The 1978 war that pushed  Idi Amin out of presidency 

Former president Idi Amin.

What you need to know:

  • Two weeks after the October 1978 war started, Amin went begging for military assistance from his friends. He visited president Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Col Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Faustin Mugabe writes.

On October 10, 1978, a war broke out between Uganda and Tanzania.
The war that eventually led to the ouster of former president Idi Amin came to be known as “The 1979 War,” actually started in October 1978, a day after Uganda celebrated its 16th independence anniversary. 

On the night of October 10, 1978, Uganda attacked Tanzania. The previous night, a Ugandan soldier whose name has never been documented, left his station at a military detach not far from the Uganda-Tanzania common border and crossed into Tanzania without informing his superiors or colleagues.

There had been animosity between Uganda and Tanzania since 1971 and there had been skirmishes between the two countries.

The soldier spent the night with his Tanzanian girlfriend who was a resident at the Tanzania border town. While there, he was detained for hours by Tanzanian security forces and roughed up before being released.
Back in Uganda, during the October 10, 1978, morning parade, the soldier was found missing, which worried his colleagues and detach commander, only identified as Lt Byansi.

In 2015, retired Lieutenant Muzamir Mule, who in 1978 was a tank commander based at Sango Bay Barracks and a friend of Lt Byansi, told this reporter what the mischievous soldier told his commander.
Soldier lies to the commander
When the soldier was set free and finally arrived at his base, he lied to his superior, Lt Byansi, that he was kidnapped by Tanzanian forces the evening before as he bathed at Kagera River that forms a natural boundary between Uganda and Tanzania.
He claimed that the Tanzanian forces arrested and assaulted him before setting him free the next morning.

The soldier, still filled with rage, later picked up his gun, run towards the Tanzanian frontier and shot at the soldiers manning the border post, who shot back in defence.
The soldier’s act infuriated both sides. Lt Byansi immediately reported the matter to his superior, Lt Col Juma Oka, aka Butabika (the mad one), who was the commanding officer of the Malire Mechanised Reconnaissance Regiment in Kampala. Butabika then made a personal decision to attack Tanzania.

That night, Lt Mule received orders to attack the border post and advance into Tanzania. 
“I commanded three tanks and we entered into Tanzania,” Lt Mule told this reporter in 2015 in Koboko District. 
Without informing president Amin, Lt Col ‘Butabika’ ordered soldiers from the Malire battalion at Lubiri to go and reinforce the attack.

Attack not planned
President Yoweri Museveni also believes that Uganda may not have planned to attack Tanzania. 
On  page 92 of his book Sowing the Mustard Seed first published in 1997, President Museveni writes that: 

“On October 30, 1978, Amin’s troops invaded the Kagera salient. I think the main factor behind this invasion was the incapacity of Amin and his group. They must have merely been posturing: it could not have been that they underestimated the capacity of the Tanzanian army because even in the brief skirmishes of 1971 and 1972, the Tanzanian army had not fought badly.” 

The Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces in Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. PHOTOs/ FILE

“Therefore, the explanation for this blunder on Amin’s part must have been his ignorance. Hopelessly out of his depth, Amin was always fond of doing and saying outrageous things. He wanted to behave like the Israelis who in 1967 had captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in just six days. He appears to have thought that by invading Tanzania, he was ‘teaching president [Julius] Nyerere a lesson.” 

Why Amin never wanted a war
Since the November 1972 expulsion of Asians from Uganda, the economy had almost collapsed, partly due to the economic embargo the Western powers had slapped on Uganda. 

Amin also had good intelligence on the Tanzania military prowess, which he knew was superior to the Uganda Army.
“…the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) had also developed the means to fight, having bought a great deal of Soviet equipment, including surface-to-air missiles, MiG fighters and medium-range artillery,” President Museveni writes on Page 93.

When the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU), was established in 1963, a resolution was passed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that Tanzania be the headquarters of the African liberation movements fighting colonialism at the time. 

Thus, the military equipment from the Soviet Union was first kept in Tanzania before being shipped other destinations in Africa – which gave Tanzania the opportunity to purchase modern military equipment such as the surface-to-air missiles which they used to down several Ugandan MiG jet fighters between October and December 1978.
As a matter of fact, by January 1979, the Uganda Air Force could no longer attack Tanzanian territory, which gave the Tanzanian army an upper hand in the war. 

Amin runs to Gaddafi
About two weeks after the war started, Amin went begging for military assistance from his Arab friends. 
In Africa, he visited president Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Col Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Col Gaddafi and president Nyerere of Tanzania were arch enemies. 

On October 22, 1978, Amin left for Egypt aboard the presidential jet. President Sadat is said to have offered Amin military equipment, but not soldiers as Gaddafi did. 
On October 24, 1978, Amin visited Gen Mustafa Adrisi, Uganda’s vice president who was receiving medical treatment at a military hospital in Egypt. The Voice of Uganda of October 25, 1978, published the story and picture of Amin with Adrisi at the hospital. 
Gen Adrisi got involved in a road accident on the Kampala-Jinja Highway in February 1978 which left one of his legs seriously injured. 

Amin’s detractors fuelling propaganda from Tanzania claimed that the accident was Amin’s plot to assassinate Adrisi who was a potential successor upon Amin’s defeat.
From Egypt, Amin proceeded to Libya where he also had a medical check-up. The Voice of Uganda of October 27, 1978, reported that the examination by Gaddafi’s personal doctor revealed that Amin’s blood pressure was normal.

In December 1978, Libyan and Palestinian commandos clandestinely landed at Entebbe airport at night to fight for Amin. 
The commandos were soon on the frontline on the Mutukula-Masaka axis fighting against the throng of Tanzanian and Ugandan Kikoosi-Maluum fighters that had attacked through Mutukula. 

When Kampala fell on April 10, 1979 – and not April 11, 1979, as widely reported – the commandos surrendered to the Tanzanian forces after their attempt to escape through eastern Uganda to Kenya was blocked. 
They were taken prisoners of war and eventually repatriated to Libyan and Palestine after long diplomatic negotiations.


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