HERBERT ITONGWA: A soldier who turned guns on his own govt

Itongwa’s parents visit him in Germany where he had taken refuge after his rebellion was crushed. The soldier is said to have died a Rastafarian.

What you need to know:

Although he was one of the first people to join the NRA in 1981, and helped bring it to power, Itongwa fell out with the army over theft and indiscipline. A man who was once famous and made headlines, he died in exile.

About 24 rebel groups have fought this government and the late Maj. Herbert Kikomeko Itongwa led one of them. Uganda National Democratic Alliance (UNDA) was his rebel group that allegedly carried out attacks on police posts, killed a number of police officers and kidnapped a minister who was later released unhurt.
However, the difference between Maj. Itongwa and other groups is that he fought the same government he tirelessly and bravely fought to bring into power.

Maj. Itongwa, RO 100, joined the National Resistance Army (NRA) bush war around the time it started, in 1981 after escaping from school.
His army number suggests he was among the first soldiers in the NRA, (now UPDF) to join the war that brought President Museveni into power in 1986. President Museveni is RO 001 and the numbers were given to members depending on the time one joined the bush war.
During and after the bush war, Itongwa fought under the most feared and fearless third battalion under the late Col. Patrick Lumumba.

Those who fought closely with him in the bush say he was a daring fighter. And this characterister trait was one he had always had. “He used to beat us and liked fighting. At school, he was feared by fellow kids,” Peter Mugwanya, his childhood friend said.

But notoriety was his shortcoming.
Gen. Salim Saleh, described the deceased on Monday as a good fighter but faulted him for deserting the army to start a rebel group to fight the government.

Most active soldiers do not want to talk about him but Capt. David Musisi, a retired army veteran says the deceased was once arrested, demoted and jailed in the bush for defying orders from President Museveni, who was then the rebel leader.

He says in 1983, Museveni had issued orders that no fighter should get out of the areas of operations, as a move to conceal the rebel presence because the then government troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Oyite Ojok had launched a massive offensive against them.

But because of biting hunger, Itongwa initiated and pushed a proposal to go out and confront the enemy and get food instead of starving.
There are reports that he even suggested that if the high command chaired by President Museveni refused to listen to their demands, they would attack them.
The rebellious suggestion upset the NRA High Command. He and his friends were arrested.

This could have been a sign of bravery on Itongwa’s part but his bosses saw it as insubordination and carelessness because government troops could have captured and tortured them to reveal the whereabouts of the rebels, or even killed them.

A probe team, led by the current Forum for Democratic Change leader, Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, who was the head of military intelligence in the bush, investigated the prisoners and found out that these fighters were indisciplined and were also going out to find women for sex.
In fact, Itongwa’s first child was born around that time in 1984. “He got his first-born in the bush,” Itongwa’s brother, Daudi Sebanyiga says.
However, their arrest was reportedly cut short because their absence at the frontline had created a vacuum and the fearless battalion had been weakened.

After their release, they participated in the attack on Masindi, an operation commanded by Gen. Saleh and that inflicted heavy causalities on the Obote soldiers.
This operation was a turning point in the war because government soldiers lost many guns and were captured. They also had many casualties.

In his memoir, Sowing the Mustard Seed, President Museveni describes the attack as a complete success.
“We captured 765 riffles, our biggest booty to date, along with machine guns and ammunition. We had used only 375 armed men in the attack although we had in all a force of 1,400,” he says.
Before the attack, Museveni sent the late Col. Stanley Muhangi and Brig. John Mugume to spy on the barracks. They entered the barracks at night and got the geography and went back to their main base.

Most of his comrades are dead
Itongwa belonged to this fearless group, most of whom have died. According to Sgt. Musisi, they included Lt. Col. Jet Mwebaze, Maj. Suicide Katungi, Col. Patrick Lumumba, Lt. Col. Fred Mugisha, Lt. Col. Drago Nyanzi and Col. Muhangi.

During the attack on Kampala and the subsequent grabbing of power in 1986, Itongwa was a platoon commander under the Third Battalion commanded by Col. Lumumba. Col. Mwebaze was commanding a special unit in Bwaise while Col. Mugisha deputised Maj. Gen. Pecos Kutesa who was the First Battalion Commander.

Sebanyiga says that after the capture of Kampala, Itongwa made a surprise visit to his family. “We were at home and saw soldiers jumping out of land rovers. My father told us to hide because he thought these were government soldiers who were harassing people in the village,” he says. “But we saw Itongwa getting out of one of the vehicles. We had spent years without seeing him. It was a joyous moment. We all went running to welcome him. These three vehicles full of soldiers had escorted him. We were all happy,” he says.

But this happiness was short-lived. Itongwa was arrested in 1987 from Gulu for theft and indiscipline. His battalion under Col. Lumumba had been deployed to fight the Holy Spirit Movement led by Alice Lakwena, a rebel group that was trying to push back the soldiers who had just captured power.

“We got information that he had been arrested. From then, he was in and out of prison,” Sebanyiga says.
Sgt. Gitta Musoke, who was a child soldier, says Itongwa spent five years in Luzira prison and when he got out in 1994, he deserted the army and declared a war on President Museveni’s government in 1995.

“He addressed rallies in Matuga and Kiryagonja and told people that he had declared war on NRM government,” Sgt. Musoke said.
He named his rebel group the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He was later linked to Maj. Fred Mpiso and they were seen as a rebel group fighting for federalism with the support of some veteran politicians, including former DP Treasurer General, Evaristo Nyanzi.
He made newspaper headlines when he kidnapped then Health Minister, Dr James Makumbi, and killed the Masaka Regional Police Commander, Erusa Kakaire.

However, his rebellion was later crushed and he fled to Nairobi from where he connected to Denmark. From Denmark, he went to Germany where he became a Rastafarian.
Itongwa grew up in Kibwa, Nabweru and went to Kazo Primary School. From Kazo, he went to Mengo SS in 1978 where he studied up to senior four and escaped before sitting for exams.
He died in exile in Germany on Friday and his family is fundraising to bring the body back home for burial.

He leaves behind three children, one son and two daughters. One of his daughters is currently studying nursing and the other works in a hair salon in Kampala.

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