What you need to know:
April 2012 marked 33 years since the downfall of Idi Amin’s government. Bernard Rwehururu’s book, Cross to the Gun, gives an eye witness account and sheds light on the factors that contributed to demise of Amin’s regime.
Bernard Rwehururu’s book, Cross to the Gun, reveals that international isolation, nepotism, internal divisions and weakness in the Uganda Army top brass, corruption, ignorance, trickery, and brutality are among the factors that contributed to the downfall of Idi Amin Dada’s regime in April 1979.
“A review of what happened revealed that we had not been defeated due to lack of military skills. We recognised the fact that some of our units and departments had shown a lot of commitment and given the war effort their best,” Rwehururu admits in his book.
“We realised that a bad image on the international scene had combined with illiteracy, nepotism, ignorance, internal divisions, trickery, and brutality to form a perfect recipe for our down fall.”
“Long before the war, a couple of gruesome atrocities, including the murder of Arch. Bishop Lumum and involvement in the PLO hijacking had reduced Uganda and the Amin government to pariah status,” Rwehururu, who was at the battle front, adds.
The cream of the army was composed of mostly illiterate Congolese and Sudanese nationals who had been rapidly promoted after the 1971 coup. “Most of them were fully aware of their deficiencies and suffered from inferiority complex. So acute was this awareness that the educated officers were always warned against speaking English while in Mess lest risk the wrath of superiors who were prone to working themselves into unnecessary fits of rage,” Rwehururu recalls.
“The few educated and better trained Ugandan officers played second fiddle to them. We could not make any military plans or tender advice on military matters for fear of being misunderstood,” Rwehururu, a graduate of the Indian Military Academy, adds.
Rwehururu, who was recruited in the Uganda Army in March 1965 and went on to serve in all the regimes, including the UPDF as Chairman of the General Court Martial, Commandment of Uganda military academy Kabamba and Defence Attaché in Kenya, among others, argues that discipline was also lost after Amin declared his economic war and expelled British nationals, Uganda Asians and other British protected persons and nationalised their industries.
“Most of our illiterate colleagues who had just been commissioned found themselves appointed to top managerial positions in the industry while others were given business to run for personal gain. The yardstick for such appointments was never academic qualifications or experience. What mattered was what tribe one was from or how close he was to Amin and any of his numerous right hand men.”
According to Brig. Rwehururu, “It therefore followed that more officers who should have been sent out for refresher courses ended up channelling their energy towards managing or mismanaging the nationalised industries or their personal business. This inevitably opened the way to smuggling and the black market, known in Uganda as magendo.”
Much as there were efforts to curb smuggling of Ugandan grown commodities, bodies like the economic crimes tribunal which had been expected to contain the situation found themselves in an impossible position, he writes. “They had no way of taking disciplinary action or prosecuting some of Amin’s most trusted henchmen who were the main players in the smuggling of coffee and other commodities to neighbouring Kenya.”
Other officers, who were not so lucky to get away with smuggling, were not amused by a legal system that left one category off the hook and severely punished another category for similar crimes. “We also realised that by the time we fled into exile, most Ugandans had come to resent the regime so much so that they could cooperate with any one who attempted to rid them of the establishment. This resentment arose from the senseless brutality that some of our colleagues and members of the State Research Bureau (SRB) meted out on Ugandans with such abandon.”
Following the January 1971 coup and Milton’s Obote’s subsequent acceptance of political asylum in Tanzania, relations between Uganda and Tanzania hit an all time low. Governments in both Kampala and Dar-es-Salaam traded accusations of subversion on a monthly basis. Amin was quick to respond to the accusations from Tanzania. Hardly a month after taking power, he slapped a ban on air travel between Uganda and Tanzania.
A combined force of guerillas of Yoweri Museveni’s Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) and the late Oyite Ojok’s Kikosi Maluum forces invaded Uganda in 1972. The guerillas were beaten and retreated back to Tanzania. Amin ordered the air force to carry out reprisal air raids on Tanzanian towns. Bukoba and Mwanza were ferociously bombarded forcing Tanzania to reach a truce with Uganda. Hostilities were ceased and the two countries accepted to pull back their troops from the border by at least ten kilometers. “Despite the fact that the two countries had signed a truce, many of us believed that it was only a matter of time before Amin ordered a full scale invasion of Tanzania…,” Rwehururu recalls.
In the middle of 1978, as tension at the border increased, a Tanzanian spy, who was obviously an amateur, was arrested at Masaka Technical School, which over looks Kasijjagirwa Barracks. After the spy’s arrest and subsequent death under SRB boys, reports that an attack on Uganda was in the offing, kept filtering into the headquarters of Masaka Mechanised Specialist Reconnaissance Regiment which was also known as suicide headquarters.
Rwehururu says that reports seemingly incensed the foreign legions, especially the Sudanese and Congolese, who had by then taken up high positions in the army’s high command. Led by Brig. Malera, Taban Lupayi now a Marine’s commander; Amin’s most trusted and best equipped regiment, and Juma Butabika, they started calling for a swift pre-emptive attack on Tanzania.
“Even Amin who had all along been itching for a fight against Tanzania seemed to develop cold feet. He surprisingly urged restraint and firmly stated that he could only be drawn into such a war if Tanzania attacked Uganda. However, in October 1979 (1978), Juma Butabika, with a handful of some of the Malire troops, left his unit and took over command of the troops that had been permanently stationed at the border before advancing into Tanzania,” he writes.
“The attack took the few ill equipped troops that were stationed at Mutukula and Munzilo, by surprise. They could do little to counter the force and so they fled the area. Encouraged by the little resistance that they had met, Butabika who claimed to have been in Masaka by accident, rung Amin claiming that Tanzanian troops had made an incursion into Uganda, prompting him to take over command at the border guard in order to repulse the invaders,” he adds.
According to the Rwehururu, “Amin fell for the lie largely because he desired to see the political boundaries of Uganda redrawn. The so-called incursion into Uganda presented itself as an opportunity for him to annex big chunks of Tanzanian territory. He therefore sanctioned Butabika’s southward campaign to Kyaka Bridge through Kasambya. Though the troops did not cross Kyaka Bridge, they had effectively sealed off the entire Kagera salient and on November 1, excited with the achievements of his errant officers, Amin went on air and announced that his government had annexed the Kagera salient.”
“Two days later, Butabika and his men, ignorant of military amphibious operations and the availability of emergency pontoon bridges, asked Amin to sanction air raids on the bridge. Approval was immediately given, but inadequate firepower and poor marksmanship on the part of our jet pilots failed the operation.”
“It was only ballistics experts from Kilembe Mines were orderd (ordered) to take over the operation that the bridge was finally blown up, sparking off wild celebrations. Gang rape, murder and the looting of all manner of goods and household property, followed the celebrations. Quarrels however soon erupted between several senior officers and their subordinates over the loot,” he adds. “In Dar-es-Salaam, Nyerere and Obote had reason to thank God.
They had never been able to advance any reason to justify military action against Uganda. Uganda handed them the reasons by advancing into Tanzanian territory, blowing up Kyaka Bridge on the Kagera River and annexing what has come to be known as the Kagera salient. Tanzania had the right to defend itself and here was the justification the two men needed,” Rwehururu says.
Towards the end of November 1978, Rwehururu, who was then a Major and Provincial Economic Crimes Tribunal Chairman was given new tasks that included guarding and patrolling the Uganda-Tanzania border, training and shaping the recruits who had been transferred to Mutukula into good soldiers.
Soon the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) attacked Uganda through the Mutukula border with a Soviet-made BM 21 Katyusha multi-barrel artillery piece, which later came to be known as saba saba in Uganda. “What we had expected to be a week’s shelling turned out to be far beyond that. The shelling went on for weeks dealing a serious blow to the morale of my men. It was then that we reached a decision to request for air support against what was by then a mysterious artillery piece,” Rwehururu reveals.
“The intention was to have it located and destroyed, but the enemy seems to have thought a head of us. They had acquired SAM7s which harassed and destroyed some of the MIG fighter jets that were dispatched for the operation. The mission aborted. We remained in our trenches waiting for divine interventions.” “By then we had lost touch with most of what was going on around us. Save for the knowledge that we were at the front and that what was expected of us was to keep the enemy at bay, we lost count of time and were reduced to executing our duties with mechanical efficiency,” he adds.
Amin turns down Soviet help
“…The Soviet military advisors offered to help by making arrangements to deliver superior artillery pieces and other weapons that would have kept the Tanzanians so busy back home that they would be forced to abandon any ideas about executing northward military maneuvers, but the offer of assistances was turned down. According to sources that were close to Amin, the offer of assistance was at the time viewed with suspicion because of the ideological similarities between Nyerere’s socialist government and that of the Soviet Union…,” Rwehururu writes.
Rwehururu briefed the senior army officers about the devastating impact that the Katyusha had so far had on troop morale. “…I warned that unless something was done to counter the weapons, our troops would lose the fighting spirit, and fail to defend (the) country. The ground offensive was in very well advanced stages.”
According to Rwehururu, “On January 21, 1979 at ten in the night, amidst a heavy downpour, we started exchanging fire. It as difficult for the troops to distinguish the sound of small arms fire from that of Katyusha or a 160 millimeter pounder. One could only distinguish lighting would come in a zigzag manner towards the ground, the artillery fire would be moving towards the sky and then down in an arc.”
Mutukula fell to the Tanzanians in a few days who heavily relied on their artillery and the enormous size of their force. The invading force was met with some strong Uganda Army units that put up resistance in several battles. “…In Kampala, despite the news that Mutukula had fallen and that the enemy was ferociously advancing deeper into our territory, members of the army high command, including my commanding officer, were busy celebrating the eighth anniversary (January 25) of Amin’s rule,” Rwehururu recalls.
A big parade was held at Kololo air strip in Kampala where members of the Nubian community led by Lt. Col. Juma Butabika whose actions had actually sparked off the war, joined a host of others in dancing a traditional Nubian dance, the Duruku (Duluka).
“Watching the live television coverage of the national celebrations from my residence in Masaka, I realised that many of the people including senior army officers who were dancing the Duruka (Duluka) did not know what exactly was going on. All that they were being told was that the enemy was shelling Uganda with a big gun called saba saba, but they were yet to see and feel its impact,” the author adds.
Around the same time the Libyan president, Muammar Gaddafi, sent a company of some of his commandos to Uganda’s rescue, who could neither speak English nor Swahili therefore creating a communication break down. “The arrival of the Libyan desert commandos was as surprising as it was annoying because we had all along made it clear to Amin and the entire Army top brass that all we needed was artillery fire power to neutralise the enemy’s Katyusha and not the personnel…,” the author says.
After the fall of Masaka, Rwehururu says the enemy propaganda machine went into over drive. Several news items broadcast on Radio Tanzania in Luganda, English, Lugbara and Kakwa kept hitting the Ugandan airwaves, seriously denting the morale of the soldiers. “Uncertainty, coupled with the numerous difficulties that the troops were experiencing on the war front aggravated the already fragile situation.”
Rwehururu admits that the fall of Masaka clearly had an effect on troops on both sides of the war divide. “While the Tanzanian’s morale rose higher than before, ours hit an all time low. While they seemed to be growing from strength to strength, our military and organisational strength was clearly on a nose dive. We were simply in total disarray. The ease with which our troops on the Masaka–Kampala axis fell prey to the enemy was testimony to this bitter and sad sate of affairs.” “From maps and documents that we had earlier captured from the enemy and the pattern of the attacks, we were able to establish that the enemy was fighting according to their original plans.”
Four months later Amin’s government eventually fell on April 11, 1979 when TPDF and their Ugandan allies captured Kampala. Many Uganda Army soldiers sought refugee in Kenyan, Zaire (now DR Congo) and Sudan.
On their way to exile, first in Zaire and later Sudan, Rwehururu and his colleagues went through Arua District. At the White Rhino Hotel in Arua, many of the officers that they found were completely ignorant of what was happening at the front line and how close the enemy was. “Most of them had deserted their units as early as either the bombardment of Kyaka Bridge or the fall of Mutukula and they had turned to making money by smuggling Skol and Primus, brands of Congolese beer into Uganda…”
“For the first time in a long time, I shed tears because it was apparent that if our colleagues at the hotel had put as much energy into the war as they were putting into their business discussions, gulping beer and swallowing pieces of roasted meat, the enemy would not have pushed us that far,” Rwehururu laments.
At that time, Amin had sought sanctuary in Libya. Before his departure, he had convinced some of his most trusted men that he was going to solicit for more troops and arms to enable him repulse the enemy. “However, not long after he made the promise, instead of sending the Gulf Stream jet with which he had fled to bring in arms and a few commandos, he sent it to pick up some Kakwa traditional food stuffs with emphasis on ground sim-sim and smoked and sun dried fish,” he says.
While in Sudan they plotted against the new government in Kampala after information coming out of Uganda was not encouraging. There were numerous gruesome stories of torture and murder at the hands of the TPDF and their Ugandan allies. They made incursions into Uganda and even disrupted the 1980 elections in parts of West Nile and even set up a temporary government in Koboko.