and what was up I put it down. We traced the manager from Muyega to come down and restart the radio. Oyite-Ojok recorded the communiqué and we told the manager to broadcast martial music intercepted by the recorded statement, saying the country had been liberated and Idi Amin was no longer president.
That communiqué was read on April 11, 1979 but Kampala had fallen the day before. I literally held a gun on Oyite-Ojok’s head to read the communiqué, he had refused, saying: “if our friends in Moshi and Dar es Salaam hear me reading this they will think I have taken over”. I told him someone has got to say something and that person has got to be a Ugandan. That’s when he sat down to record the communiqué. That’s when people in and outside Kampala got to know what was happening.
‘President’ for three days
The first three days after the fall of Amin I was the supreme person in Kampala, literally the ‘president’, whatever I said was law.
People feared me a lot. I was staying in Nile Mansions in Idi Amin’s room, room 202, sleeping in the same bed Amin slept in. All the presidential suites had been installed with hidden cameras and Amin was seeing whatever was happening in those rooms. This was my residence for the time I stayed in Kampala.
When I realised this, I went down to the control room and sought the manager. He was a very nice gentleman. He took me around, and I told him to switch off the monitoring system, from the control room located on the ground floor of the Nile Mansions.
I was assigned to organise the swearing in of Yusuf Lule and his team at Parliament and also ensure security during the ceremony. I had no furniture. Everything had been looted. I sent my soldiers to the streets to grab chairs from the looters. We managed to get enough chairs; while Radio Uganda provided the public address system.
April 12 was set to be the swearing-in date. The new president was to fly from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza and then a military plane brings him from Mwanza to Entebbe and travel by road to Kampala. But while in Mwanza, they got a rumour that it was not safe to come to Kampala. They didn’t come that day. These were rumors because I was in Kampala there was no problem at all. So I was president from April 10 to 13.
On April 13 Lule came and was sworn in as president. The function itself was comic because I didn’t know anyone of them. I only knew Lule because he was being thronged by Tanzanian security. When he took his seat, I went around asking who was who, and rearranged their sitting and the swearing in started. After Lule was sworn in, he swore in his cabinet.
From the Parliamentary building, I took the whole team to Apollo Hotel (Sheraton Hotel) and gave them some drinks and some eats. By the time they finished it was coming to midnight. I called my compatriot General Sande and entrusted him with the Lule’s security on the way back to State House in Entebbe as I remained with the ministers.
I took one minister at a time from Apollo Hotel to Nile Mansions and gave each one a room, with instructions not to leave the room until I had said so and to eat nothing besides what I was to provide. This was for their own security, as there was a lot of shooting and killings going on in Kampala. Nobody was to leave their rooms or the hotel premises without my permission.
The next morning, I went checking each room and found Etaker Ejalu in Prof Tarsis Kabwegyere’s room. I asked the professor “how did this one get in here?”
He did not satisfy me with his explanations and I slapped him and ordered Ejalu back to his room.
For security reasons, Cabinet meetings were to be held at Nile Mansion, it was the president to come to Kampala.
It was easy to provide security to one person than all the ministers going to Entebbe. My boss, the brigade commander, instructed me to stay in Kampala and oversee security of the city. After three weeks, there was some sense of security. I handed Kampala to General Bayeke and moved on to catch up with the attack on Jinja.
I linked up with my 19th Battalion and others under 208 Brigade commanded by General Marwa to capture Jinja. The fight for Jinja was at Nile breweries just before crossing the bridge. There were some stubborn Amin soldiers who were probably drunk hiding within the factory. We flashed them out and went on to take Jinja. After Jinja we went to Magamaga. There was a women’s prison and I released all the women prisoners.
After the fall of Jinja we moved as a group up to the junction to Mbale. Here we were divided into three battalions, one heading to Mbale, another to Moroto and mine went to Tororo. At that point we were streetwise and saw no point of walking, I commandeered some lorries and buses, loaded all the soldiers into the vehicles leaving one company walking the forced match for 5km, get into the bus and another company gets out, this was for security.
After two days we reached Tororo, having had a small fight at the cement factory and on the road to Busia, Majanji.
I stayed in Tororo for a while then a decision was made to demobilise because the whole country had been liberated, we had to return to Tanzania.
Appeal for extended stay
TPDF had not come to Uganda to occupy it but to remove Amin; once that mission was accomplished we started demobilising to leave the country.
But the new government requested for some military element to remain until they had their own army and security. I was pulling out of Tororo to Jinja to catch a ferry to Mwanza with my troops when General Marwa told me I should go back to Kampala, saying there was still shooting in Kampala.
Before taking on the new responsibility, I set conditions. One of which was I was not going to serve with people who had fought in the war. I wanted fresh troops from Tanzania who had not been in the war. My reasoning was soldiers who had fought in the war were already immune and rough. They could not do policing work that we were required to do. Gun shots are not new to their ears. I was given a whole battalion fresh from Shinyanga Recruitment Centre.
With fresh battalion, I pitched my base at Lubiri barracks with Kabaka’s office as my base. Every morning we were picking between 30-40 dead bodies within Kampala. I started gathering information on who was killing who in Kampala, and began arresting them one by one.
One morning, I went to CPS and I found 50 of them had escaped. I was very mad with the Ugandan police.
I summoned Paulo Muwanga, then Internal Affairs minister, I told him to be at my office in Lubiri barracks in 10 minutes or else he was as good as dead. When he got to the gate at Lubiri he left his car there and ran to my office panting.
I offered him a seat and I told him what had happened at the CPS and I told him I wanted the regional police commander there removed and the others on duty to be dismissed. He went and dismissed the entire police leadership in Kampala and a new team was brought in.
I started clearing the city, I would go out at night with 300 soldiers to codon off a section of the city and search house to house. We would knock on the door ask the head of the house if there was any gun in the house. We cautioned them “if you say no and we found a gun in there then you are in trouble”. People who had guns surrendered them, some people refused but we got them.
We got guns hidden in toilets, others in drums full of water. Some people surrendered their guns and there was total peace in Kampala. The killing totally stopped. Some Baganda elders came to my office and went down on their knees thanking me.
I started opening up cinema halls, music halls and the bars. I changed the curfew which used to be 6pm to dawn to start at 8pm to dawn then it went on to start at midnight as the situation improved.
Uganda was a very difficult country to rule because the people’s psychology had been dented by Amin and even before Idi Amin there was this chiefdom thing, so everyone wanted to do what they wanted. When Lule became president, he was very popular, but in a short time everything had become Buganda and Baganda. He wanted to have Baganda everywhere. I know something was discussed at the top level and a decision was made that Lule must go.
It was a very difficult task for me to go and tell him that now you are no longer president, it wasn’t easy. I went to Entebbe and told him from this moment you are not president. He asked who had said but but I told him these are the orders. The Baganda didn’t like it and went on a strike saying no Lule no food, no Lule no work, Kampala became chaotic.
I got information that they were planning a huge rally in Kampala to cause chaos. I told my soldiers to make a good stick each and they got deployed on every roundabout, junction and on the streets of Kampala. Word went around that the soldiers are waiting for you in Kampala with guns and canes.
Binaisa is president
Godfrey Binaisa became president after but his day came when we wanted to make Oyite Ojok an ambassador, Museveni a minister of Regional Cooperation from Defence, and Ejalu from the Information and Broadcasting ministry. He announced the transfer of the two ministers and the removal of chief of staff without consulting the council (NCC). When the council heard and convened sitting, orders came from Dar es Salaam that they should not break off until the issue had been resolved.
I was instructed to go into the conference hall and I whispered to President Binaisa that “I have been instructed to make sure the council does not break until the issues at hand have been concluded.” He said “ehhh banange who is giving those instructions?” I told him I had been asked to pass on to you. I deployed 300 soldiers around the conference Centre to make sure no one left and I also instructed the manager of the hotel to make sure there was food and drinks for everybody. I literally held the entire Consultative Council like hostages.
They finally agreed to reverse Binaisa’s decisions, but this became a big dent on Binasa’s relationship with the people he wanted to transfer. That was how things started going wrong for him. In the final removal of Binaisa the Tanzanians had no hand in it. It was only Lule where they were involved. After Muwanga took over as the chairman of the Military Commission, I left Uganda.
WAS THE WAR WORTH IT?
To us Tanzanians, the war was worth the fight because we managed to get rid of the person who was causing us trouble. We didn’t want to capture Ugandan territory.
We fought a very human war in such a way that the Ugandan population was on our side. They are the ones who were giving us intelligence information, and we tried as much as possible not to kill civilians. I don’t think it was necessary for Ugandans to keep remembering that day when Amin was overthrown.
During the time I was in Uganda it was great working with Ugandan politicians like Tandon, Nabudere, Kabwegyere, Rugumayo and the others but the only problem I saw with Ugandan politicians was that everyone was pulling towards his tribe.
This was the only total war that I fought during my time of service until I retired. We went into Uganda to fight Amin, I have sweet memories that we managed to remove the tyrant and came out of it alive.
I looked up for a news anchor on radio Uganda (Mzungu Kanga), he was calling our president names calling him a Munyarwanda and abusing us. I didn’t know he was Tanzanian, when he was brought to me I realized he was a Musukuma from Northern Tanzania. I asked him why he was calling my president a Munyarwanda. He said he was reading what he was given for his own safety. I gave him a good beating and left him to go I did the beating myself, had I left the beating to my soldiers it would have been worse because I know soldiers sometimes can be overzealous.
This is just a personal experience and not a representation of the whole war. It’s just what happened in the areas where I was and what I saw. And Ugandans should know that we did not come to Uganda to fight Ugandans but just to fight Amin because he was exporting is tyranny beyond Uganda to Tanzania and we came there to fight a humane war against Amin.
Next Saturday, we bring you Col Steven Isaac Mtemihonda, a retired TPDF soldier, who commanded the 14th battalion of Brigade 203 and later trained UNLA soldiers.