From Opel to Drone: Cars security agencies have used since 1960s

The era of Land Rover: In 1986 and thereafter, the suspects arrested by the National Resistance Army (NRA) were often bundled onto the Land Rover and driven to military barracks detach. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • During presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin’s regimes, Ugandans dreaded certain brands of cars headed in their direction. Today, everyone, innocent or not will think twice when a ‘drone’ is sighted in their vicinity. 

Today, the Toyota Hiace V is the most dreaded car in Uganda. Undoubtedly, no Ugandan wants to see that mini-bus brand driving or parked near their house, especially at night. That dreaded car, now commonly known as ‘Drone’ scares Ugandans to marrow. 

It reminds the older generation of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when Milton Obote and Idi Amin were presidents. Then, their notorious security agencies - General Service Unit (GSU) in the 1960s, State Research Bureau (SRB) in the 1970s and the National Security Agency (NASA) and others in the 1980s - used certain brands of cars  to abduct Ugandans.

GSU used Opel and Zephyr 

Between 1964 when GSU was established and 1971 when the Uganda People’s Congress government led by President Milton Obote was ousted in a coup led by Idi Amin, the GSU was the only intelligence and security organisation in the country. 

Following an attempt on the life of President Obote on December 19, 1969, at Lugogo in Kampala, most of those arrested in a crackdown by  the GSU, including DP president general Benedicto Kiwanuka, were whisked away in Angelia, Opel and Zephyr cars.

Earlier, on November 24, 1968, when Rajat Neogy, the founder and editor of The Transition magazine, and Member of Parliament Abu Mayanja were rearrested from the Kampala High Court premises, they were bundled into the Zephyr cars and returned to the Maximum Security Prison, Luzira. Neogy and Mayanja were accused of treason. 

The British-made Landrovers were largely used by the Uganda army and police as well as other departments but not GSU.

State Research Bureau used Peugeot 

During the reign of President Idi Amin, from January 1971 to April 1979, the State Research Bureau (SRB) was the most notorious of all security agencies as it was involved in counter-insurgency operations. 

During the operations against suspected rebels, Peugeot and Fiat cars were the commonest car brands used in covert operations, especially in urban areas. For instance, during the kidnap of then Chief Justice of Uganda, Benedicto Kiwanuka, in September 1972, the kidnappers from SRB used a Peugeot car Registration No: UUU 111 in which he was bundled never to be seen again. 

In September 1972, Xavier Tibayungwa, then a former Secretary of Ankole, was arrested in his home district of Ankole, now Mbarara, and bundled into the Peugeot car. He was then taken to Samba Barracks near Mbarara Town from there he was slain, a witness told the Commission of Inquiry into the violation of human rights Uganda in 1988. 

Obote’s security men used Golf cars 

The Citizen newspaper dated November 27, 1982, published a letter to the editor signed by W. Musajjalubwa. 

In the letter titled: ‘Who are these boys in Golf car?’ the writer ponders who the ‘Golf boys’ were and who they worked for. 

The letter begins: “This is a group of young men dressed in latest fashion jeans, covering their eyes in dark glasses and their heads with big hats or fashionable caps matched with latest shoes. They move in conspicuously brand new VW Golf vehicles coloured white, cream, grey and orange, with long aerials at the back of the boot. Their speed unpredictably varies from top to snail pace. They usually cruise on city roads, including Jinja road, Entebbe road, Gayaza and Ggaba roads and also on roads in the outskirts of the city. These boys who are often armed have on several occasions been seen stopping cars, cyclists, pedestrians and robbing them at gun point. A number of people have been picked up from their offices or places of work by these boys and taken to unknown places.”.


The letter further says: “Schoolgirls have also fallen victims to this group of young men who stop and pretend to be giving them lifts then take them away to unknown places for ulterior motives. At one time near Channel Street in Kampala, they whisked away one policeman who was trying to question their activities. Some motorists who have encountered these boys and have had their vehicles seized, have reported about the big sums of money demanded by ‘Golf boys’ in order to recover their vehicles.” 

“Rumours has it that they belong to one of the official government intelligence units. But the public is not aware of their authenticity and their conduct and activities are not conducive to proper and genuine maintenance of law and order, let alone peace in the country,”  it added.

The paper went on to write that on a number of occasions the boys have claimed to be working on orders of a certain officer in the Ministry of Defence. 

“If their claim is not bogus, then the public wonders whether their bosses instruct them to conduct themselves in such a manner,” The Citizen goes on to write. 

“Just on Thursday, November 11, 1982, there was a skirmish at ‘Kikuubo’ in Kampala, which was sparked off by these boys. It has been reported that for the last two weeks they have been visiting ‘Kikuubo’ areas arresting and robbing businessmen. On that fateful Thursday, they were reportedly challenged and three of them lost their lives during the shooting. The public was left puzzled because it was not clear whether these boys were security on duty or just thugs on a looting spree. There was no official clarification or statement over this incident apart from the military operation mounted in the area shortly after words. Businessmen and businesswomen lost a lot of their merchandise and hard cash in the looting that ensued by security men.” 

The Citizen newspaper of Tuesday, March 19, 1985, reports that Emmanuel Kyabaggu, 62, was abducted by two men supposedly security operatives. 

The paper reports that one man was dressed in police uniform while the other was in plain cloth. The paper also mentioned that Kyabaggu’s abductors were travelling in a Volkswagen Golf car with Registration No. UXF 641 which was known to belong to the National Security Agency (NASA) an infamous intelligence agency.  When the paper reported the story, it had been more than a month since Kyabaggu had been arrested and his whereabouts were still unknown. 

The era of Land Rover and Santana 

When the National Resistance Movement government came to power in 1986, Ugandans witnessed security operatives arrest suspects whom they brutally bundled into cars that were synonymous with security agencies. For example in 1986 and thereafter, the suspects arrested by the National Resistance Army (NRA) were often bundled onto the Land Rover and driven to military barracks detach, a police station or to ‘ungazetted detention places’ according to the Amnesty International Report, 1986/1987 . Ugandans had since the early 1980’s nicknamed Land Rover ‘Kadenge’ literally meaning ‘danger’ because it was considered a dangerous car.  

The ‘Drone’ era 

Today, many years after ‘brutal regimes that had no respect for human rights,’ the Japanese made Toyota Hiace V mini bus has become synonymous with terror. 

Many times, those arrested and bundled into the ‘Drone’ and whisked away speak of torture while in incarceration and indeed many have disappeared. 


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