What you need to know:
Failed coup. After Brig Charles Arube and Lt Col Elly Aseni had masterminded the plot and were certain that the coup was achievable, they decided to involve other soldiers. Among them was 2nd Lieutenant Isaac Bakka. He recounts the plot to Faustin Mugabe.
On March 23, 1974, Brig Charles Arube and Lt Col Elly Aseni wanted president Idi Amin ousted before midday. The two daring soldiers from West Nile sub-region, Amin’s home area, had plotted a surprise coup and until Sunday March 23, the day of the coup, the plot had remained a secret only to the two senior Uganda Army soldiers.
It was inconceivable that a Ugandan soldier could dare oust Field Marshal Idi Amin. But to Arube and Aseni, to stage a coup was the sole solution to remove Amin and his foreign agents in the armed forces. The foreign agents were accused of killing thousands of innocent Ugandans.
Arube, Aseni involve other soldiers
After Arube and Aseni had masterminded the plot and were certain that the coup was achievable, they decided to involve other soldiers. And the right time to inform the trusted soldiers was on the day of the coup – lest the plot leaked to Amin. This was also done to avoid excitement among soldiers.
On the day of the coup, Brig Arube and Lt Col Aseni contacted then 2nd Lieutenant Isaac Bakka to join the coup. Bakka is the son of Brig Barnabas Kili, who was the minister of education at the time.
The two senior officers met their junior, Bakka at his private home on Plot 40 Rashid Khamis Road, Old Kampala, and in minutes, they had convinced him to join the coup plot because the reasons forwarded were obvious.
“Can you tell us what happened when Arube and friends attempted to oust Amin?” I asked Capt Bakka.
“I was at my house early that morning. It was Sunday morning and as usual, I was preparing to go for my Sunday prayers. It is then that Col Elly Aseni knocked at my door. With him was Brig Charles Arube. I welcomed them in,” he said.
“After they had sat and settled, they introduced me to why they were so early at my house, yet I was a junior officer.”
“What time was it?” I asked.
“That was before 8 O’clock. It was 7:45.”
“Where was that?”
“That was at my house on Plot 40 Rashid Khamis Road, old Kampala.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Elly proceeded to introduce to me the reason for their early visit at my house. He told me that they have a very serious issue of national concern that they wanted to share with me. I said ‘yes I am glad to hear that’. Then he [Aseni] said since I know them, there is no need to introduce themselves,” Bakka said.
“They said the issue was the question of foreigners in the Ugandan Army and other security forces that were doing a lot of bad things to all Ugandans, including military personnel, civilians, members of the public and the business community.”
“They said several people had been disappearing and their bodies found thrown in bushes in various parts of Kampala and on highways and said this cannot continue without having something done about it.”
“They [Arube and Aseni] had done their research and found that the leadership [of the Uganda government] was adamant and indecisive, as if it was involved. And they had even challenged the president [Amin] about it. And this led them to find their own solution.”
“I asked them, ‘what solution do you have?’” They said in the matter where there is complacency by the top level, the solution is to get rid of the leadership itself, because it was responsible.
“This led me to ask them why they thought that the leadership [Uganda government] did not give them attention, that they thought of other avenues to tackle the issue. They said ‘you cannot expect Lt Col Ondoga [Michael], who was an ambassador to the Soviet Union [Russia], to die like that’. And Aseni said ‘you cannot expect leading politicians like Ben Kiwanuka, Jolly Joe Kiwanuka of the Democratic Party and some soldiers; Capt Kenneth Onzima, Capt Jackson Avuduria and Lt Col Toroko – all from West Nile and had been shot dead at Imperial Hotel [in Kampala] – to die like that’. They said this cannot be work of usual criminals. The State machinery must be behind it.”
“They said Secret Service, the State Research, was manned by some foreigners [Congolese, Sudanese and Rwandans trained by Mossad and KGB spy agencies of Israel and Russia respectively].”
“I said, ‘Which foreigners?’ And they mentioned a number of foreigners, which I myself knew was true; these fellows were foreigners. A man like Brig Hussein Malera, who commanded military police and was at that time the acting chief of staff, was from South Sudan. Then there was a man called Ali Toweli who headed a police department called Public Safety Unit. This man was pretending to be a Ugandan from Tooro [sub-region] but to the best of my knowledge, he was from Congo [a Nubian]. He spoke fluent Rutoro.”
“Then in the army were men like Brig [Isaac] Maliyamungu in charge of all operations and training, who was from Congo [a Kakwa]. To their concern, these people were appointed to those positions deliberately by the head of State [Amin]. He could not, therefore, convince anyone that he did not know the kind of people he was appointing to these high positions.”
“These were people, in their [Arube and Aseni’s] opinion, who issued orders to their juniors and their juniors handled Ugandans ruthlessly because they knew that if matters came to the worst, they would simply run away to their countries and would not be held responsible. The best thing was to get rid of them when they were still here; corner them with their leader [Amin] and get rid all of them.”
Why Arube, Aseni chose Bakka’s home
“So I said, ‘what do you want me to do?’ They said ‘your contribution is required. As a junior officer, we have chosen your house deliberately so that we are not spied on [the two officers came in Aseni’s ordinary car but in military uniform]. For this matter, we have come to your house purely for concealing our planning so that nobody knows that something serious is being planned here. Your role is this; we want you to move, to inform stations outside Kampala while we handle Kampala.’”
“When they said ‘we handle’, I said ‘you and who?’ They said ‘we have some officers we are going to assign duties. Yours is to go to Masindi [Artillery Regiment garrison], from there go to Bondo [Barracks] in Arua and come via Gulu. Inform all our people [soldiers] there to get hold of all the suspected foreigners in their units. We are ordering that all people who are not Ugandans, who were illegally recruited in the armed forces and are responsible for mass murder in Uganda, must be held responsible for their crimes.’”
“’Because they are going to flee, we must blocked the road to Gulu. The reason why we are sending you via Masindi is because the Artillery Regiment in Masindi is at a strategic place, between Kigumba and Karuma. That road must be blocked.’”
“We blocked all major roads. We blocked the Kabale-Masaka road from Masaka [to block Rwandan Tutsi mostly operating in the infamous State Research Bureau]. Our men in Jinja were going to take care of those [foreigners in Jinja] and the infantry brigade in Mbale would do the same.”
“Each military unit was to sort out foreigners in its unit. The war was on sorting out foreign nationals in Uganda security forces who were only paying allegiance to the head of State [Amin] but not the Uganda people. This was because their role here was only to make money and if they spoiled our country, leaving Ugandans blaming one another and killing one another, they would simply vanish away.”
“Then they told me, ‘as we all come from West Nile – Arube and Aseni were Kakwas from Koboko while I came from Maracha County in Arua District – we must realise that we owe a lot to the future of West Nile’. They told me that all of us from West Nile must understand that because people come to join the army under the cover of being West Nilers, all their actions were going to be blamed on West Nile children.”
“They said ‘in future other Ugandans will think West Nilers were responsible for the death of their relatives, whereas it was not true. West Nile was being used to recruit soldiers from Congo, from South Sudan to be used [by Amin] for political ambitions. They have no regard for Uganda as a nation and for Ugandan citizens. But then, Ugandans would not know that our brothers from West Nile are not the ones who were killing them.’ So I realised their reasoning was true.”
“Looking ahead, I realised that unless something was done to exonerate us, we risked our children being held responsible in future for the affairs of Idi Amin and his foreign gangs.”
“Subsequently, I accepted the mission and left immediately. My mission was very clear, to deliver the message to these units to sort out foreigners in their units. While here in Kampala, he [Arube] assumed the role of commander-in-chief. Elly [Aseni] was now the de facto operations chief. Now they directed different units to take action.”
“The directive was strictly to root out foreigners: Foreigners in the State Research, in the army, in the airforce and in the police,” Capt Bakka says.
Kisule refuses to join the coup
“Did they (Arube and Aseni) tell you that they had already assigned others?” I asked Bakka.
“Yes. They told me ‘don’t be afraid, we have already assigned. Now you go your own way. Because of security reasons, the names and whereabouts of these people cannot be disclosed.’ I left and arrived in Masindi [Artillery Regiment] and found Masindi hostile,” he said.
“The commanding officer there was Lt Col Abdul Kisule. Kisule viewed the uprising as an uprising against Islam. He said Baganda kings were all Christians since Mwanga, meaning Muslims would never have the chance of leading Uganda again.”
“Did you contact Lt Col Kisule personally?” I ask.
“What did you say to him?” I ask.
“I said I am on a mission. And the mission is that foreign soldiers are going to flee via here [Masindi], block the road from River Kafu and Kigumba so that you arrest all foreigners in Masindi and on that road. He refused. He said he can’t,” Bakka says.
“He said he had already inquired and that this was an uprising against Muslim leadership. He said Christians want Muslims to lose this chance. He said ‘Obote was a Christian, [Sir Edward] Muteesa was a Christian and now that time has come for Muslims to have a chance, you people want to get rid of him.’ So I left.”
“I drove to Bondo [garrison in Arua]. Brig Arube had already called the commanding officer, telling him that ‘2nd Lt Bakka is on the way with a message. When he arrives please cooperate with him’.”
“This man was Lt Col Gabriel, also a Christian. Gabriel did not seem to accept my mission – because on arrival, he arrested me. He said he needed further clarification. Luckily, Brig Arube had also sent a similar message about the mission to Gen Mustafa Adrisi who had travelled to Koboko,” Bakka says.
According to Bakka, Adrisi agreed with the decision Arube had taken. And when Adrisi heard of Bakka’s arrest, he went to Lt Col Gabriel and ordered him to release Bakka.
Upon his release, Bakka continued with his mission to Gulu, Lira, Mbale, Jinja and back to Kampala. He says the entire journey took him less than 10 hours.
However, soon after Bakka arrived at Kireka near Kampala, the songs the soldiers had been playing after capturing Radio Uganda suddenly stopped playing, and minister for information and broadcasting, Juma Oris, went on air.
He gave a statement that some soldiers had attempted a coup to oust the government but failed. A puzzled Bakka attempted to contact Arube and Aseni on radio call, to no avail.
About Idi Amin
Idi Amin was a member of the small Kakwa ethnic group of north-western Uganda. His birthdate is unconfirmed, but estimated to have been in 1925. His mother, a herbalist and diviner, raised him after his father deserted the family. Amin had little formal education before joining the King’s African Rifles of the British colonial army in 1946 as an assistant cook.
Extremely charismatic and skilled, Amin quickly rose through the ranks. His stature was rather notable. He stood 6 feet, 4 inches tall and was a Ugandan light-heavyweight boxing champion from 1951 to 1960, as well as a swimmer. He soon became notorious among fellow soldiers for his overzealous and cruel military interrogations. Eventually, he made the highest rank possible for a black African serving in the British army. From 1952 until 1956, he served in the British action against the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya.
Before Uganda’s independence in 1962, Amin became closely associated with the new nation’s prime minister and president, Milton Obote.
Next week we look at how Amin humbled himself before the soldiers in order to stop the coup and what happened to coup plotters