Lt Col Abdu Kisuule: Uganda did not invade Tanzania, they provoked us

Lt Col Abdu Kisuule during the interview at his home in Namataba on the Mukono-Kayunga road recently. PHOTO BY RACHEL MABALA

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Following our war series on the Kagera attack that sparked the 1979 war between Ugandan and Tanzanian armies that culminated in the overthrow of Idi Amin, one of the commanders who twice led the Ugandan troops into Tanzania territory, Lt Col Abdu Kisuule, told Saturday Monitor’s Henry Lubega his account of the war.

A few months after Gen Idi Amin’s coup in 1971, Ugandan troops under Kisuule, who was then a Lieutenant, entered Tanzania to rescue their colleagues who had sneaked there in search of water. Kisuule, who was later promoted to Lt Col, was to enter Tanzania again seven years later but this time commanding the Ugandan troops into the Kagera Salient for a full scale war between the two countries. Below is the commander’s account.

The Uganda-Tanzania relationship was characterised by a number of military skirmishes between 1971 and 1978 when the conflict erupted into a full scale war. After the 1971 military coup, a number of Milton Obote’s men -- both military and civilians -- went to Tanzania and this obviously made it Uganda’s enemy.

1971 incursion into Tanzania
I don’t recall the date and month, but it was a few months after the January coup of 1971, when president Amin went to open the newly constructed Ntungamo-Kabale road. I was commanding A Company of the Marile Mechanised Specialist Recce Regiment. We were ordered to go to Kikagati where we stayed for two days before being told to go to the Mutukula border.

This was my first time to go to Mutukula. We instead pitched the company headquarters in Rakai District for a couple of days before orders came that we move closer to the Tanzanian border.

Soldiers kidnapped
That very day I moved the company to Kasambya on the road to Minziro, where we reached at night. In the morning I ordered some of my boys to go and fetch water to prepare breakfast. As I waited for the breakfast, I got a report from Officer Kenneth Onzima that four of my men had been kidnapped in Mutukula. That was on August 24, 1971.

I had to analyse the situation and to not report to the headquarters in Kampala. I had to do all within my means to rescue my men. I told Onzima to be my reconnaissance officer as I made arrangements with the security people on the Ugandan side of the border at Mutukula. I told them “when you see APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers) coming, just open the gate”.
I mobilised six APCs, arranging them in numbers and putting my senior and most experienced APC driver, Sgt Hussein Doka, in the lead APC where I was myself. The plan was that when the security guards at the Ugandan side see the APCs coming, they just open the border gate and we go through at full speed to force our way into Tanzania.

With all the six APCs ready, I entered the lead one and raised the other five on radio: “Hullo all stations moving now.” Each APC was calling its number 2-6, all saying “over” and I said, “Move out now.” That’s was the last order I gave and we moved at full speed towards the border. The security did as we had planned, opening the border entrance long before we reached. We went straight into Tanzania.

I was looking through my binoculars when we entered Tanzania. The last thing I recall was seeing a small red light at a distance. The APC was hit and I was badly wounded. My rib cage was blown open, leaving my lungs hanging, with the diaphragm destroyed.

Before I lost consciousness, I asked Sgt Doka: “Are you hit?” he said, “No”. I told him to turn left or right and take my body back to Uganda. By the time I regained consciousness, the APC had been stuck in mud inside Tanzania. Sgt Doka and the gunner had run away, leaving me and a few recruits in the APC. Fortunately, the recruits were not hurt.

My consciousness was on and off. Whenever I would regain consciousness, I would cover my wound with my hand, breath in heavily and release at once to let the blood out. At one point I signalled to one of the recruits to switch off the APC.

The recruits managed to get me out of the APC and put me out on the ground. I gained some consciousness and signalled them to pour some water in my mouth and I was able to speak. They didn’t know where we were. I told them to look east or west and locate Sango Bay.

They put me on an improvised stretcher, wrapped me in a sheet and started walking. I was crying like a child, as they walked, the broken bones were piercing into my fresh causing a lot of pain. I have never been through such pain in my life.

They reached a point and said they had failed. We returned to where we had left the APC where we spent the night. Recruit Pauline was very caring. She was with me all the time. At one point I asked her for my pistol to shoot myself, but it had been lost. I asked her to shoot me to stop the pain I was going through, but she refused.

The next day still being carried on a stretcher, they tried to locate the other five APCs. We went up to a certain hill where they saw them and other soldiers at a distance. One soldier, Gala, later promoted to a Major, drove one APC to our position to pick us. By then it was late afternoon. I had been hit the previous day around 10am. In the APC the pain was worse than the improvised stretcher they had carried me on at first.

I was taken to Mutukula Prison where Amin and some of his ministers had arrived in a helicopter after hearing the incident. Amin ordered the helicopter to take the ministers first and come for me later. But Captain Ombia refused and told Amin: “Our person is dying and you want us to take ministers first?” The pilot was ordered to take me to Masaka hospital. At Masaka the medical staff said my case was beyond them and referred me to Mulago hospital where the helicopter reached at around 7pm.

I got to Mulago on Thursday but I don’t know much of what happened there. I slept for some days not knowing what was happening around me. I woke up on Sunday, it was like waking up from a bad dream and in the process I reopened the stitched wounds.
The doctor working on me was a Norwegian called Greeks. He said they were not going to apply anaesthesia on me for further stitching. I was put in a special room where no one was allowed to enter, including Amin. Three weeks later, I was discharged and went back to Lubiri barracks.

New appointment
In 1973, I had been promoted to Major and appointed commander of the Artillery Regiment in Masindi. At Masindi there was tribalism. Amin thought it was wise to send there one who was not part of the antagonising tribes of the Kakwa, Nubians and Lugbara. I met each group separately to get to the bottom of the problems at the unit.

I started training the unit at Masindi, but its weapons were taken away when Arube tried to overthrow the government around 1975.

While I was in Masindi, I got an operation message calling me as the commandant of the Artillery Unit to go to Masaka. Among others present was the chief of staff, the commanders of the signal department G Branch and all the different units. The Quarter Master General, Idi Amin, himself addressed us.

Present were Col Nzimuri, the Assistant Adjutant and Quarter Master General (AAQMG), Juma Ali Butabika commander of the Marile unit 2UA from Moroto, Ali Kiiza, representing the air force (he was my cadet in the air force and the first cadet to fly Amin on a sole flight), and others. We met at the Suicide Regiment Officer’s mess in Masaka.

After the address, Amin flew us to Mutukula to see the damage done. He gave us three conditions before we could invade Tanzania.
1. If he himself gave the order to attack.
2. If the Tanzanians attacked us.
3. If any of our soldiers was captured or if they started shelling us.

Who is Lt Col Abdu Kisuule?

Born on March 27, 1943 to the late Safina Babirye of Nakagere in Bukerere parish, Goma Sub-county (formerly Kyampisi County) in Kayunga District, I joined Bukerere Catholic Primary School in 1953.

Being a Catholic school, the administration wanted me to convert to qualify for a scholarship to St Peter’s Nsambya for my junior education, but my father refused.
When the Primary Leaving Examinations results for 1956 were released, I emerged the best in the country, scoring 385 out of 400. Since my father had objected to my conversion to Catholic, I didn’t go to St Peter’s Nsambya. I was instead sent to Agaliawamu Junior School in Kigayaza. Due to good performance, I skipped J3 and went to Makerere College School in 1959.

In 1962, I sat the Cambridge Secondary School Leaving Certificate. The white teachers those days had a policy of picking on the bright students even before the national exams results were out and started teaching them. And that’s how I joined A-Level before the results came back.

Joining the Army
My ambition was to become a doctor, but the ambition was cut short when a one Sekiwano came looking for people to join the army. I was told I could become an army doctor because I was doing Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and mathematics.

I and others attended a series of interviews with the final one conducted on September 4, 1963, at State House Entebbe. Among those I sat the interviews with included Oyite-Ojok, though he never made it to Khartoum in Sudan.

Only six of us went to Omdurman Military College in Khartoum. But by the time I came back, almost three years later, Oyite-Ojok was already a captain.

On September 27, 1963, I and five others -- Erute, Peter Ngarombo, Micheal Okora, Gideon Rusweswe and Isaac Rumago -- left for Sudan. At the college, on entry, you are given 100 marks from which they keep on deducting for any act of indiscipline. The marks are later tallied to the final results.

Life in Sudan
When we arrived in Sudan, there was a lot of rain, leading to terrible floods. But from September to July, there was no rain at all. There was terrible heat.

The training was tough; we had people coming from Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and other countries. Some were in the navy while others were in different military fields.
After three months of training, I wrote a letter to Major Houston -- then military chief in Uganda -- asking him to allow me come back home. I told him my interest was medicine but in Khartoum I was training in gun handling instead.

However, I had not passed the letter through the head of the training college and when it got to Kampala, it was sent back to the college head in Khartoum.

I was charged for indiscipline but I was spared any punishment.
At the end of the three years, I was the best foreign student and I received an award of excellence called the Excellent Order of Merit (EOM). Unfortunately, I lost it during the 1979 war.

Return to Uganda
We returned to Kampala on December 20, 1965, as Second Lieutenants. The following day, I was posted to Gaddafi Garrison in Jinja, also known as 1UA under A Company. One week after my posting in Jinja, my company was sent to Kapchorwa, to quell some disturbances there. When I returned to Jinja, I took a course in accounts and administration from within the barracks.

Around March 1966, my company was brought from Jinja to Nakawa, and pitched camp at Gombolola grounds. I never knew why we were never taken to the barracks. At that time there were two forces within the army: one pro-Shaban Opolot and another pro-Amin. Shaban Opolot was the army commander and he was a stronger supporter of the Kabaka (Buganda king). The pro-Amin people sent the Simba Battalion from Mbarara to come and attack us at Nakawa.

I recall one day at around 2am, there was exchange of fire with Simba Battalion and I suspect people like Francis Arimo, Kanuti and another Major were court martialed for treason. I was called as a witness in that case at the parliamentary building. Immediately after that incident we were ordered to go back to Jinja.

In mid-1966, A Company under the command of Dabangi, was sent to Lubiri to be trained by experts from Czechoslovakia on using APC’s until January 1976. After the training, I became an adjutant of the air force overseeing the construction of the Katabi Air Force Barracks until February 1978.
While there, Obote ordered for my transfer back to Jinja. The order came at night and by morning the vehicle to take me was at my door. The reason for my transfer was because of the letter I had written as the air force adjutant, complaining about theft by the Israeli’s. They were flying our planes to Zaire (DR Congo) to do what I never knew.

They made sure oxygen cylinders disappeared on a daily basis, making me sign LPOs every day, until I wrote a letter to Col Hariven complaining about the disappearing covers. The cylinders were needed in the migs he was flying. I asked him what our planes were doing flying to Zaire and Rwanda almost on a daily basis.

The man got so annoyed that instead of responding, he called Obote, complaining about me and Obote immediately ordered for my transfer back to Gadaffi Barracks. I had to hand over to Lt Onyaiti, then an education officer. Amin was the chief of staff and he ordered the officer in-charge, Ogwal, to put me on charge.
The next day before I left Entebbe, I was put on charge and Amin himself tried me. During the trial, he said: “You are right, why are these people wasting our money, I’m not going to punish you”. He then tore the charge sheet.
By Henry Lubega


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