Wen Idi Amin attacked Tanzania in mid-November 1978, I was in the army serving in the southern zone of Tanzania. We were all shocked about the attack because Tanzania had not had any bad relationship with Uganda. But we knew Amin did not like Tanzania because we were hosting Ugandan refugees, especially UPC people.
The attack on Kagera found me with President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in the barracks in the southern zone. At first Nyerere didn’t believe but at around 8pm, it was confirmed through BBC.
Mwalimu decided to have dinner with the troops in which he talked about the attack. During the dinner, he said: “We don’t believe he had any cause to do what he has done, what remains is to go and flush him out of our country.” The reply to Amin’s action was also sent through BBC radio.
We didn’t have troops on the border with Uganda and there was a small police post which Amin overrun, killing the regional police commander there.
As we were preparing to retaliate, Amin men were busy looting and killing. Kagera sugar factory was looted clean and all corrugated iron sheets in the area were looted. They also blew up the bridge on River Kagera connecting the salient to the rest of the country, and declared the salient part of Uganda. Amin’s men stationed troops in places such as Kakunyu Kyaka and Minziro to oversee the new territory.
It took us two weeks to plan and mobilise our troops to move to Kagera. Our mission was to get Amin out of Tanzania, we had no intention whatever of getting into Uganda.
Amin, however, announced that taking the salient was just phase one, phase two was to go through Arusha and secure the port of Tanga. With those threats, Nyerere decided that if it was going to be war with Amin it should be within Uganda not on the Tanzanian soil.
When we deployed south of River Kagera, it took us time to be able to cross the river. It was the 19th Battalion under my command that crossed the river first.
We used small boats to cross and secure an area to build a pontoon bridge (floating bridge) for the rest of the troops. Within December, we flashed him out of the salient. But by then, more than 1,000 Tanzanians had been killed in the salient. This was a blessing in disguise as it psychologically prepared our soldiers to hit back, and they had buried the rotting dead bodies Amin had left behind.
Entering Ugandan territory
After pushing him out of Tanzania, Amin continued sending bombs into our country, and this was not going to go unanswered. He consistently bombed the areas of Mutukula, Kikanda, Minziro, and Kakunyu. We first had to knock him out of his positions and occupy them so that if he was to continue bombing us, it would be when we are inside Uganda.
War is an art of fighting not about superiority in weaponry; Idi Amin depended on his superior weaponry. We dislodged him from our territory.
When we captured Mutukula, Amin’s soldiers fled, leaving behind a host of superior weaponry. This gave us our first war harvest. We camped in Mutukula for some time to gauge the reaction from Kampala. We pushed ahead and captured Kalisozo.
However, Amin remained defiant, we decided to move on to revenge for our people killed in Kagera and also to teach him a lesson that what he had done was not good. That is when we decided to capture Masaka and Mbarara and do some good damage in the two towns like Amin had done in Kagera.
Just before capturing the two towns, a meeting under the United Nations was organised in Nairobi, Kenya to address the situation. Uganda was represented by Mathias Lubega, the then Foreign Affairs minister. At the meeting, Lubega announced that what had been done was phase one and phase two was to capture the port of Tanga.
By the time the meeting was convened my forces were overlooking Masaka Town ready to move in, but we were ordered to withdraw 28km from our position, awaiting the meeting’s outcome. This demoralised the troops because we were overlooking the mechanised regiment positions (Revolutionary Suicide Mechanised Regiment) and they didn’t know we had even made plans of capturing the barracks.
After three days, orders came for us to move on. We were even more angered and went into Masaka to punish Amin. By this time, we had some Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) troops in the central axis, one battalion commanded by David Oyite Ojok, and another heading towards Mbarara was commanded by Yoweri Museveni.
In order not to be misunderstood by foreigners and other observes that we were helping UNLA or Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) to attack Uganda, we split these two Ugandan battalions into companies, and embedded them in different TPDF battalions. In my battalion I had a UNLA company headed by Bazillio Okello, then a captain.
Battle for Masaka
The battle for Masaka was very light; the mechanised regiment did not put up a fight as we had anticipated. We caused a lot of damage on Masaka and Mbarara towns in response to what Amin had done to Kagera.
After capturing Masaka and Mbarara, Amin ordered Brig Isaac Maliyamungu to organise a strong force to come and recapture Masaka. Maliamungu came with about 2,500 troops and camped at a place called Bukulula to the north of Masaka. He was tactically organised. This was one of their smartest operations during the war. We did not expect Amin’s soldiers to be that tactical basing on what they had done from the start of the war.
We also reorganised our forces and the mistake we made was putting a less experienced force on the central axis to face Maliamungu, and in that battle at Bukulula and Lukaya we were beaten, it was the first and only place that we were beaten.
We had to reorganise our force and knock Maliamungu out of Lukaya. I commanded the three-day war to dislodge Maliamungu from Bukulula and Lukaya. We attacked Bukulula at 8pm. We knew Amin’s soldiers didn’t know how to fight in the dark, so we avoided fighting during day.
We attacked Bukulula at 8pm and by 1am the place was quiet. I had three fronts, near, intermediate and long range patrols. These patrols saw Amin’s men coming and they informed me. I told them to withdraw to the intermediate position. Amin’s forces came to the intermediate position, I told my boys at that position also to withdraw without firing a bullet. They also withdrew to the final defensive position and I knew Amin’s forces didn’t know we were there.
It was coming to daybreak and I told my soldiers to stay put in their trenches without firing. But daybreak was fast approaching. Amin’s men saw our tanks and guns, but not the soldiers, so they probably thought we had run away.
When they were less than 100m from our last defensive lines, I ordered my soldiers to fire, and we killed more than 600 at Bukulula. We captured all his guns, including the Radio Uganda broadcasting van. Maliamungu had a broadcasting van with him which was connected to the Radio Uganda broadcasting house. From there we went to Lukaya.
The same night Amin’s soldiers wanted to do a counterattack from Lukaya where they had relocated. From Bukulula they ran towards Lukuya which has only one route towards the Katonga Bridge. I also became a bit indisciplined and ordered my troops to do what we call hot pursuit although I was not allowed.
But I was not going to stop my troops from going after a fleeing enemy. That’s how I took Lukaya. The counterattack for Masaka had been foiled and that was the major resistance my battalion encountered until the push to Entebbe.
We stayed at Lukaya for more than a week, just using our Saba Saba (BM 21 multiple rocket launcher) to hit Amin’s men. Between Bukulula and Entebbe there were some skirmishes in which we lost a number of soldiers, but the major resistance was at Bukulula.
Saba Saba and the assault on Kampala
The name Saba Saba was a creation by Ugandans. There was a rumour in Uganda that the guns being used by the Tanzanians were fired from Saba-Saba international trade exhibition ground in Dar es Salaam.
It had been announced on Radio Deutsche Welle that Mpigi was heavily defended and that it was going to experience the heaviest battle. Amin had deployed a lot of soldiers in Mpigi but the tactical and strategic thinking was not right. They didn’t take our capabilities into consideration.
Amin deployed more than 2,000 soldiers around Mpigi, armed with all sorts of weapons. Their plan was to wait for us to get to Mpigi and they finish us from there.
My battalion was assigned to go behind Mpigi and block the road to Kampala to cut off reinforcement from Kampala and block any escape from Mpigi to Kampala. We also wanted to finish the war in Mpigi. We knew Kampala was big and didn’t want to fight in the city to avoid civilian causalities.
I was given a task to go behind Mpigi Town and blocked the road to Kampala at the Katende hills. My battalion of 1,500 soldiers walked 64km without being detected by the Amin soldiers. I moved guns and communication vehicles in one night. We reached Katende where the Libyans had pitched camp.
When my scouts noticed enemies on the hill, I sent a platoon commander forward; I first thought it was a roadblock. I told him to send a platoon to clear it with minimum force because we didn’t want to make noise. As the platoon was deploying, its commander came back and said the enemy’s position was much bigger than a roadblock.
There were tanks and heavy guns. I had to take over now, but I needed time to have all the soldiers together and deploy them. As we were deploying, the Libyans saw us and must have thought we were Amin’s soldiers because we were now behind them, they looked on as we deployed.
After deployment, we started advancing towards them. It was until when one sergeant major walked onto the tarmac with his RPG-- about 50m from the enemy-- and blew up one of their APC’s that they realised that we were not Ugandan soldiers and hell broke loose.
It took me 4 hours and 15 minutes to deal with the Libyans at Katende.
I was almost killed in that battle; it was one of my 11 bodyguards who saved me. One of my company commanders was slow in moving. He kept on saying his side was under intense fire and he could not advance.
I went over to check on him but as I closed in on him the head of my bodyguards said: ‘Afande the fire is too intense here, you will be hit.’ I suddenly stopped and as I turned to go back, my bodyguard was shot but he didn’t die. He was taken to the brigade administrative area for medical care.
At Katende, we captured six T-55 tanks, six field artillery pieces, six mortars and six BM-21 multiple rocket launchers. These (BM-21s) were brought by the Libyans, Amin didn’t have them in his armoury. We also captured about 50 field vehicles. We killed a lot of Libyans.
Having captured Mpigi, battle plans for Kampala and Entebbe were made. I proceeded to go and cut off Entebbe from Kampala. My battalion was divided into two groups. One group went through a village road towards Entebbe while I moved as though going towards Kampala and then branched off to Kajansi. I took Kanjansi first before Kampala and Entebbe fell.
At Kanjansi, some of my troops faced Entebbe while others faced Kampala and others moved to Entebbe.
There was a big fight between Kisubi and Namulanda. Here, Libyans escaping from Entebbe to Kampala fell in our ambush. All their vehicles were blown up and many of them died there. Some tried to run into the swamp and drowned. We captured Entebbe with the least resistance.
With Entebbe secured, we turned our guns on Kampala. One battalion was left at Entebbe guarding the airport and the rest proceeded to surround the city. Kampala was surrounded by three brigades; mine coming from Entebbe, one coming from Masaka Road via Natete, and another brigade which had come through Mityana had gone and cut off the northern route up to Gayaza Road.
We had to leave one route out of Kampala which was Jinja Road, for the diplomats and other fleeing civilians and Amin also used that to escape. We were capable of closing Jinja road if we wanted, but we didn’t want to capture Amin nor did we want to kill him. Had we wanted to kill Amin, I personally would have done so.