UNLA commander John Ogole’s account of Luweero war

Saturday September 22 2018

An illustration of Lt Col John Charles Ogole (centre) drawing a battle plan to flush out the National Resistance Army rebels from Luweero District in 1983. Inset is Lt Col John Charles Ogole. ILLUSTRATION BY DANNY BARONGO

Include him or omit him, Uganda’s military story will be incomplete without mentioning the role Lt Col John Charles Ogole, especially between 1983 and 1984.

Known by his contemporaries as a brilliant battlefield tactician and a chief military strategist, Ogole commanded military operations in Luweero Triangle between 1983 and 1984 that gave the National Resistant Army (NRA) a hard time, leading the guerrilla group to disintegrate temporarily.

Following the tragic death of Maj Gen David Oyite-Ojok in December 1983, it was clear that his most suitable replacement would be Lt Col John Ogole.

He had just graduated from Fort Leavenworth – a prestigious military academy in Kansas, USA.

His military prowess and tactics had earlier on successfully routed out the remnants of Amin’s army who had put a resistance in West Nile sub-region within a short time.

He earned trust from president Milton Obote who immediately appointed him a commander of the 50th Battalion created specially to dislodge NRA rebels from Luweero.


Ogole soon embarked on the mission, reorganised the army, commanded about 6,000 soldiers and attacked the NRA strongholds, which forced the insurgents to retreat towards western Uganda.

Meanwhile the NRA were also smart. They embarked on tactical withdrawal and avoided direct confrontation which could have resulted into heavy casualties.

Accidental soldier
According to the memoir, Lt Col Ogole Memoriam: Country; Justice, Unity and Peace, Ogole never dreamt of being a soldier.

One day his cousin showed up and asked Ogole to accompany him to a recruitment drive in Lira Town. The intention was that Ogole would bring back the bicycle they used to travel to Lira Town.

The recruits were packed in lorries and driven 21 miles away and made to run back to the stadium barefooted for further physical tests.

However, as one recruiting officer, Capt McLaren chatted with onlookers, and was impressed with Ogole’s response and urged him to join the army.

Ogole rejected the idea saying that he wanted to pursue his studies. Capt McLaren explained to him that there was no better way to pursue studies than through the military. Ogole became impressed and immediately joined.

After completing the training, he was posted to a new battalion in Moroto District, the most remote and semi-arid area of the country. He refused to go there giving his intention to recommence his studies.

Ogole was arrested and taken to the Battalion’s second in command, Maj Ndahinikire on charges of disobedience of lawful command.

However, Maj Ndahinikire studied his file and relented. Ogole was pardoned and posted to C Company. He was attached to administrative section as a learner’s clark and allowed to resume his correspondence course.

After a while, his company commander nominated him to attend military administrative course starting as a General Duty Clark Grade A Class in the then army and Air Force Records Office in Jinja barracks.

The course enabled him to get good understanding of military and civilian administration which he later put to good use.

He excelled in the military, gained ranks and made friends both in and outside the army until 1971 when Amin staged a coup.

Ogole and Amin’s coup
On January 25, 1971, according to the memoir, as he walked a few steps out of his office at Malire Regiment Lubiri, five soldiers grabbed and beat him until he lost consciousness.

The following morning, when he regained conscious, he found himself in a very crowded room with people who had been victims of beatings. Some of them had deep cuts, shattered limbs and others fatal wounds.

There was pungent smell of blood and urine everywhere.
Meanwhile, sporadic gunshots and sounds of bombs going off could be heard coming from barracks and city centre. There was wailing ,yelling and shrieks emanating from the gate as Acholi and Langi soldiers were being chased around the barracks like animals, caught, and dragged to the quarter guard to be murdered.

Ogole was taken the Orderly Room to meet the adjutant and the chief clark. The adjutant told him to be attached to the Orderly Room until further notice.

He then ordered the clark to immediately appoint Ogole as his deputy and a documentation clark. Ogole suspected he was spared because of his unique abilities. The coupists needed his expertise to run the administrative and technical duties because almost all of them were illiterate.

Meanwhile, his attachment to the Battalion Orderly Room was removed and he was made a permanent deputy clark and a documentation clark after six months.

Every morning, Ogole was escorted to the post office in the city centre to collect mails and deliver important documents. In the meantime he was given another responsibility to train learner clarks.

Ogole in Amin’s Army
In middle of 1972, Ogole was promoted to a staff sergeant. In 1973, he was nominated to attend officer cadet course at Kabamba, which was conducted by Israeli instructors. He completed the training and was promoted to a full lieutenant and posted to Chui Regiment in Gulu as an adjutant and a battalion administrator.

In Gulu, the environment was severely tense as most families mourned their dead or missed exiled relatives. There were widows, widowers and orphans everywhere and more were still being killed or forced to flee the country.
Ogole’s work was cherished.

Religious leaders, district regional commanders, commissioners, bankers, ministers and foreign dignitaries who came to Gulu were received and hosted by him.

Ogole flees to his first exile
Everything went on well until 1977 when a purge against Langi and Acholi started on allegation that they were plotting to overthrow Amin’s government.
His troubles started when he had gone back to Lira over the weekend for a traditional marriage ceremony for his second wife when agents of the notorious State Research Bureau stormed the place where the reception was being held, arrested prominent people and had them thrown into car boots and drove off. They were not seen again.

Apparently, Ogole had been warned by a one Obol Akal, a bank manager and later his commanding officer, that the State Research Bureau officers had been sent to take him to Amin.

As the killers arrived, Ogole had escaped through the back door and went to Bishop Kihangire’s home where he hid for two weeks.

The bishop later transferred him to Kitgum where he hid for one year as Amin searched everywhere in order to kill him. He eventually managed to smuggle himself to Kenya where he sought political asylum.

Returning home and rejoining army
Following the defeat of Amin’s army in 1979 by a mixed force of Tanzania People’s Defence Force and Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), Ogole returned to Uganda and rejoined the army.

He was immediately assigned duties of deputy director of records, responsible for documentation of people who participated in liberation war.

In 1981, he was appointed chief of personnel and administration in UNLA and Air Force.

In December 1982, he was appointed a commanding officer of 11th Battalion in Arua, West Nile and directed to finish the war against the remnants of Amin’s army who had become entrenched there.

Many senior staffs had been appointed to conduct the war but failed. Due to lack of support and proper command, soldiers had become disillusioned, unruly and refused to fight.

On assuming command, his new strategy, doctrine and tactics introduced discipline and morale among the troops. Within four months, the rebels had been routed out of West Nile and many of them fled to Zaire (now DR Congo) or Sudan.

During one of the battles, Amin’s former minister of Education, Brig Kili, who had become a rebel commander, was captured by Ogole who ensured his safety.

War against NRA in Luweero
Maj Gen Oyite-Ojok, who was commanding an operation against the NRA insurgents led by Yoweri Museveni, died in a helicopter crash in December 1983. Apparently, Oyite-Ojok had assured president Obote that by the end of December the rebels would be defeated.

After the tragic end of Oyite-Ojok, Obote appointed Lt Col Ogole to start from where Oyite-Ojok ended. He was appointed a commander of the UNLA 50th Brigade, which was created to combat NRA.

According to the memoir, by this time much of Luweero Triangle had become desolate. When he started his operation, the NRA had their tactical headquarters just at the outskirt of Kampala at a place called Kawanda and were ready to pounce on the government and overthrow it any time.

The vast area stretching from Luweero, Masindi to Mubende were under martial law administration. All infrastructures in this area had closed including roads, schools, shops, farms etc.

Ogole explains that the insurgents operated illegal government in these areas and collected taxes and confiscated people’s properties, adding that the main road that connected northern Uganda to the south became largely impassable due to ambushes.

The road came to be known as “Lam dogi” to most people of northern Uganda. Lam dogi literally means “pray to God (before you travel so that he may guarantee your safety).”

The memoir says Ogole approached the war with a different strategy, doctrine and tactics. He had between 6,000 and 8,000 men in the brigade at the time.

He selected commanding officers based on training, experience, skills, discipline, and clean records.

He also conducted a two-week seminar with selected officers where physical exercise, and lectures were given to the officers stressing the need of observance of international law and rules governing military operation. This was done at Katikamu before deployment.

As part of his military strategy, Ogole included other security agencies such as National Security Agency (NASA) and police.

Youth leaders, women representatives, district commissioners, among others were also included in the war effort.

With his new strategy, war approach, determination and preparation NRA was headed for defeat.

The memoir says Ogole he attacked and disorganised NRA bases in Luweero and inflicted heavy casualties, forcing them to retreat to Rwenzori region and western DR Congo.

Ogole explains that by May 1985, the NRA was flushed out of it strongholds. Kamala-Gulu highway reopened, civilians started returning home, local and foreign journalists visited the area.

In July 1985, as Ogole was preparing to do a clean-up exercise and declare Uganda free of NRA, Lt Gen Tito Okello Lutwa, the army commander, and Brig Bazilio Olara Okello, the commander of the UNLA Northern Brigade, staged the 1985 coup.

Frustrated, Ogole fled to exile for the second time to Kenya, then Zambia and Tanzania.

Meanwhile, Museveni and the two generals signed a peace agreement which was meant to be a power sharing agreement. However, within a short time, Museveni had overthrown the two and became president in 1986.

Ogole says when he was in Tanzania, Museveni’s government sent extradition letter to Tanzanian authorities seeking his repatriation to Uganda to answer charges of alleged human right abuses in Luweero.

However, he says the request was rejected on the ground that it was politically motivated.
He says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees relocated him to the UK as a political refugee in 1987. He acquired British citizenship and lived there until his death on April 30, 2014.