The daughter of an Anglican bishop, Capt. Gertrude Njuba shunned politics as a young woman. But then she ran out of options and found herself ferrying rebel recruits in her car to Yoweri Museveni in Luwero and Matayo Kyaligonza in Mukono. She was a principal aide to rebel chief Museveni for the most part of the bush war. Having served in Museveni’s first Cabinet and at the Movement Secretariat, Njuba is now a presidential adviser on political affairs. She recounted to William Tayeebwa the highs and lows of the 1981-’86 Bush War: -
When Idi Amin was overthrown in April 1979, we all jubilated and thought that sighting bodies along the roads would stop. Unfortunately, our happiness did not last long. During the short-lived post-Amin regimes, we saw atrocities being committed by the very people who had come in as liberators. My husband, Sam Njuba, in his capacity as chairman of the Uganda Law Society, was quite outspoken against the excesses of the regime. In May 1980, he was arrested by Paulo Muwanga and detained in Makindye barracks for some months.
Although I had grown up as an apolitical Christian girl, I was so disgusted by the regime to the extent that I was willing to join whoever wanted to fight it.
As I was struggling to get my husband out of prison, someone told me that only one man could help me. It took me quite long to get Mr Yoweri Museveni’s contact, but when I did, I met him immediately. He knew Sam Njuba because they had been at University of Dar-es-Salaam together. He therefore helped me get better access to Njuba in Makindye barracks and was also instrumental in helping us get the case file for a faster trial.
Njuba was released at the time when we were getting ready for the presidential and parliamentary elections [of 1980]. We therefore joined Museveni’s Uganda Patriotic Movement and Njuba stood for the Kyadondo parliamentary seat, which he lost.
After the rigged December 1980 elections, most former UPM candidates were being harassed. But during the campaigns, Museveni said it openly that if anyone rigged the elections he would be opposed using all means. I recall that one day, Mrs Bidandi Ssali and I went to meet Museveni and asked him what he thought we could do. He made it clear to us that he was going to fight the regime but asked us whether we thought the population would support the war. We told him that people could not stand Milton Obote and would be willing to fight if they got the leadership. He then turned to us and asked: If I started a war, would you join me? We gave him our word and left.
So, when his group attacked Kabamba on February 6, 1981, some of us had already gotten in touch with him. And as soon as news reached Kampala, one of the first people the regime wanted was Sam Njuba.
Soldiers came to our house in Kawuku in Ggaba. That day, people found me in town and alerted me not to go home. Our neighbourhood had been attacked. That is the time Njuba sneaked out of the country and went into exile in Nairobi.
Sometime in March 1981, our contact called Abdu Kyeyune came for me and we drove to meet Mzee [Museveni] in a forest in Luwero. I recall him telling me that he was sending me to open a front in Mukono. I then told him I have never held a gun, to which he said I would get some people to help me. He put me in touch with Matayo Kyaligonza and then I got inducted into guerrilla warfare.
Initially, my job was to mobilise the population to join our struggle. We went around meeting people in their homes asking them to provide whichever assistance. Some allowed us to operate from their forests, while others provided food. Clearly, most people wanted to fight Obote, but they did not know how.
It was not easy at first to get people joining us because they considered it very risky. Some people would be intimidated by the military might of the government army and keep asking us where we would get guns to fight such a formidable army.
Then came another major challenge of tribalism. Each time we talked to people, they would ask who our leader was. At the mention of Museveni, some people would tell you point blank that they would not join a Munyankore. That is the time when Andrew Kayira was also setting up his rebel force. A number of people would tell us they preferred fighting for their fellow Muganda [Kayiira]. We would manage to persuade some few that it was the Munyankore who was the best trained to fight a guerrilla war than our Muganda.
As the war progressed, my job became that of running errands between the Luwero and Mukono bush war fronts and the city. I would be the link person between the civilians who wanted to join and our people in the bush.
I would use my car to ferry rebel recruits to the bush and come back. Our major problem at the time was supplies. The people of Kireka helped us a lot. There evolved a system whereby people would provide us food and we drop it by the roadside. All the taxi drivers on that route had become our allies and would pick our supplies and drop them in Namugongo where we had a camp.
As someone who was doing bush errands, I ran the highest risk of being discovered and captured anytime. In one incident, we were taking guns to our camp in Namugongo with Kyaligonza. It was a Sunday and we had avoided several roads preferring to take the Gayaza one. Shortly after Kalerwe [in Kampala], we fell into an abrupt roadblock. One soldier asked what we had in the boot to which Kyaligonza answered: we have guns! We all laughed and the soldier simply allowed us through.
To him, it was a huge joke for someone to dare say he was carrying guns in a car boot. During another incident, we had gone to pick yet other guns from our contact in Lubiri barracks [in Kampala]. I was again with Kyaligonza and Musoke Deku. As we were driving towards Rubaga, we again fell into a roadblock at the Rubaga-Mengo junction.
Kyaligonza had briefed me earlier that if such a situation ever arose, I should feign serious sickness as if I were getting a miscarriage. As the soldier approached, I started wriggling in the car. He shone a torch into my eyes and I think he saw a lot of sickness in me. After exchanging a few words in Acholi with Kyaligonza, the soldier allowed us through but warning us not to come back since the curfew would be on for a long time. We did not proceed far deciding to hide among friends within Mengo.
Settling in the bush
One day in April 1982, I went to Luwero as usual and then Museveni told me that it was becoming dangerous for me to continue operating in the city. He told me that the operations had become very swift and therefore he wanted me to stay in the camp. I had a problem with my leg and could not work as swiftly as some young people.
By that time, I had put all my kids into boarding school and had told my parents and relatives that it was dangerous for me to remain in touch with my children. Separation with the children was not easy, but they knew that we had problems. They had seen us running from our house to sleep in the bush. They also knew their father had run into exile.
Conditions in the bush were at first quite difficult since I had until then been a mobiliser and not a fighter.
However, I quickly started to enjoy my political lessons conducted by Mzee himself. He convincingly explained to us the reasons why we were in the bush.
My first job was actually an administrator to Mzee himself. I found when he did not have enough administrative assistants to help him organise his work and keep some of his records. I actually remained in that job for almost all the time we were in the bush.
One time, we got some reports that Obote was sending someone to poison Museveni. When information reached us, a High Command meeting was convened and it was decided that only one person would be responsible for everything that Mzee uses from preparing his food to washing his clothes to even handling his stick.
It was then observed that we were two senior women namely Mrs [Oliver] Zizinga and myself. However, I had a leg problem that confined me to the camp most of the time while Mrs Zizinga was quite mobile. It was therefore decided that I be the one to take that heavy responsibility of protecting Mzee’s life.
After a short time, I found this responsibility very heavy because I would at times be cooking and want to go away briefly. Alone, I could not. I therefore requested that I get some help. The High Command sat and assigned Mrs Zizinga and another young man whose main job was fetching water.
I do not recall Mzee being a choosy eater. He could eat anything that was available. Besides, he often told us we could not have the luxury to choose what to eat and not to eat.
The fact that two Baganda women were so close to Mzee was not well received by some people. Incidents of sectarianism became more and more manifest. One prominent one involved meat.
1983 was such a bad year that we were feeding mainly on meat. For most of us Baganda, meat is very difficult to eat alone. After some time, we got tired of eating red meat and requested for some entrails. You know we did not have salt and therefore the intestines had some salty taste.
On the other hand, our Banyankore colleagues could not eat intestines. After sometime, it became the norm that whenever a cow was slaughtered, the intestines and other unpalatable parts were for Baganda while the clean meat was for Banyankore. When Mzee came to know, he was very annoyed and ordered that from that day, there would be no Ganda or Nyankore cultural norms but we would all have one culture under the NRA. From that day, if a cow was slaughtered, all the meat would mix in one pan and everybody got pieces from different parts.
As for religion, that is something Mzee had dealt a blow in the bush. If a Muslim was going to pray, all of us not on duty would join in. That applied to a Catholic praying or any other [person from another] religion. By the time we came from the bush, you would frown on someone asking about your religion.
The Besigye verdict
One day, Mzee woke up sick. His situation quickly deteriorated and became worrying. Dr Kizza Besigye was quickly called in to examine him after which he concluded that Mzee could have been poisoned. The obvious conclusion was that since we were the ones looking after him, nobody else could be responsible.
What Besigye was actually saying was that Mzee could be dead in a matter of days. This clearly caused panic, anger and anguish in the camp. As for Mrs Zizinga and I, it was to become the most difficult time throughout our stay in the bush.
When a meeting of the High Command sat as Mzee lay on his bed, it was suggested that we be removed from our duties of looking after him and banished from the camp. Fortunately, Mzee could not walk but his head was functioning well. He resisted that move insisting that if we wanted him to die, let him die in our hands and not change aides.
Luckily, Dr Ronald Batta was called in. After examining him, he concluded it could not be poison because the infection to the liver was localised. He concluded it could be an amoeba and decided to put him on flagyl. In two days, Mzee was up walking. During the few days he was down, Zizinga and I cried almost the whole day.
My main concern was not so much what others were saying since I knew I was innocent, but more so what Mzee was thinking. We continued feeding him, but we were not sure what was going on in his mind.
Everybody looked at us with a lot of hatred. We were totally isolated and looked upon as killers. However, that experience brought me very close to Mrs Zizinga. We realised that we were dealing with very dangerous elements. We felt we were not among friends.
When Mzee had fully recovered, I was still feeling very angry. I could not believe that people could suspect us of wanting to kill him. So, one afternoon, I went and told him that I wanted to go back home. I told him that despite my hard work and commitment to the struggle, the Banyankore boys were suspecting us Baganda women of wanting to kill him. He then asked me whether I had ever asked myself why he had rejected the proposal to get us removed from our work.
He told me that if we had been removed, we would have been killed. And that after our execution and his recovery there would have been a very serious tribal conflict. More so, if someone realised that we had been killed innocently, then his life would have been at risk because somebody would then poison him to prove that they were right.
After talking to me and buying time under the pretext of wanting to buy me a decent dress to travel in, my anger subsided and work went on as usual.
All these problems in the camp were compounded by our personal losses. Mrs Zizinga had lost a number of children to the regime, most prominently two of her children who were killed as they were smuggling salt to us in the bush. As for me, my own sister Mary Igga and her husband, who were keeping my children, had been killed. All these were very difficult times for us. Matters became worse when later Mrs Zizinga was separated from me and taken to Hajji Moses Kigongo. We had become so close. Our separation was quite painful.
Apart from the day-to-day problems in the camp, we were also living under abject poverty. I recall that Zizinga and I had a single underwear each, which was kept for occasions when we would be on the move.
Sometimes we would be moving and crossing rivers. I recall one incident when we were crossing River Mayanja. To cross it, the young boys just removed their clothes. As for us older women, it was such an embarrassing situation to pull all your clothes up among kids who were as old as your own.
What kept me going
To this day, I am convinced Museveni is a special man. From the first day I interacted with him, I kept marvelling at this man. There are times I used to think he was not human in some of the things he used to do in the bush. Sometimes, he would tell his commanders that if they did not do A, B, C, D, they would be in problems. One such incident is when he insisted that we persuade the population out of the Bulemezi area and his commanders opposed him. When the offensive started, we ran into many problems running around with civilians.
Each time he told you not to do something and you did it, you would find yourself in trouble. It could have been experience, but also his methods of work were so unique. He would plan all battles on paper. He would tell you that if the enemy does this, do this. If he changes and does this, then you do this. All the time, the enemy went on behaving as if he was taking instructions from Museveni. That is why the enemy was always beaten because they always behaved exactly the way he had anticipated.
He has always inspired me. On the one hand, he is very firm, yet on the other very kind. It is quite difficult to be firm with your people and at the same time be kind to them. In fact, if you do not want to like Museveni, stay away from him.
By the time I joined the bush in 1982, I found there was only one lady called Joy Mirembe. Later, Zizinga joined and then Nalweyiso and so on. Then sometime in 1982, Jacob Asiimwe brought several students to the bush with a good number of girls. Then Dr Batta came along with several nurses from Nakaseke hospital.
So, our first reaction as leaders in the bush was that since there were very few women and the majority were actually very young girls, we ought to prohibit all relationships.
But we soon realised that once you have women and men together, some people are bound to develop intimate relationships. The bush was no exception. Relationships developed.
Our initial approach was that we would sit in meetings of the High Command and condemn the affairs as bad and terrible. But no sooner had we gotten out than we found the same people together as usual. After several unsuccessful attempts at discouraging relationships, we discovered that it was not possible to legislate against nature. It became clear to us that things which are natural can only be regulated and not legislated against.
To prevent people from fighting over women, we said that if two people found they could no longer resist each other’s intimacy, they should tell us and we bless their relationship as man and wife. some like Jovia and Salim Saleh, Dora and Pecos Kutesa went on and flourished. Our first law that all intimate affairs would be allowed after take over was a big joke.
Sometime in 1984, the war became very mobile. Since I had a bad leg, my movements became very difficult. Mzee then realised that we had lost touch with most people in the external wing. We had advanced so much politically such that we were no longer thinking the same thing with them.
He convened a meeting of the High Command and it was decided that Jovia Saleh and I go to Nairobi. We had instructions that we go explain to the colleagues abroad progress of the war.
We had to explain to them why we had chosen fighting a protracted guerrilla war and not gone into urban terrorism as most of them wanted. I had also taken some letters to Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, President Arap Moi and others. I was also tasked with the duty of visiting embassies to explain why we were fighting the regime of the day. Later I travelled to Sweden where Mama Janet was. I then went to Denmark and proceeded to London to do similar briefing work.
When the Nairobi peace talks failed, Mzee summoned us from Nairobi and we came to meet him in Masaka. Towards the end of 1985, we came and found Mzee in Masaka. He convened a meeting of the High Command and told us that the army was ready to take over government. He then said he wanted the opinion of the NRC.
His reasoning was that many people were going to die during the take over of Kampala and wanted all of us to take a collective decision on when to move in. He did not want to take all that responsibility alone. Dr Samson Kisekka took the lead and said we should go in. The decision to advance towards Kampala was taken unanimously by the joint High Command and the NRC. Two weeks after that meeting, Kampala fell. I had gone back to Nairobi and communication was difficult.
As soon as we got details, Eriya Kategaya called all of us and announced to the international community the NRA’s capture of power.
In our Bush War Memories series featuring Capt. Tofa Agaba on Sunday July 11, some facts were mixed up. The bush war rebel commander killed at Katenta Apuuli’s residence in Mengo was Sam Magara and not John Magara.
Mr Yoweri Museveni’s children were driven out of the country by Mrs Kakwano and not Mrs Jacqueline Mbabazi. Mr Museveni’s maids were taken to Elly Rwakakooko’s home and not Sam Rwakakooko. The preparatory meetings to the bush were held at Wycliffe Kazzora’s house and not in Makindye barracks.
Inconveniences caused are regretted. Series continues on Sunday
Date of Birth: November 26, 1944
Place of Birth: Hoima where my father was the headmaster of Duhaga Boys School
Father: Retired Bishop Yokana Mukasa
Mother: Nora Nakanywa Mukasa
Position in family: Fourth out of 10 children
Schools: Duhaga Girls’ School; Makerere College School and several colleges.
Hobbies: Reading spiritual books and singing religious songs