NRM BUSH WAR MEMORIES: Rukikaire smuggled guns

Monday February 9 2004

Matthew Rukikaire has been at both extremes: a National Organising Secretary of the Uganda Peoples Congress (in mid 60s) and a chairman of the NRM External Committee. A former Makerere University Guild President and founder member of the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM), Rukikaire ran for Parliament in 1980 in Rukungiri East. He tells Richard M. Kavuma why the time to fight had come

President Museveni and some of us had told the nation that if there was cheating in the elections, then there was going to be war; a commitment that wasn’t taken very seriously by people like Obote and Muwanga.

When it became clear that this armed struggle had to take place after the election had been rigged, Museveni approached me. He said that, may be, I could provide a springboard, a secure place where soldiers would collect and be kept under cover for about three days. And this I did in my house here at Makindye.

But I had to do some preparations. I had to get my wife out of Uganda. I had small children and I had to take them to the bus park so that they could travel to Nairobi. Once we had done that my house was free to be used as a base.

The soldiers collected and stayed there, in hiding, for sometime until they were ready to travel to Kabamba Training school. (Museveni was staying in John Wycliff Kazoora’s house, which was not far from mine). The fighters were under Elly Tumwine as the commandant, but the overall commander was a young man called Sam Magara.

The vehicle that took the fighters – a Mercedes Benz truck – was parked there in my compound for sometime and it was driven by [now Lt. Col.] Andrew Lutaaya.


We later got information that they had attacked Kabamba and that the attack had somewhat aborted. I stayed in my house for a little while but sooner or later I also had to take cover because some people knew that things had happened in my house.

Eventually Museveni sent information through an emissary, telling me that it would be better if I went out of Uganda and informed Ugandans and the world that an armed struggle had been started, and also try to mobilize some support.

After some hesitation – I think a week or so – I travelled to Kenya, around the end of February 1981. Relatives of mine took me in their own vehicle up to Malaba. I mingled with people and just walked across to Kenya. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do quite a lot. Prior to my joining UPM, I had been in Nairobi, working with Shell. I had a little home there, where my family had gone, and my sister was working there. So I just settled down in Nairobi and started canvassing support.

Why the struggle?

There is a myth that people join struggles because they want to get jobs. I think the majority of people who join struggles like ours don’t do so with that motive.

I would like to say that most people join because of fear of tyranny, of oppression, fear for their families, fear for themselves and fear for the country.

That was the situation in Uganda at the time the NRM struggle was launched. All these people who supported us were not looking for jobs, but they were looking for security for their families because Obote had turned into some kind of vicious dictator – here was an unconstitutional-minded person who was prepared to abrogate the Constitution with impunity, and people could not see themselves having a good future.

Many of us joined on that basis. Even among the leaders, I think the majority of them will be happy to go and do their private things in a secure environment.

So all governments, ours included, must guard against that. Do not give an opportunity for a repeat of what happened. Once people start having fear, that is a recipe for them to go for a struggle like we were involved in. It is important for people to know that, and we keep warning everybody.

Getting down to work

When I got to Nairobi, I found there a young man called Maj. Katabarwa (RIP). Museveni had sent him there prior to the launching of the armed struggle to do some security work. I also found Sir John Bageire and Chris Mboijana, both of whom are now dead, and we formed a nucleus. From that time on, Ugandans started flocking in. Leaders who were required to do some work could no longer stand the fire.

People had either to go to the bush and join the armed combatants, or go under-ground in Kampala or go into exile. We formed a nucleus external committee, which continued to operate as an informal organisation.

We went on sending messages to people; talking to some people in the Kenyan government, etc, until later in 1981 when Museveni came to Kenya under cover. We then formalised the external committee of which I became chairman.

The Kenyan authorities were extremely suspicious of NRM: this was a group whose track record was not known. It was composed mostly of young people; no (internal) armed struggle in Africa had ever succeeded.
But while they were suspicious, they also knew that things were not well in Uganda and they could not ignore us.

So they gave us some kind of lukewarm reception. Somehow they were not so hostile to NRM. They were more hostile to UFM – Balaki Kiirya’s group. Later, Kiirya was actually repatriated to Uganda by [president Arap] Moi.

And soon people started moving away from Nairobi. But it was a blessing in a way because where they went, they created new cells to popularise and explain the cause of NRM.

Otherwise we were all hurdled up in Nairobi not doing very much work: people were poor, they didn’t have enough food and they could not take their children to school. So it was good that they should go and work there and earn a living as well as supporting the struggle.

In Nairobi we did talk to some embassies – they listened and perhaps sent reports to their home countries, but there was no money from embassies. The money that we had, largely came from ourselves and was mostly used to sustain Ugandan exiles.

It was also used on soldiers who were sick or injured; people like Elly Tumwine – he had lost an eye, Henry Tumukunde – he had virtually lost his leg.

Nairobi was also used as an intelligence centre because Museveni was trying to create a network of political support in Africa. One of the key elements in the whole thing was [Julius] Nyerere and countries like Mozambique.

When people fled Nairobi after the Kirya incident, I didn’t leave – because if I left, who would be left? Anyway, I had a little business and so I was viewed by the Kenyan government as someone who was continuing to pursue his private interests, although they knew that I was chairman of the external committee.

Eventually Eriya Kategaya came to Kenya and we continued to do the work we were doing. Before that, Museveni, myself, Sam Njuba and Ruhakana Rugunda travelled to Libya to solicit support from Muammar Gaddafi. It was a very useful discussion both politically and also (in terms of) getting some commitment about modest military support.

At that time, Gaddafi was actually bent on supporting UFM because he thought that they were more active, stronger and were made up of older people.

But we broke the ice with Gaddafi. I am happy Museveni was able to tell him very clearly why he had to fight Idi Amin, because as you know, Amin was very closely associated with Gaddafi.

Guns in a tanker

We came back and Gaddafi honoured his undertaking. He did send us some arms through a neighbouring country and I had to travel to that country to receive those arms. The guns had earlier been taken to a connection in that country. I went there and loaded them physically into some petroleum tanker secretly, with a friend. We then travelled by road to another country B. We waited for about three days at the border before the arms finally entered Uganda. That was the first consignment, which was very useful to our fighters. Subsequently, Gaddafi continued to support us especially when he knew that the struggle was gathering momentum.

Earlier, when Kategaya came to Nairobi, he and I travelled to the United Kingdom and to various cities in America mobilising our supporters. In London we even appeared on the BBC around 1983. We continued to do this kind of work until 1985 when we had the peace talks in Nairobi. The peace talks were not based on a legal document and I am sure everybody was using them as a tactical move; Lutwa was and so was NRM.

And Museveni was under pressure from the combatants who wanted to move quickly – now that they had arms. So it [the failure of the talks] was not a betrayal of the peace process, it was just a continuation of the struggle.

Scary moments

When they brought back Kirya, the writing was on the wall; Ugandan exiles were not wanted. Although they did not come after me, my place was surveiled. Henry Tumukunde stayed with me for more than a year when he was under medical treatment. But at one time it was clear that they wanted to capture him so we had to take him out of my house and hide him somewhere.

I had some tankers moving between here and Nairobi, which were used for some clandestine activities other than petrol. But one time, my driver and turn boy were caught and killed here in Uganda. Eventually I stopped the tankers and trailers because they were not secure. So towards the end I had run out of money.

The months after they took Kirya were very difficult. I had to send my wife to Switzerland so that she could earn a living. Shortly after that I had to move out of my house and hide somewhere for about three weeks while observing the situation. People had been trailing me and I thought there was a real danger that Obote would try to get some of us repatriated to Uganda.

Looking back

It has been extremely worthwhile because Uganda has been given a second chance. First of all we opened Ugandans’ eyes to the fact that there was hope. People had given up hope.

The restoration of security – the fact that armed forces are supposed to be protectors and not tormentors of the people and that people should not see a soldier and get frightened; the fact that to a large degree some basic freedoms have been returned to the people; all these have restored hope and high expectations among the people.

So, I think it has been worthwhile, it has brought Uganda from a deep hole and that is why it must be guarded jealously – and anybody who tampers with these rights of the people, which have been achieved through blood should be told.

Date of birth: 14/Oct/1938
Place of birth: Kabale (but hails from Rukungiri)
Father’s name: Rev Earnest Nyabagabo (rip)
Mother’s name: Enid Kagore
Family position: 2nd born out of nine
Schools attended: Kigezi High School, Ntare School, King’s College Budo, MUK
Wife’s name: Sheba Rukikaire
Number of children: Three girls and two boys
Favourite dish: Luwombo (chicken/beef) with matooke
Hobbies: Used to play golf but now watches sports, spends time on farm in Mukono