Life as an Amin army commander

Lt Col Yefusa Bananuka

What you need to know:

  • Recollections. Retired army officer, Lt Col Yefusa Bananuka, recently revealed to Sunday Monitor that he did the dishonourable duty of burying Archbishop of Uganda Janani Luwum.
  • He tells Risdel Kasasira what it was like being a commander under former president Idi Amin.

I joined the army in 1963 at Igara in Bushenyi with seven other young men. We were dispatched to Jinja School of Infantry for training that lasted eight months.
Capt Levi Mugarura-Ibabaza was one of our trainers and the commandant of the school was Maj Johnson Langoya. The training was conducted by both Ugandan and Israeli trainers.
Later I was to do a three-month cadre course at the training grounds in Namalu, Karamoja, and I was promoted to the rank of corporal in 1965.

First combat
In 1964, there were tensions between Uganda and then Congo Zaire. I, together with other soldiers of 1st Battalion (Jinja), went to fight the Congolese soldiers at the Uganda-Zaire border. We also fought in the Rwenzori mountains following clashes between the Batooro and the Bakonjo/Bamba.

Shortly after the attack on Lubiri in 1966, I was dispatched as a platoon commander to guard the palace. The palace was still on fire and there was not a single sole in sight apart from us the soldiers. I stayed at Lubiri for a month.
After my stint at Lubiri, I went back to Jinja School of Infantry for cadet course. I was soon joined by Gen Moses Ali, although he didn’t last long. He went to Israel for further training. Strangely, he returned when we were still training and he became a tutor.

Soon after, I was commissioned in May 1970 as a Lieutenant by president Obote. I was then sent to Bamunanika, 30 miles north of Kampala (which was turned into a barracks) to be in charge of training. I was surprised to find a group of about 2,000 soldiers being secretly trained by pro-Amin forces.

They looked like they were from South Sudan. Soon after Obote got to know about it, they summoned Amin. Obote also ordered the South Sudan-looking soldiers to be expelled from the country.

But it was feared that these soldiers could cause a rebellion. So it was suggested that they get spread evenly among all battalions. In the interim, pro-Obote soldiers led by Maj Oyite-Ojok and Capt Ruhinda Karekona stormed Bamunanika and tried to arrest me, thinking I was part of the pro -Amin group.

They also told me that I had been transferred to Moroto. I rang Amin and told him that some soldiers had stormed my base and were saying I had been transferred to Moroto. He told me to stay put, but asked me to let the other men be dispatched to the different battalions.
He later summoned me to the command headquarters in Kololo and confided in me that these transferred army men would overthrow Obote in a few months.

Eve of coup
On January 24, 1971, Amin rang me and told me not to sleep in the barracks. That night, there were gunshots in Kampala. The Kimumwe group began jubilating, thinking Amin had been arrested, not knowing that Amin had actually overthrown Obote.

In 1973, I was promoted to the rank of major and in 1974 I became a Lt Col and was posted to Gulu to start Chui Battalion. I am the one who set it up with soldiers who had completed their training at Bamunanika.

Other Battalions included 1st Battalion in Jinja, 2nd Battalion in Moroto (Gonda), 3rd Battalion in Mubende (Tiger), 4th Battalion in Mbarara (Simba) and 5th Battalion in Nebbi (Bondo). There were also brigades in Kasese and Mbale.

One day, my colleagues who were in the air force asked me to join them for a routine exercise in their MIGs 21 and in the process we mistakenly flew inside Sudan territory but we immediately returned after realising our mistake.

Then Sudanese president Gaafar Nimeiry rang president Amin and said Uganda MIGs were in the Sudan airspace. President Amin rang me to find out what had happened. I explained to him that it wasn’t intentional.

President Amin laughed and said, “You are a hero, well done. Do you know that president Nimeiry had been drinking tea and it had poured on him? But anyway do not do it again.”

Meanwhile, unknown to me there were some army officers planning to overthrow Amin, one of whom was my adjutant John Ogole. I got a call from general headquarters in Kampala asking me to inform Ogole to be in Kampala early the next day.

He had earlier confided in me that the day he was wanted in Kampala, I should let him know to escape because he said senior officers at the headquarters didn’t like him.

When I told him, he fled to Tanzania. Gulu was peaceful but later Amin rang me to ask why many Acholi and Langi wanted to be based in Gulu.

“Don’t you know they are enemies? What are you waiting for?” he asked. I construed it that he wanted me to kill them. One day five jeeps arrived from Kampala heavily loaded with machine guns. They told me to summon all the Acholis and Langis. They were then bundled onto a lorry and taken to Karuma falls never to be seen again.
The next incident was organising the burial of Archbishop Janani Luwum and minister Erinayo Oryema. Gulu remained on tension but without any visible incidents.

Fighting Tanzanians
At the end of May 1977, I was ordered to leave Gulu and sent on forced leave. I went to my home in Kabagoma Ibanda and kept a low profile.

But in October 1978, Amin recalled me and sent me to Moroto to be the commanding officer of Gonda Battalion. He also confided in me that Adrisi was responsible for my being on forced leave and that he had even tried to overthrow him.

On my way to Moroto, I had reached Mbale when I was told that the war had begun. I was told to get soldiers from Moroto and take them to fight in Mutukula. I told him that though I could send soldiers to Mutukula, I personally wouldn’t be going because I had spent a year out of active service and I needed a few months to adjust.

He agreed and told me to send my second-in-command. A few weeks later, Amin rang me and said that I should have got used by now and should head to Mutukula. I went to Mutukula and fought Tanzania and other anti-Amin forces. We were seriously thumped. The Tanzanians were using Kajugujugus (katyushas).

I remember an incident at the frontline. I was hidden in a trench when a bomb fell near me. The explosion lifted the soil and buried me. My soldiers took off thinking I had died. My second in command, Lt Col Abudalatif, withdrew our soldiers saying I had ordered their withdraw. Somehow I managed to get out of the soil and get to the temporary headquarters in Kakuuto.

I was arrested for defiance since my second in command had told a lie that I had said we withdraw. My soldiers protested my arrest and withdrew back to Masaka. Amin got to know and ordered my release and said we continue fighting.
However, the Tanzania forces were overpowering us. It was soon time to return to Moroto and another group was sent to replace us.

End of Amin era
In April 1979, Amin was overthrown. I did not know what to do and my soldiers were asking what we should do. I went to the governor of Karamoja (Akiiki Nyangabyaki) and asked what his escape plan was and he said he had none, but that we should drink whiskey and wait for our fate.

After drinking a lot of whiskey, I returned to the barracks and my soldiers assured me that if I attempted to leave them at the barracks they would shoot me.
Luckily, one night it rained heavily and I managed to escape from the barracks and sneaked to Kenya. I spent three months in Kakamega together with thousands of other Ugandans, including the Olympic runner Akii-Bua. From there, I went to a refugee camp in Mumias. While at Mumias, I rang my cousin David Mugumya and told him I was still alive and that he should tell my entire family.

However, when he delivered the message, they did not believe him. In fact, my mother used to spend her time in Mbarara looking for my body.

At Mumias, 51 of us soldiers were screened and sent to Malaba border and handed over to the Uganda government. I was sent to Luzira as a former serving soldier and was in the condemned section. My roommates at Luzira were Ephraim Rwakanegyere and Kareeba.

Soon I was charged with another offence; the killing of a shamba boy who was working at the district commission’s office in Moroto. Luckily, the man I had been charged with killing was alive and came to court and said he had never been killed.

In 1982, Justice Leticia Mukasa Kikonyogo acquitted me. However as an Amin soldier, I was sent back to Luzira, but this time to Upper Luzira. Oyite-Ojok had declared that Amin soldiers shouldn’t be released. I was eventually released with 1,000 other officers in 1983 and I went back to my home in Kabagoma, Ibanda.

In 1986 after NRA took over power, President Museveni (through my uncle Samwiri Matama and Brig Kanyankore) asked me to rejoin the army. However, because of the trauma I had gone through I didn’t want anything to do with the army and I politely declined. I have since served as LC1 and LC2 chairman for 30 years unopposed. I retired on December 31, 2016.

However, I appeal to the government to expedite my pension. I have been waiting for it for more than 30 years. I was a professional soldier serving the government of the day.”


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