In the early hours of Sunday, March 24, 1974, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song Onward Christian Soldiers was being played repeatedly on Radio Uganda, the only radio station in the country at the time.
Then the radio repeated the Saturday news bulletin, followed by more Christian music. For Kampala residents, the hymn blaring over the airwaves was occasionally interrupted by a fierce wave of mortar and machine gunfire which erratically continued throughout the morning.
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers surrounded Entebbe airport, the command post in Kololo and State House Entebbe. The radio went silent briefly. It would mean the first part of the uprising had succeeded.
Initial rumours indicated that then president Idi Amin had been shot dead and that the commander of the Naguru-based Public Safety Unit (PSU), Lt Col Ali Toweli, chief of the Military Police, Maj Hussein Malera, and the leader of the Nakasero-based State Research Bureau, Maj Farouk Minawa, were all under arrest.
Radio listeners waited anxiously for the report that the coup plotters had taken over key installations in the capital and others would mobilise in other garrison districts to secure the much needed coup.
But the plan had gone wrong. Idi Amin was still alive and kicking, holding his tight grip on power. He had triumphed over the coup plotters.
The country remained in a state of uncertainty until daybreak when Radio Uganda announced that Brig Charles Arube, the former chief of staff, with the backing of Brig Elly Aseni, the former commander of Malire Mechanised Regiment, and others were responsible for the “confusion”.
The announcement added that Arube had shot himself with two bullets upon realising that his plot had failed.
“He died during an operation this morning,” Radio Uganda announced.
According to The New York Times of March 25, 1974, Radio Uganda announced at 3pm that Amin had met the 5th Malire Regiment commanders and soldiers from other units and later toured Kampala by an open jeep where he was cheered by the crowds.
He later met military policemen and paratroopers who informed him that fighting had grown out of “rumours that an invading force was planning to murder him and seize the capital”.
“There is no reason to believe he has been harmed,” the announcement added.
However, US diplomats in Kampala reported that Amin was neither seen in public nor his voice heard during the uprising.
How it started
In late February 1974, Brig Arube returned from military training in the Soviet Union (now Russia) only to learn that former Sudanese Anyanya rebel commander, Maj Hussein Malera, had replaced him as army chief of staff on Amin’s order.
Brigadiers Arube and Aseni were Christians and already felt deeply aggrieved by the endless massacres directed against the Langi, Acholi and more lately the Lugbara by the Muslim Nubian mercenaries Amin had introduced into the army.
Worthy of note is that tribal tension within Amin’s army had been part of Ugandan life ever since Gen Amin took over power in the January 1971 coup.
There had been a sizable killings of the Langi and Acholi in Mbarara, Jinja, Kampala, Lira among other military garrison towns around the country. The Kakwa and Lugbara are tribes in West Nile.
Lugbara officers in the army had played a big role in the 1971 coup that ousted Milton Obote and brought Amin to power.
They had been loyal to Amin from the beginning to the extent that they shared much of the blame for the army executions of suspected dissidents.
Amin had rewarded them by placing some 2,000 Lugbara soldiers in his 15,000-man army and appointed some of them to key positions.
However, according to the book To Those Who Have Died, many young Lugbara officers who were mainly Christians soon became restive and Amin suspected they were plotting to overthrow his government.
Many Lugbara officers who held key positions in the army were dispersed. Consequently, Lt Col Michael Ondoga was sent to Moscow, the Soviet Union, as an ambassador and Lt Col Wilson Toko, head of Uganda Air Force, was posted to Nairobi, Kenya, as a director general of the East African Airways.
But Amin still felt uneasy. In mid-1973, he recalled Ondoga from the Soviet Union and made him his Foreign minister following the defection of Wanume Kibedi.
However, Amin would later denounced the Foreign ministry as the worst performing in government and had Ondoga dismissed.
It is said there is a possibility that Ondoga was warned of an intention to seize him at one of his favourite haunts, the Nile Hotel (now Kampala Serena Hotel), but the book records that he was arrested at 8am one morning in February 1974 on a street corner near Nakasero Primary School where he had delivered his young daughter.
“...you are going to kill me for nothing, I have done nothing wrong to your government,” Ondoga cried as he was bundled into the boot of a waiting car.
His bullet-riddled body with a smashed head was discovered floating on River Nile in Jinja the following day.
For Lugbara officers, Ondoga’s treatment at the hands of Amin’s henchmen confirmed that they too were now dispensable.
More Lugbara officers were accused of conspiracy, arrested and thrown into Makindye Military Police prison as they awaited execution.
As a matter of fact, it is still not known what triggered Ondoga’s murder. But rumours of an imminent uprising among Lugbara officers circulated in Kampala and could not have escaped Amin’s ears.
It is thought Amin ordered Ondoga’s murder to bring forward the dissenters’ action so that he would find ample ground to crush them.
The coup attempt
On the morning of March 23, 1973, Brig Arube disappeared, allegedly captured and detained at Makindye Military Police Barracks on Amin’s orders.
A section of senior Lugbara officers went to the State Lodge in Makindye where Amin was, demanding to know where Arube was being kept.
Amin, however, refused to meet them. That afternoon, tempers flared, leading to an outbreak of sporadic shootings around the State Lodge, leaving some soldiers dead from both sides.
At midnight on Sunday, March 24, 1974, about 700 Lugbara officers commanded by a Kakwa Christian, Lt Col Elly Aseni, left the Malire Mechanized Battalion in Lubiri armed with tanks, dozens of armoured personnel carriers and several machine guns and stormed the Makindye Military Police headquarters with the aim of securing the barracks, capturing or killing the Military Police head, Maj Malera, and releasing Arube as well as dozens of Lugbara dissident soldiers who were being held there.
Consequently, fierce fighting between the dissidents and troops loyal to Amin broke out and went on until dawn.
The fighting spread to the city centre as well as Naguru Police Training College which housed the headquarters of the PSU, commanded by another former Sudanese Anyanya rebel, Brig Ali Toweli.
By 6am, the rebellion had been crushed by Amin’s troops. A total of about 100 soldiers were recorded dead and dozens of civilians killed.
A government report indicated that Arube had shot himself and had died at Mulago hospital.
However, other sources indicate that he was captured and shot in the stomach as he tried to escape. He was later taken to Mulago hospital with three bullet wounds in the stomach. He died shortly in the operation theatre.
Brig Aseni was also captured and tried by the military tribunal, but by a strange twist of fate, he was set free only because of his following in the army.
The rest of the dissidents escaped to the bushes around Kampala but were hunted down, captured and executed on Amin’s soldiers.
The great purge
With the rebellion quelled, Kampala rapidly reverted to apparent normality. But Amin’s purge was only beginning.
The book To Those Who Have Died records that at the end of March, only about a week after the abortive coup, more than 400 Lugbara soldiers had been killed by Amin’s henchmen.
Executed by firing squad, shot in the knee caps and left to bleed, thrown alive to Nile crocodiles, drenched in petrol and burned etc. reprisals against the army 2,000 Lugbara officers went on for weeks, spreading to other military units, especially the Mbale garrison.
The book records that so ferociously were the plotters hunted down that even Voice Of Uganda, the official newspaper of the time and Amin’s mouthpiece, was moved to comment, “Where is this bloodshed taking the nation?”
Heart-breaking disappearances of the Lugbara officers, from the eminent to the humble, continued to cause misery.
One of the high profile Lugbara disappearances was that of High Court judge Opu. Amin was to later make his usual claim that Justice Opu was Obote’s man who was “confused” and had run away to join his master in Tanzania.
The New York Times of March 26, 1974, reported that Amin’s government had begun systematic killings of army officers believed to have been involved in the abortive uprising.
“Uganda sources said this morning they did not know how many officers were being killed and that none of the killings had been personally witnessed. But they said that the contacts with Ugandans close to Amin’s government revealed to them the truth of the report of the deaths circulating in Kampala and other regions of the country,” it wrote.
It further noted that Amin might have known in advance that tank and machine gun battle was going to occur in the military unit and around Kampala over the weekend but he might have even provoked the outbreak among the dissident troops to provide an opportunity to eliminate them.