Col. Geoffrey Kyabihende Taban, 43, has spent more than half of his life as a combatant. From a foot soldier, Taban has grown to a division commander and recently to the chairman of the Court Martial at the Army General Headquarters, Bombo. He was among the first bush war commanders that saw the rebel force fight its way to power. He recounts his bush war days to Grace Matsiko:-
I joined the armed forces in 1979 at 18 years during the struggle to remove dictator Idi Amin. I had my first training in Kakoba with the Tanzanians for three weeks and then was taken to Fort Portal. We fought Amin’s freeing soldiers ending up in Madigo in Arua on the Uganda-Sudan border.
I was at the time in Mondlane unit commanded by the late Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema. Around August 1979, we went for reorganization in Kabamba where the forces under Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) were gathered.
We were divided into groups for training. One remained in Kabamba, another one went to Mubende, another to Masindi and the fourth group in Nakasongola where I was. I had one of the toughest basic trainings lasting a year.
After training, we came for reorganisation in Lubiri barracks and we were put in the 15th battalion, which was for Central Region covering Kampala under the late Lt. Col. Bazillio Okello. I was in D-Coy, which was based at Bugolobi staying in the flats.
Our Officer in Charge (OC) was Lt. Kennedy Odola. I was a corporal and a section commander in the third platoon of D-Coy.
During the 1980 general elections, we were at times tasked to carry out escort duties from Nile Mansions, now Nile Hotel to Mbale, Arua and Moyo. I was tasked to escort Mrs Oyite Ojok, who was the Chief of Staff. When Obote would go for campaigns upcountry, I would escort Mrs Ojok there, as she was part of the high power delegations that used to accompany him.
In the run up to the elections, there was a secret training in Kitgum, which we did not know about.
During campaigns, this group of soldiers from one ethnic tribe in Acholi region were transferred to Kampala armed to the teeth with anti-tanks, hand grenades and a lot of ammunitions. Part of that group, which they were calling the warriors, came to Bugolobi barracks displacing us.
In the evening, the commanders would call a master parade and would talk in Luo, which we did not understand. So, we kept complaining to the few commanders who were not with us in Bugolobi about the exclusion tendencies by the commanders in our barracks.
We saw an ethnic group trying to assert itself in the army and the government; so we knew there was trouble brewing. I had also witnessed a scene in which a four-year old child was shot in a scuffle at a Democratic Party (DP) rally in Bugolobi. A man wearing a Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) T-shirt wanted to force his way into the venue of the rally.
The DP supporters barred him and he left only to come back with soldiers who fired indiscriminately in the crowd killing the kid. That is how bad the situation had deteriorated.
When the elections results were about to be announced, this group of warriors was briefed and they left us in the parade. Those of us who remained were disarmed. Later, we began hearing gunshots in the city and we were told the announcements of the election results were suspended and that Paulo Muwanga was in charge.
We knew they were trying to rig elections. So, there and then, we saw that the government, which was trying to come into place, was trying to rig elections and become dictatorial. We were young, skilled and therefore decided to go and fight them.
Some of us who were in Bugolobi, Makindye and other barracks would try to talk, organise ourselves and see the way forward. That time, we had contacts with Mr Yoweri Museveni and we were in touch with his officers; late [Sam] Magara, Afande Elly Tumwiine (Lt. Gen.), late Hannington Mugabi and so on.
On the day we were to leave for the bush and attack Kabamba, there was an officer called John Kamurari Rubahimbya, a soldier with general headquarters who was supposed to collect us from Bugolobi; but the information leaked that there were some groups that wanted to desert the army. So, he came and we told him that information had leaked and informed him that at the moment it was not possible to leave the barracks, as we would be detected and arrested.
He insisted and thought we had cowardised. He picked some few soldiers and shortly after the quarter-guard, they were arrested and detained.
The other main group, which was waiting for us including Mzee Museveni, could not wait longer and left us at Bugolobi. We were cut off and the following day, we heard that Kabamba had been attacked. We planned to rescue late Kamurari from the Bugolobi quarter-guard but this plan leaked. He was transferred to Mbuya barracks. When forces under the late Andrew Kayiira tried an attack on Luzira barracks, the government soldiers executed Kamurari.
Joining the bush
We made contacts with late Dampa [Benjamin Muhanguzi) then a soldier at Bugolobi, Matayo Kyaligonza (now Brigadier and ambassador to Kenya) and Dora Kutesa, now in the foreign affairs ministry.
Late Col. Patrick Lumumba and I were in the same coy and were on standby. We sneaked from the barracks and left for Dora Kutesa’s place from where we transferred to a carpentry workshop belonging to Kyaligonza in Kisenyi.
From there, I informed Kyaligonza that there were other soldiers ready to go to the bush because we had secured some guns and hidden them in our houses. We left the workshop in a pick up and went to the barracks undetected and got some soldiers including Stephen Rwabantu (Col.), Kakari (Lt.Col.) and someone called Mugizi (Capt.). I don’t know if he is alive. We were about seven. We had stolen rifles and a Rocket Propelled Gun. About three weeks after the attack on Kabamba, we were taken to a forest in Singo, now Kiboga. We found the rebels had three sections and we formed the fourth.
Each section had about ten combatants. The expectation before we joined was that we were going to meet our comrades and Mzee Museveni. But when we reached the forest at night, we were disarmed and our guns taken. To me, it seems Museveni did not trust us. We began asking ourselves: are we suspected of being spies? But the only assurance was the comrades we had been with in the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) whom we found in the bush.
In the morning, we were called to meet Mzee Museveni. We narrated to him our escape. We were then integrated into the rebel ranks.
In our meetings before we joined, we were being told that we shall have assistance; that there are arms there, there are trained mercenaries, there were many people trained who will join us. To our surprise when we reached the bush, there were no arms. So, we had to look for them ourselves and our source was the enemy. We used to get food from the wanainchi. That is why we in the UPDF respect civilians. Medicine would come from Kampala and at times enemy stores.
During total concealment, which ended around 1982, we used to go deep in the forests, and sleep in the open. We had only clothes on. There were no blankets. We were not allowed to light fires. We would cook only at night the food to take us to the next night when another meal would be prepared. For water, we relied on streams and rivers in forests.
A few days after joining, I was put on Mzee Museveni’s guard squad. We were about seven, under late Fred Rwigyema. We had the late Capt. Marious Katungi alias Suicide, Col. Pecos Kutesa, late Kasasira, late Capt. Aziz Bey and myself.
We went on our first mission to attack Kakiri barracks on April 4 1981. When we joined the bush, we told colleagues that the late Lumumba and I had worked at the barracks when we were in the UNLA. We knew how they used to guard and how they were behaving generally. So, late Lumumba was tasked to carry out reconnaissance. After that, we went and attacked it successfully with Mzee leading us. We got lots of arms. We did not loose any fighter and we killed many soldiers.
There was a vehicle coming from Kiboga, which we hit. It was carrying Tanzanian soldiers. We injured many. Mzee asked us not to hit them further. After ceasing fire, Mzee talked to them and we left them to continue to Kampala.
I escorted Mzee for about two months until June 1981 when he left for Nairobi, Kenya. I was feeling a bit sick at that time and could not go with him. He left with late Rwigyema, late Kasasira and Pecos Kutesa.
So, I joined the fighting units. We liked going into combat because you would charge the enemy and get clothes. After killing the enemy, you would check in his pockets and get Shs 100 or even Shs 10, 000 to buy soap, salt, cigarettes or the local tobacco leaves, which most of our fighters smoked.
Fortunately, we were always winning the battles, which encouraged us more. At one time, we captured radio communication equipment from the government forces, but none of us knew how to use it until a former Uganda Army soldier of Idi Amin, late Lt, Col. Bunihizi joined us and happened to have the idea of operating the radio. We did not have radio calls so we used it to monitor enemy deployments and orders from their commanders, which was important to our operations.
The toughest battle was at Bukalabi in Luweero district in February 1983. We lost nine comrades and the enemy fire could not allow us remove their bodies from the battle ground. RPG shrapnels dug deep into my head and injured me in the arm. I bled profusely and was becoming weak. I thought I was going to die before we completed the struggle. I was taken on a bicycle to our clinic in the bush and treated.
It is in this battle that General [Salim] Saleh was shot. It was a bad day for us. Saleh was our role model; a gallant fighter and courageous, but he was among those injured.
Another deadly incident was along the Kampala-Gulu highway on the October 9,1983. We landed into an ambush near Katugo and retreated. Our OBs (Observation Posts) were captured and were used to track us deep in the bush. The enemy had also taken one of our platoon commanders, Kanonya. He was later used by the UPC government to follow us. When we captured power, he ran away.
I think another decisive battle was at Kembogo in Singo in 1984, it dealt a big blow to the UNLA.
Each battle I participated in at Kakiri, Kabamba, Masindi, Bukalabi, the three months siege of Masaka barracks, the take over of Kampala, all came with lessons and challenges. But with a committed leadership and commitment of fighters, we overcame them all.
When we entered Kampala in January 1986, I was a company commander under the third battalion, which was a mobile force under Col. Patrick Lumumba. We encountered resistance but not the toughest we had expected. My first rank after assumption of power was a Major.
I have no regrets for having participated in the struggle. We went to the bush to fight bad leadership and now Ugandans are enjoying democracy. It was worth the effort. It is unfortunate that most of the people we fought with have died. The likes of Col. Stanley Muhangi, Lumumba, Lt. Col. Julius Aine, Lt. Col. Muhanguzi Kimosho, Enock Mondo, Fred Mugisha whom we nicknamed Headache, late Aziz, Kangaho, Muhwezi Muharabu, Musumbigi, Rutembana, Rubereza, Sam Byaruhanga, Emamnuel Kagina and Paul Kagina, Comrade Kaggwa, Silver Oyera, they are many.