How Mbarara, Kampala fell to Tanzanian army

Sunday April 27 2014

Tanzanian soldiers walk into Kampala after overthrowing Idi Amin in April 1979. The ouster was done jointly with Ugandan exiles. courtesy photos

Continuation from yesterday
On February 6, 1979, Brigade 206 planned to attack and capture Mbarara, going through Lake Nakivale. Mbarara was important for two reasons; it was connecting to Masaka, and was the largest town in western Uganda.
Militarily, the town was important because of the famous Simba Mechanised Infantry Regiment. The town was earmarked to fall by February 17 but it was delayed due to pockets of resistance met on the way.

As section of the Uganda exiles forces joined Brigade 206 and occupied Murema, Kasese and Kigaragara villages by February 20, Amin’s troops withdrew to the hills of Busaga, Kibingo and Gayaza which gave them a dominant view of Lake Nakivale. On February 21, a fierce battle for Gayaza hill started and by the end of the day, TPDF had taken it.

Having captured Gayaza hills, Mbarara Town was now within TPDF’s artillery range. From February 25, TPDF started shelling Mbarara Town with 130mm guns and BM-21 multiple rocket launchers all day-long.
On Day Three, Amin’s forces fled through Ibanda, Ishaka and Ntugamo, abandoning their equipment. With Masaka and Mbarara now in their hands, the objective of the main axis turned to Kampala and Entebbe.

As President Nyerere sanctioned the march onto Kampala, he gave specific orders that no matter the circumstances, the TPDF forces must not destroy buildings like Mulago Hospital, Makerere University, Parliamentary Building and State House. He also ordered the forces to leave Jinja Road open for civilians and diplomats leaving the country.

Plan for Kampala

Four brigades were to advance on the main axis of Masaka-Kampala. Brigades 205 and 208 were to go through Villa Maria, Kalungu then to Mityana, and brigades 201 and 207 with a contingent of the UNLA were to move on the Mpigi-Masaka road.


Brigade 205 was tasked to take Sembabule, home to Amin’s Tiger Regiment. Here, the TPDF would engage in some of the fiercest battles of the war, according to Lt Gen Mwakalindile, then a brigadier general in charge of operations and training.

“This operation was so vital that the Chief of Defence Forces and the Division commander visited the battlefield at Matete and restructured battle plan,” he was quoted saying in the Tanzania army memoirs, TPDF: An Operation History
Two more battalions were brought on board for the final assault and on April 6, the Tiger Regiment was overrun and Sembabule fell.
The battle for Lukaya
It was at Lukaya that the Tanzanians first encountered the Libyans, according to the history of the TPDF operations as documented in TPDF: An Operation History

Lukaya was Amin’s primary axis while the secondary axis was through Kalungu-Villa Maria, in his bid to retake Masaka. The area between Buganga and Lukaya was his concentration and assembly point.
Unfortunately for him, this place was in TPDF artillery range. TPDF deployed a brigade of reserve force to defend the town with other brigades taking position at different points in the outskirts as a backup depending on which direction the attack comes from.

A convoy of Libyan soldiers equipped with T-55 tanks, 12 APC’s, plus BM-21 multiple rocket launchers were part of Amin’s team to recapture Masaka. On March 10, the Libyans clashed with the TPDF sending 201 Brigade retreating to Masaka.

The 201st brigade regrouped and fought the Libyans for two consecutive nights with 208 Brigade in support bombing from northwest of Masaka. About 200 Libyans and another 200 Ugandan soldiers were killed. Tanzania took a few causalities.
Before the advance on Kampala, Amin knew the international community would prevail over Nyerere not to capture Kampala. Indeed, the capture of Kampala was not Nyerere’s original plan. But in the five months of war, the plan changed and Kampala became a target. Among the reasons for the rush for Kampala included the presence of a credible opposition to Amin’s rule in Tanzania that had organised itself into a government after the March 1979 Moshi Conference.

The second was the threat Amin posed to the people of Masaka and Mbarara for having supported the Tanzanians. Nyerere was concerned that if he did not topple Amin, there was going to be an influx of refugees from Uganda following the returning Tanzanians, and the international community did not give him assurance that it will support the refugees while in Tanzania.
On March 31, the final plans to attack Kampala and Entebbe were drawn.

Operation Dada Idi
Having taken Lukaya, Operation Dada Idi was now underway with brigades 207 and 208 tasked to clear the way to Mpigi, from where Brigade 208 moved towards Entebbe four days before the fall of Kampala. The same brigade was to form one of the planks to capture Kampala. Other brigades matching towards Kampala were 201st and 207th.

At Katende, TPDF deployed a company of tanks, one battery of 122mm plus 85mm guns and other fire power to support the infantry advance from Mpigi to Entebbe. At Nakawuka they encountered Amin’s forces backed by some Libyans. Thirteen of them were killed there.

On April 4, Amin’s forces counter-attacked using tanks and 106 mm recoilless rifles. But they met a stronger resistance, and they abandoned their tanks, 122mm guns and BM-21 multiple rocket launchers brought by the Libyans. On April 5, another 10 Libyans were killed, 13 captured and unknown numbers perished as they drowned in the swamp near Kisubi. The following day, Entebbe was surrounded.

TPDF entered Entebbe on the morning of April 7 but left a company around Kisubi mopping up the surrounding swamp. At Kitubulu, TPDF encountered two Ugandan platoons with 106mm recoilless rifles and 81mm mortars. This was the last resistance on the way to capture the airport. Katabi air force barracks was a walkover was all the soldiers had fled.

Up to 200 Libyans lost their lives in the battle for Entebbe and 83 were taken as prisoners of war, which was not the case with the Ugandan forces as they deserted their bases much earlier than the Libyans, leaving behind a whole battery of 122m guns and three BM-21 multiple rocket launchers.
With Entebbe captured, Brigade 208 turned its guns to Kampala joining Brigade 201 which had started advancing to Kampala as Brigade 208th moved to Entebbe.
Brigade 207 advanced along Masaka Road and occupied Mutundwe hills ready to attack from the southwest, Brigade 208 from Entebbe reached the outskirts of Kampala on April 9.

The next day, all the hills overlooking Kampala had been occupied in preparation for the last assault on the city centre.
On April 10, Kampala fell and the barracks around the city were taken with minimum resistance. More than 500 Amin soldiers were captured during the battle for Kampala. On April 11, as the Tanzanians moved to consolidate their hold on Kampala, one of Amin’s top commanders, Lt Col Juma Butabika, aka Juma Oka Mafali, was killed in the Bwaise-Kawempe area during the battle to clean up Kampala by a contingent of soldiers from the 205 and 208 brigades that had come through Mityana. The group had moved to close off escape routes north of the city.

The next day locals started celebrating the arrival of Tanzanian forces in the city.
Extending their stay
Three days after the fall of Kampala, a new government headed by Prof Yusuf Kironde Lule was established and the TPDF were prepared to leave the country but they were requested by the new administration for support to mop up the whole country and get rid of Amin’s soldiers, as a new army and police were being reconstructed.

TPDF went on to pursue Amin’s soldiers up north and reached the Uganda-Sudan border on June 3, 1979; marking the end of the Kagera War.
TPDF lost a total of 373 soldiers, 93 of them from enemy fire, the rest to accidents and natural causes. The UNLA lost 150, Libyans lost up to 600 out of the estimated 3,000 that were sent to Uganda.
Amin lost more than 1,000 soldiers.

The Tanzanian people and government paid a high price to execute the war, but it was a worthwhile war, according to retired Maj Gen Ben Msuya, the man who captured Kampala.

Maj Gen Msuya commanded a battalion under Brigade 208 (whose overall commander was Maj Gen Mwita Marwa) that cut off Entebbe Road and marched into Kampala.
“We were fighting a humanitarian war, we were not fighting Ugandans, and we were fighting Amin,” he told this writer in Dar es Salaam.
In next Saturday Monitor and Sunday Monitor, we bring you accounts of commanders who led the war against Idi Amin. We start with 208 Battalion Commander Maj Gen Ben Msuya, a battalion commander under Brigade 208.