When Lakwena troops bit off more than they could chew

Mr Hussein Ngobi, the coordinator of the Joint Basoga Lakwena Victims’ Association (centre), points to an area where the Holy Spirit Movement rebels pitched camp on Bukaseme Hill in Busoga Sub-region. photo/denis edema

What you need to know:

In the second instalment of this series, Isaac Mufumba looks back at how the battles of Muterere panned out and how Alice Lakwena’s charges bit off more than they could chew when they launched a daring attack on the National Resistance Army’s Magamaga Ordinance Depot.

At the time, Lt Hannington Basakana was deputy to the Brigade Political Commissar, Commander Nelson Ssemwezi. This meant Basakana was in charge of a political school based at the division headquarters in Mbale. The school was responsible for running leadership and political education courses for soldiers from the fighting units operating within the battle fronts.

The National Resistance Army (NRA) mobile forces had been deployed in the north after suffering heavy casualties against Eric Odwar and Angello Okello’s forces in Corner Kilak. Such was the blow they inflicted on the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA) that they were now able to turn their attention to fighting Alice Lakwena.

With her entry into Busoga, it was only logical that their theatre of operations shifted to the region. Two of their units, Mobile Alpha and Mobile Delta, were deployed.

Maj Gen Fakir Oketa was at the time the Operations and Training Officer of the 151st Brigade. Mobile Alpha, which was composed of mostly men who had been fighting in parts of eastern Uganda, had originally been deployed in the north. They returned to the east and were placed under Oketa’s command and joined some of the block forces that had earlier engaged Lakwena in Yolwa.

After Lakwena’s entry into Busoga, Commander Ssemwezi walked into Lt Basakana’s office and ordered him to join the fighting.

 “The war has gotten into Busoga. Close the school because you are now under deployment. You are joining the mobile forces,” Ssemwezi ordered.

Under normal circumstances, a Political Commissar belongs to the service arm of the army and would, therefore, not have been deployed. These, though, were challenging times that blurred the lines between service and combat. Mbale, Tororo, and Busoga had become a war zone, which meant every soldier became primarily a fighter and every officer primarily a commander.

“Chefe Ali deploys Oketa and Ssemwezi deploys me. In direct command, Oketa is deployed, in terms of discipline, morale of the soldiers, relations with the civilians, I am deployed. We were dropped in Muterere near the battlefront,” Lt Basakana recounts.

Fighting in Muterere

The NRA forces under Tom Muhairwe and Chefe Ali launched a dawn attack that caught the rebels unawares as they were preparing an early morning meal. Backed up by helicopter gunships, the NRA engaged the rebels in a battle that lasted close to an hour. The rebels suffered many casualties so much so that the army was left under the impression that the ‘priestess’ had decided to cut her losses and run.

“No serious commander would have decided to advance after losing such a big number of fighters. We thought that they had retreated,” Lt Basakana says.

They were mistaken.

It would appear that Lakwena managed to convince her forces that those who had perished in Muterere contravened her directions and commands. Her combatants were always made to believe that the stones which she would hand over to her fighters would turn into grenades, which would explode and destroy the NRA forces. She would also smear shear butter oil on their chest to “repel the NRA’s bullets and missiles” as they moved further south.

“Since we knew that Lakwena’s style was to engage, breakthrough and move ahead, we decided to follow the tail of her forces,” Lt Basakana says.

One of the biggest assets that the NRA had was the cooperation of the masses.

“They (wanainchi) would furnish us with information about the enemy per second. Even if the enemy made a small movement, we would be certain to know,” he says.

Tricking the NRA

The NRA on its part pitched camp at Musita Muslim Primary School, where Chefe Ali joined them as overall Commander of the combined fighting force.

The rebel forces advanced to Mayuge. At the time, Mayuge, just like Luuka, Bugweri, Bugiri and Namutumba, were all part of Iganga District. The rebels avoided Kigulu County and Iganga Town but crossed back into Iganga District at Namasoga Village. They then followed the railway line up to Bulanga on the boundary between Luuka, Iganga and Mayuge districts.

The rebel force was split into two. The first group traversed Kyankuza, Bute, Bukyongwa and Mukuta villages before returning to the railway track around Wagona Hill. Wagona Hill is a pine tree-covered forest reserve outside Magamaga Trading Centre. To its left lies the Jinja-Iganga Highway. That meant that they had evaded Musita where the army had camped.

Meanwhile, the second group followed the railway line and moved from Namasoga, through Itwe, Kyankusi Hill and camped in Nawanganda and Igeyero, two villages on the fringes of Jinja and Mayuge districts. Nawanganda is in Jinja while Igeyero is in Mayuge.

As the army was reorganising to engage Lakwena’s forces, the late Fred Gisa Rwigema arrived to boost the fighting force’s firepower.

“He came with two helicopters full of guns, long machines and other more powerful machines. Some of us took advantage of the new shipments and exchanged guns,” Lt Basakana recalls.

The rebels had until that point hardly exhibited any tactical nuance. With hindsight, splitting the force into two was a great tactic. Whereas it did not result in victory on the battlefield, it fooled the NRA forces who had gone out to hunt them down in the villages.

“Lakwena played a trick on us when we arrived in Kigalagala. She went around our forces and attacked Magamaga, but of course, the barrack was alert and they were repulsed,” Lt Basakana explains.

The attack was an oversight on the part of the rebels. They were handed so big a beating that their forces were thrown into disarray. Most of them fled into the villages of Jinja and Luuka.

Museveni on the war front?

There are conflicting accounts about President Museveni’s involvement in the war. Whereas there were those who insist he commanded from afar, Mr Daudi Migereko, who years later became a lawmaker of the place where the last vestiges of the war played out—Butembe County, told Saturday Monitor that he was extremely close to the war theatre.

Mr Migereko, who would also go on to serve as a Cabinet Minister, says the President arrived in Jinja soon after the rebels’ botched attack on Magamaga. He then reportedly inspected troops in Gadaffi and Magamaga before heading to the field. 

“[Lakwena] was not strong, but she wasted our time. But when you reported her, we defeated her and it ended there,” Mr  Museveni said in December, 2015, while campaigning in Luuka County ahead of the 2016 General Election.

Mr Migereko further revealed thus: “[President Museveni] had been told that they had camped at Namasiga Primary [School], but he and his itinerary could not see anything like a school. They were seeing mud and wattle grass-thatched structures there. Little did they know that it was the school in point.”

Namasiga Primary School has since been rebuilt. A seed secondary school was also rebuilt in memory of the civilians who died during the fighting. Other education institutions built in the same breath and for the same purpose are Bute Primary and Secondary Schools in Mayuge District.

Invisible Lakwena

There is very little information about where Lakwena was during all the fighting. It was, however, believed that she was never allowed to walk or go into the thick of the fighting.

It was said that she was always moved around on a white hammock tiled onto long poles carried by two men.

Surprisingly, whereas she always claimed that her fighters’ blessed stones would turn into weapons which could destroy the enemy, she was said to have AK47-wielding former UNLA soldiers as bodyguards.

Mr Hussein Ngobi, who is the coordinator of the Joint Basoga Lakwena Victims’ Association, says it was in line with the practice of keeping her away from the fighting that the rebel force took over tQhe home of Amin’s former Minister for Agriculture, Col Ibrahim Galandi, and housed her there. Col Galandi was at the time living in self-imposed exile in both Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Next week, Lakwena’s Waterloo will detail how a 29-year-old National Resistance Army commander enjoyed his moment of nuptial bliss barely hours after overseeing an operation that obliterated Alice Lakwena’s troops.