What you need to know:
On October 16, 1987, rebels of the Holy Spirit Movement led by self-styled priestess Alice Lakwena and her fighters marched into Busoga Sub-region. They were convinced that this was the final leg of their march to depose the National Resistance Movement government from power. However, this would prove to be their Waterloo. In the first of a three-part series, Isaac Mufumba looks at what initially put a spring in the collective step of the rebels.
Mr Fred Mukisa was fast asleep when the sound of unusually heavy knocking at the door jolted him from his slumber. stirred him awake. It was 4am local time on October 16, 1987.
“Afande! Aduyi ametuingiliya (loosely translated: Sir! The enemy has invaded our area),” he heard the National Resistance Army (NRA) soldiers frantically calling out a stone’s throw from the entrance to his home in Bugiri Town.
Forces loyal to Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement had overrun a military detach at Kibimba Rice Scheme, forcing the soldiers to flee to Bugiri Town.
According to Mr Tim Allen’s book, Understanding Alice: Uganda’s Holy Spirit Movement in Context, Lakwena had left Acholi land in July with an estimated force of 6,000 men. Relying on her tremendous charisma, Lakwena convinced the men that the River Nile would part in Jinja. This would help her forces advance towards Kampala where she was sure to topple President Museveni’s government.
A few weeks before the attack, Mr Mukisa had been named a full Special District Administrator (SDA). This is the equivalent of a Resident District Commissioner (RDC) today. Before his transfer to Jinja District, Mr Mukisa had previously served as the deputy SDA of Iganga District.
Mr Mukisa had been named chairperson of the District Security Committee in Iganga, a responsibility which he had not yet relinquished by the time Lakwena’s forces struck. The SDA had opted to spend a night in Bugiri because he needed to pick clothes for use later that day during celebrations to commemorate that year’s edition of the World Food Day.
On World Food Day, Mr Mukisa was to represent President Museveni at a function that was slated to take place in Busedde Sub-county in Jinja District.
The people of Busoga, a Bantu-speaking tribe in Uganda, have a saying that goes: “Even the brave get shocked.” Mr Mukisa can testify to this.
“I jumped out of the bed and dashed into the car without thinking much. I must have put on most of the clothes and the shoes from inside the car,” he revealed prior to his death last December.
The SDA’s official cars back then were the Spanish-made Santana Land Rover 88 series. They were meant to be cheaper versions of the British-made Land Rovers.
A Lakwena incursion into Busoga had been anticipated for quite some time. The government had recruited 57 people from Bukhooli and Busiki counties and sent them for training in Serere.
“They (Bukhooli and Busiki counties) were considered to be vulnerable areas. We knew Lakwena was bound to enter Busoga from either of the two,” Mr Mukisa explained.
The 57 Local Defence Unit (LDU) men were meant to serve as the first line of defence against the invaders, but things did not go as earlier planned. Lakwena streamed from Acholi into Teso Sub-region via Lango Sub-region and overran the training camp in Serere before the training could end. Seven of the trainees were killed. Their bodies were never recovered.
Lt Hannington Basakana, a former Bush War combatant, who has since retired into politics, says eastern Uganda was under the care of the NRA’s 151 Brigade with the late Brig Chefe Ali offering leadership. The area stretched from the Owen Falls Dam in Jinja to Karamoja. The brigade was at the time fighting to snuff out the insurgency that had earlier been launched in Teso by the Peter Otai-led Uganda People’s Army (UPA).
Lt Basakana says Lakwena’s forces were involved in at least three major military engagements in Teso. Those took place around Teso College, Arapai College and Soroti Flying School.
“The first major engagement was at Soroti Flying School. We had always known that the school was a target, so we had been camped there,” Lt Basakana says, adding, “She made two attacks on the school, but suffered heavy casualties on both occasions. She then beat a hasty retreat. There were other engagements in the area of Dakabela and Arapai College.”
So many years after the threat that she posed was snuffed out, Lakwena’s military strategy remains a bit of a mystery. Whereas rebel forces have always been known to invade, capture a territory, and leave an occupation force of sorts before moving on to other areas, the Holy Spirit Movement seemed to operate differently. Even when the force would be beaten, it would never retreat to allow it time to either reunite or regroup.
“Her approach to the war seemed to be engage, breakthrough and move ahead. It was not a conventional way of doing things,” Lt Basakana says.
After suffering heavy casualties in Teso, Lakwena’s forces moved very fast through Bugwere, Bunyole and into Tororo, an area which one of their Commanders, Lt Col Kennedy Kilama, was conversant with. Kilama had been the Uganda National Liberation Army’s (UNLA) last Commanding Officer (CO) of Rubongi Barracks in Tororo.
The NRA was, however, waiting in several parts of Tororo such as Yolwa, Nagongera, Mulanda, Achileti, Gwaragwara and Peyipeyi. The intention was to block movement towards Tororo and Malaba or Busisa at the common border with Kenya.
“All those areas were very well fortified. The purpose was to protect the borders. You do not want skirmishes very near the border, particularly when they are of a civil war,” Lt Basakana explains.
Battle of Yolwa
In the first week of October, Lakwena’s forces entered Yolwa where it was believed they enjoyed considerable support. Laying in the wait was the 25th Battalion. It had, however, just changed command. Its commander, only identified as Mbewa, had only been in charge for a day when the rebels attacked. He never lived to tell the story of his life as a battalion commander.
“The day [Mbewa] arrived and took over command [of the 25th Battalion] was the day the enemy attacked [Yolwa] and the day he died,” Lt Basakana recounts.
Whereas the NRA suffered a blow following the death of Mbewa, the body count of Lakwena’s forces was by far greater. Not for the first time, the forces had to beat a hasty retreat. This time they streamed down south through Busitema before entering Busoga Sub-region at Buluguyi from where they marched onto and overran the military detach at Kibimba.
The forces then moved through Namayemba and Kitoodha before setting up camp in Muterere. They are believed to have had several collaborators and fighters, many of whom are said to have settled in the area several months before the “priestess” and the main force started the southward march.
“Some people had brought in cows, claiming they had been fleeing from the war in Teso and other parts of the east, but it was a trick. That, as we later discovered, was their food, which they had sent in advance,” Mr Mukisa told Saturday Monitor.
Mr Mukisa’s reconnaissance mission did not go very far. He was not only travelling in a marked car but also had to travel to Jinja to preside over the World Food Day celebrations.
In the absence of as many FM radio stations, mobile phones and the attendant social media platforms such as the country has today, those who were privy to what was going on were very few. It was also in the authorities’ best interests that things stayed that way.
However, on his way to Jinja, Mr Mukisa passed through Magamaga Ordinance Depot where he held a meeting with commanders Eriya Mwine (Chefe Ali) and Tom Muhairwe. Also in attendance were commanders Stanley Muhangi and Nathan Mwenemuzeyi, who were in charge of Gaddafi Garrison in Jinja.
The NRA had at the time not bestowed ranks to its leadership. The leaders were simply referred to as commander, but all four were eventually commissioned.
Information about Tom Muhairwe remains scanty, but Chef Ali, who had earlier commanded the 11th Battalion which besieged Mbarara Barracks and later captured Nakulabye and Kampala during the fight for Kampala, was later to be commissioned and died in 1997 at the rank of brigadier.
Stanley Muhangi, who had along with Gen Matayo Kyaligonza commanded the Seventh Battalion that captured Makindye Barracks, was later commissioned and died in 1991 at the rank of colonel.
Next week, in the second instalment of Lakwena’s Waterloo, we will look at how the battles of Muterere panned out as well as the “Priestess’s” daring attack on the National Resistance Army’s Magamaga Ordinance Depot.
A first for Busoga