When Uganda, Kenya nearly went to war

Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi (right) and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni have a lighthearted moment. PHOTOS/ FILE

What you need to know:

  • President Moi suspected that his Ugandan counterpart was supporting the Mwakenya Movement, an unofficial opposition group that had sprung up to fight for a return to multiparty politics in Kenya, writes Isaac Mufumba.

Thirty six years ago on Monday, neighbours Uganda and Kenya nearly went to war amid accusations by each that the other was supporting its country’s rebels.
The government of Kenya went public with accusations that soldiers of the National Resistance Army (NRA) had made an incursion into Kenya, shooting unarmed civilians and looting lots of property.
The tension dated back to October 1987 when forces of the two countries engaged in a firefight at the border town of Busia after which President Museveni accused Kenya of supporting rebels opposed to his government.

Kenya claimed that 200 Kenyan children had been flown to Libya for military training through Uganda. It claimed that the purpose was to return them to destabilise Kenya. Mr Museveni on his part accused Daniel arap Moi’s government of giving sanctuary to Uganda rebel outfits who had established training bases and camps in Kenya. Mr Museveni said he had deployed troops at the border “to stop guerrillas from crossing into Uganda”. President Moi’s response was that “any attempt by the NRA to violate the Kenya border would be met with force”.

President Moi suspected that Mr Museveni, the left leaning former rebel leader who had taken power in Kampala the year before, was supporting the Mwakenya Movement (the Union of Nationalists to Liberate Kenya), an unofficial left wing opposition group that had sprung up to fight for a return to multiparty politics in Kenya.
The government in Nairobi suspected that Kampala was allowing Mwakenya leaders and fighters to freely travel through Uganda.
The regime in Kampala was equally suspicious of the one in Nairobi.

FOBA rebels
A new rebel outfit, Force Obote Back Again (FOBA), which fought the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in the Busia and other parts of Bukedi region launched its first attack in the middle of January 1987.
The rebels invaded the home of Alex Mayende Avon of Masinya Sub-county and shot him dead. Mayende had been a mobilisers of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Busia and also doubled as the secretary for defence on the Ad hoc Resistance Council (RCIII) of his sub-county.
The force, which was comprised of mostly former youth wingers of the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) and former servicemen of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) and Special Forces, targeted mostly cadres of the NRM/A and was believed to have been operating out of bases and training camps in western Kenya.

By the middle of 1987, the outfit had killed more than 11 members of the Ad hoc Resistance Councils in Busia alone.
The government in Kampala was also suspicious that Kenya was arming and training insurgents of the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) of Peter Otai.
On December 14, tensions went notches higher as soldiers on either side of the border exchanged fire. Governments on either side announced that there would be heavy deployment of fighting forces.

On December 15 there were more reports of fighting between the two armies. The Kenya Times reported that 26 soldiers of the NRA had been killed after they crossed into Kenya.

On December 18 Kenya took the unprecedented step of expelling Uganda’s High Commissioner to Nairobi, Ambassador Charles Katungi, and his Deputy, Mr Samson Bigombe. Moi claimed at the time that Uganda was “preparing for war”.

Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

On the same day, Kenya closed the embassy of Libya in Nairobi and ordered six Libyan diplomats, including the ambassador to leave, amid accusations that the group had been engaged in acts of espionage. 
President Moi accused Libya, which he claimed had been arming Uganda, of working in cahoots with the Ugandan government to overthrow his government.

Kenya was also suspicious of Uganda because it had in the close to two years under the NRM cultivated trade links with North Korea, which was considered along with Libya, a pariah state, at least in the eyes of the West and its allies.
It was feared that North Korea, which had provided military training and other forms of assistance to the UNLA and the Milton Obote II government, would do the same for the former rebels who had taken power in Kampala.

Katungi’s Crime
Ambassador Katungi’s, crime at least in the eyes of president Moi and his handlers, was to defend Uganda’s decision to deploy troops at the common border.
Two days prior to his expulsion, the high commissioner had called a press conference in Nairobi where he reiterated an earlier position given by Kampala that the NRA had been deployed at the border to ensure that rebels did not cross in from Kenya.

He also described as “absolutely ridiculous”, claims that Libyan troops had been deployed along with the NRA at the border.
The statements did not go down well with president Moi and his handlers who soon accused him of heaping “incredible insult on the person of His Excellency President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi.”
On December 19, Uganda security personnel surrounded the High Commission of Kenya in Kampala. It is claimed that six diplomats had been taken hostage.

The hostilities plunged Uganda into a near crisis. There was hardly any fuel coming in from the sea port of Mombasa.
Whereas Kenya did not officially declare a blockage, it was very much in place. There were simply no goods coming in from the eastern border town of Busia and Malaba. The Christmas and New Year festivities of 1987 were as a result one of the toughest experienced in Uganda.
“The border dispute had closed Uganda’s main transport link to the sea and dried up its fuel supply and locked inside Kenya about 10,000 tonnes of Uganda-bound freight,” it was reported in The Washington Post of December 29, 1987.

The two leaders, however, met on the Kenyan side of the border town of Malaba where they agreed to end hostilities.
“Museveni rang me about things at the border and I said come and meet me at Malaba,” Moi told Reuter news agency before the meeting that started at midday on December 28, 1987.

The digitised version of the December 29, 1987, edition of The New York Times reported that the two countries agreed to “reduce security forces at the border”, a move which was expected to ease tensions that led to the exchanges of fire.

“I’ve been convinced by this meeting that Kenya has a lot of interest in dealing with us for the mutual interest of the two countries,” Mr Museveni was quoted to have told the media in Tororo Town after the two hour meeting with president Moi.

Mr Museveni also revealed that Kenya had agreed to investigate Uganda’s complaints that Ugandan rebels had been crossing the border from Kenya and making incursions into Uganda.
“The Government of Kenya has agreed to identify those people and deal with them,” Mr Museveni said.
The two countries also agreed to reopen their common border to pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

“All the problems have been ended and trucks and people are now free to cross the border,” Mr Museveni said.
The Washington Post reported that, “Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, addressing Uganda’s most pressing problem, ordered that his minister of energy facilitate the immediate shipment of gasoline to Uganda”.