The East African (Nairobi)
April 8, 2002
Posted to the web April 8, 2002
We begin the serialisation of Col BERNARD RWEHURURU's Cross to the Gun, published by The Monitor of Kampala, with two episodes that show a professional army being humiliated and led to defeat by incompetent political appointees Our story opens in 1972; relations between Idi Amin's Uganda and Julius Nyerere's Tanzania have been steadily worsening since the January 1971 coup that brought the former into power and saw the man he had overthrown, Milton Obote, seeking political asylum in Tanzania. There have been numerous diplomatic skirmishes and border incidents; suddenly, the tension seems to boil over, but this is Amin's Uganda...
In September 1972, as Ugandan authorities were putting final touches to the mass deportation of all British passport holders and Ugandans of Asian origin, the Kenyan Special Branch announced that it had received intelligence reports that Tanzanian troops and Ugandan guerrilla forces were planning an invasion of Uganda. Two days later, a combined force of guerrillas of Yoweri Museveni's Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) and the late Oyite Ojok's Kikosi Maalum fighters invaded Uganda.
Many of the officers had dismissed the Kenyan Special Branch reports with a contempt that they surely did not deserve. The attack therefore took many of them by surprise, contributing to the invaders' initial successes. A combined force of fierce fighters from both Simba Battalion Mbarara and Suicide Regiment Masaka was later assembled and placed under the command of Lt. Atanasius. They met the invaders at Kalisizo and routed them, forcing them to beat a hasty retreat back to Tanzania.
Amin ordered the airforce to carry out reprisal air raids on Tanzanian towns. Bukoba and Mwanza were bombarded ferociously, forcing Tanzania to reach a truce with Uganda. Hostilities ceased and the two countries agreed to pull back their troops from the border by at least 10 kilometres.
Still, many of us believed that it was only a matter of time before Amin ordered a full scale invasion of Tanzania. This belief was lent credence by the fact that word from the Nubian, Kakwa and Lugbara officers who were close to him, was that he was becoming increasingly impatient with the numerous real and perceived subversive activities that were being traced back to Tanzania.
The military planning unit and the army high command were ordered to work out multiple contingency plans of how best to attack and neutralise Tanzania. The plans were expeditiously drawn up and the best fighting units were put on red alert.
Early in 1973, several announcements were broadcast over Radio Uganda and the Uganda television service, alleging that a combined force of Tanzanian soldiers and Ugandan exiles estimated to be 10,000 in number had been assembled for an invasion of Uganda. Troops were deployed nearer the border and munitions transferred from Magamaga Ordinance Depot to Masaka, Mutukula and Mbarara in readiness, but the order to attack did not come.
Early in December 1973, in live television and radio broadcasts, Amin announced that all military officers were to be subjected to a 150-km route march. He also ordered all officers attached to Uganda's foreign missions to return and participate in the route march. While many thought that it was one of Big Daddy's pranks, another section in the army thought the time for the planned invasion of Tanzania had indeed come.
On December 22, all of us, save Brig Shaban Opolot and Lt-Col Oboma, who had gone on a special mission abroad, assembled at Republic House for what turned out to be a very hollow briefing about the route march and told us to report back the following afternoon. When we did, we were each given new commando uniforms, dry rations, water bottles, guns and ammunition. These supplies spelt combat readiness. Also, word had got round that we were heading towards the common border with Tanzania. This strengthened the belief that we were actually heading out to war. Officers gathered in small groups and started questioning the logic behind sending an army of officers to the front without any men, though none could openly raise the matter.
At around six in the evening, about 30 new unregistered Tata buses that had just been imported for purposes of beefing up the Uganda Transport Company (UTC) fleet, were brought to Republic House by Col Suleman, the company's general manager. We were ordered on to the buses and other small vehicles, which formed a long convoy commanded by a colonel. Shortly before 7pm, we set off from Kampala, arriving in Lyantonde, 210 kilometres away on the Kampala-Mbarara highway, at around 11 pm. In the middle of a large field, we were served supper before embarking on the march to Mutukula at midnight the same night.
To begin with, the march was very much the military training exercise that it had been planned to be. We maintained military discipline by moving in orderly formations, but by daybreak, most officers were visibly tired.
At around nine, with the sun beating down on our heads, we marched up a steep hill. Many of us were by then perspiring profusely. We could feel the sweat running down our bodies, into our underwear and right into our boots. By the time we got to the summit, exhaustion had taken its toll. A series of insubordinate outbursts about the Head of State, starting as murmurs, soon became audible. Colonel Ozzo, a potbellied elderly man, fired off the first volley. He refused to move and soon started openly questioning the motive of the exercise.
"This whole thing is nonsensical. Amin is a fool. What made him think that things are meant to be like this? I have never committed any crime in the army, neither have I ever slept with a dog. Even if Amin decides to throw me out of the army, I will not be ashamed to go home. I am not moving any further unless a vehicle is brought here," he declared before sitting down beside the path.
A Landrover was brought and detailed to transport him for the rest of the exercise.
The next casualty was my company commander, Yakobo Abiriga, under whom I had been placed as a Company Sergeant Major. He developed breathing difficulties. We called for a vehicle and he too was evacuated to Rakai, where we were due to spend the night. A number of other officers also collapsed in the intense heat and they too were evacuated to Rakai.
We grew defiant. We sulked. We were on edge. Even those whom we had always thought to be unwaveringly loyal to Amin, vehemently questioned the wisdom behind the decision to subject us to a route march on the eve of Christmas.
Matters were not helped by the fact that there was no one to question, because all the units had been placed under the command of warrant officers and non-commissioned officers who were more ignorant than the men they were leading.
By the time we got to Rakai later that afternoon, the mood was sombre. We mechanically went about the task of setting up camp, before descending to the trading centre, where we purchased hens, goats and plenty of beer and tonto (banana wine).
That night, there was roast meat and drinks doing the rounds of the encampment, but this did not really help to raise the morale of the officers, many of whom were bitter with Amin for subjecting them to a Christmas holiday in the unfamiliar bush of Rakai. On Christmas day, the Christians went to church. At Rakai Catholic Church, the parish priest, the catechist and the congregation were clearly uncomfortable with the presence of nearly 100 men in green battle fatigues, but at the offertory, we made up for this by offering a record 8,000 shillings. When the amount collected was announced, the congregation and celebrants alike were rendered speechless, for at no time had the parish ever realised so much money.
Elsewhere in the country too, Christmas was celebrated unusually quietly. Like the officers who were holed up in Rakai, the civilian population could not quite understand why Amin had taken the officers for a route march.
Consequently, there was no loud music, no drinking in out of town distant pubs and very few people drove out to celebrate Christmas in their villages. The fear of being misunderstood by those in authority robbed that year's Christmas of the usual merrymaking.
Very early on Boxing Day, we resumed our march towards Mutukula. Halfway through the journey, we ran out of water and dry rations. We had to turn to the civilian population for assistance, but whoever we approached refused, saying that Amin had personally made several radio announcements warning them against offering us any form of assistance. Tired and thirsty, we marched on.
In the evening, we arrived at Lukoma airstrip where Amin was waiting for us, but to our consternation, he told us that we were never meant to have come that far on that particular day and ordered us back to Kakuuto, where he had made arrangements for us to have a hot meal and camp for the night.
Very early on the morning of December 27, we started marching towards Mutukula Hill through Bigada for the last phase of the march. We were to crown the exercise with an assault on Mutukula hill codenamed "Attack on Golan Heights." We arrived at the base of the hill at about 10 am. Armed with support weapons and guns and live ammunition, we shot our way to the top before descending to Mutukula prison where we had lunch and some entertainment before boarding Kampala-bound buses.
Since the exercise had been conducted less than 20 kilometres from the common border, so called international observers were sent out to patrol the area and look for signs of a possible military build up, but there was none. For some time after that, the two countries continued playing a cat and mouse game.
Our story now skips ahead to 1978, when things really do start to happen...
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 overlooks Kasijjagirwa barracks. Among his possessions was a piece of paper on which he had scribbled a few sentences indicating that while it would be easy for any invader to make an entry into the barracks, retreating under fire would be an uphill task.
Unfortunately, the intelligence collection methods of the SRB boys (State Research Bureau, Amin's secret police) were not about collecting intelligence. Instead of using the spy as a source of information about the enemy, they believed in kumaliza upesi, summary execution. Before anyone in authority could interrogate him, the SRB had already battered the spy to death.
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. The reports incensed the foreign legions, especially the Sudanese and Congolese in the army high command. Led by Brigadier Malera, Taban Lupayi and Juma Butabika, they started calling for a pre-emptive attack on Tanzania. Then, in October 1978, Juma Butabika, with a handful of some of the Malire troops, left his unit and took command of the troops that had been permanently stationed at the border before advancing into Tanzania.
The attack took the few ill-equipped Tanzanian troops stationed at Mutukula and Minziro by surprise and they fled the area. Encouraged by the lack of resistance, Butabika who claimed to have been in Masaka by accident, rang Amin, claiming that Tanzanian troops had made an incursion into Uganda, prompting him to take command at the border guard in order to repulse the invaders.
Amin fell for the lie, largely because it presented an opportunity for him to annex chunks of Tanzanian territory. He speedily sanctioned Butabika's southward march 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, 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 the inadequate firepower and poor marksmanship of our jet pilots meant that it was only after ballistics experts from Kilembe mines were ordered in 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 soon erupted between several senior officers and their subordinates over the loot. Chief of Staff Maj-Gen Yusuf Gowan, aiming to steal a tractor, was beaten to it by a captain who refused to hand it over to him. Angered by this, he summarily demoted the man to the rank of Second Lieutenant. Another major who beat him to a couple of tonnes of sugar, was demoted to a lieutenant and transferred to Moroto.
- A FEW WEEKS later, Amin ordered the immediate withdrawal of all Malire and Suicide regiment troops from the border area. As they returned to their respective units, he ordered the transfer of army recruits who had been undergoing training in Masaka to Mutukula.
I had been hearing cases brought before the Economic Crimes Tribunal sitting in the Governor's lodge in Jinja town, when one day, returning to the Crested Crane Hotel, I got a call from commanding officer Masaka, Lt-Col Tom Asiki. Our dialogue was brisk. "Rep to my loc imm," he ordered, short for "Report to my location immediately."
"Wilco, " I replied.
The following day when I reported to Masaka, Asiki informed me that the tasks of guarding and patrolling the border as well as training the recruits who had been transferred to Mutukula had been placed on my shoulders and that I was to start at once.
On arrival at Sanje near Bigada parish, where I established my tactical headquarters, I found everything in a state of chaos. While a large number of recruits had been transferred there, no training had been going on. There was no established command structure and no way of differentiating between recruits and the soldiers who had already made their bones. To make matters worse, the men and officers mixed freely with the recruits. Luckily, I found that I had either trained many of the serving officers and men in Mbarara and Kabamba or worked closely with them in diverse places. This simplified the task of regularising the administrative structure.
Barely a week after arriving in Bigada, intelligence reports indicating that Tanzania was building up positions started trickling in. We duly passed them on to our superiors in Masaka, but none of those reports was taken seriously. It was then that I realised that since the people on the ground were not taking the reports seriously, the Uganda Prisons Services corporal cum tractor driver who had become the Chief of Staff would not react to those reports with the seriousness that they deserved.
A few days later, the Tanzanian troops acquired a BM Katyusha artillery piece, which later came to be known as Saba Saba in Uganda. The Tanzanians now began testing deep within their territory. Every night, the artillery fire drew closer to the border area. We intensified patrols on the border, dug more trenches and prepared for a fight.
On the other side of the border, having mastered their Katyusha, the Tanzanians lifted their range of fire. Rockets rained down on our defensive positions. A combination of good luck, poor artillery skills and being well dug in saw us escape the initial wave without any casualties, but we knew that we wouldn't continue being so lucky.
The shelling went on for weeks, seriously effecting the morale of my men. It was then we requested air support against the mysterious Saba Saba artillery, the idea being to locate and destroy it. But the enemy had acquired SAM7s that harassed and destroyed some of the MIG fighter jets dispatched for the operation. The mission aborted. We remained in our trenches, waiting for divine intervention.
By then we had lost touch with what was going on around us. We lost track of time and went about our duties mechanically. We ate food without paying any attention to what it was or what it tasted like.
About three weeks before the Tanzanians finally launched an infantry attack on Ugandan territory, we learnt by a stroke of luck the type of weapon they were using. One of the rockets aimed at Lukoma airstrip exploded only partially. We dispatched it to Army Headquarters for identification, where a Soviet military advisor identified it as a BM 21 Katyusha multi-barrel.
The Soviets offered to deliver superior artillery pieces, but Amin apparently viewed them with suspicion because of the ideological similarities between Nyerere's socialist government and that of the Soviet Union. A few days later, Asiki sent me a message inviting me to attend a meeting in Republic House. During the meeting, attended by the Secretary of Defence, Maj. Gen. Emilio Mondo, Isaac Malyamungu, Lt. Col. Godwin Sule, Gore and numerous others, I briefed the senior officers about the devastating impact that the Katyusha was having on troop morale. It was unanimously agreed to purchase powerful support weapons. Chief of Staff Gowan was requested to get in touch with Amin immediately and ask him to release money for an assortment of weapons, but he hesitated, saying he thought there probably wouldn't be enough money to purchase all the items on the lengthy list, but eventually called Amin. However, instead of getting to the point, Gowan, talking in a language most of us could not understand, drew Amin into a lengthy conversation apparently unrelated to the matter at hand.
The officers started shifting uneasily in their swivel chairs. Then Godwin Sule brought an end to the Gowan-Amin conversation by barking at Gowan to seek authorisation for the release of funds. Much to our joy, approval was immediately given.
That sparked off a flurry of activity. The Bank of Uganda was contacted and ordered to release the money in different European currencies. The cash was brought to Republic House. Uganda Airlines was ordered to reserve seats for an unspecified number of officers who were to immediately leave for Europe on the shopping trip, and our embassies abroad were cabled. Another group of officers was dispatched to Tripoli to collect a consignment of bombs promised earlier by the Libyan leader. One of our ambassadors also received two million US dollars to procure more hardware.
When I got back to my unit, news of what had happened at Republic House boosted the morale of my soldiers. But as the days dragged on and the Tanzanians continued shelling our positions, the soldiers became impatient. Talk in the trenches was that I had lied. A few days later came news that the officer who had been dispatched to Libya to collect bombs had forgotten to pick up their fuses from Benghazi. We were told the same officer was making fresh arrangements to travel back there. With that bit of news, a sense of hopelessness set in.
While I was still contemplating what to tell my sub commanders and the men in the trenches, the enemy, having shelled Mutukula on a daily basis for more than two months, decided it was high time they crossed the border into Uganda.
The attack on Mutukula and Minzilo was a frontal one, coming east of Mutukula near where the River Kagera joins Lake Victoria. On January 21, 1979, at 10 in the night, in heavy downpour, we started exchanging fire. It was difficult to distinguish the sound of small arms fire from that of a Katyusha. One could only distinguish lightning from the artillery fire - the lightning came zigzagging towards the ground, while the artillery fire moved through the sky in a huge arc.
As the fighting intensified, I thought it wise to get in touch with the Chief of Staff, but no one picked up the phone, even when I tried to get to him at his residence.
Probably out of the fear of a repeat of what happened between himself and Obote, at no time did Amin appoint an army commander. He merged into one the offices of the Army Commander and that of the Commander in Chief. It therefore became common practice for army officers to directly deal with Amin whenever the Chief of Staff was not available or even when an officer felt he could not handle the matter. Towards morning, I rang Amin on 2241 Entebbe.
I explained that the Tanzanian forces had at long last decided to move across the border into Uganda. Amin did not sound surprised. What seemed to shock him was that his Chief of Staff, who was meant to keep direct and open communication with the troops, could not be reached. He promised to get back to me.
In the early hours of the morning, as the Tanzanian troops approached the forward edge of the battle area, he rang back, and promised to order heavy air support and an immediate reinforcement of our position.
The message lifted the spirits of the soldiers. By this time the invaders, most of them young boys who had reportedly been forcibly enlisted into the TPDF, had reached the forward edge of the battle area in the hope of capturing Mutukula Prison. Our troops were more than ready to give them the bashing of their lives.
Armed with Yugoslav made assault rifles which we fondly referred to as Yugos, our troops opened fire on the advancing enemy, mowing them down in their hundreds. But they came on in droves. Their bodies littered the Mutukua Prison grounds, but their commanders continued pouring more and more men into the attack.
Though expensive in human lives, the gamble paid off. By the end of the first battle, which lasted more than six hours, they had overrun Mutukula.
By eleven in the morning, when the guns fell silent, both sides had run short of ammunition and the soldiers on either side of the front line were too exhausted to do any bayonet fighting. The adversaries stared helplessly at each other in what seemed like an unpronounced truce. Capt Muzamir Amule, who was in charge of the tanks, was able to tow away his damaged battle tank because the survivors of the first phase of fighting were too weak to do anything about it.
A quick assessment after the first battle revealed that we had lost 14 soldiers while two sergeants stationed at the far end of our defensive lines had been taken captive. Few of our artillery pieces had survived the long hours of fighting. While some had been destroyed by enemy fire, a majority had developed mechanical problems. My artillery commander, Lt Ndugute, who years later became a senior officer in the Rwandese Patriotic Front, was also injured.
The Tanzanians had suffered more than us. Intercepted messages revealed that they needed at least 10 lorries to transport the dead and the wounded, but I could not take advantage of the situation because I did not have any more ammunition to give to my men and the reinforcement that Amin had promised had not yet arrived.
Many of us started praying that the Tanzanians would make a tactical withdrawal. An immediate enemy advance would mean both total defeat and another perilous drop in the morale of our fighters, whose spirits had been raised by the high enemy casualties.
Amid the confusion, two of our fighter planes flew over and further disorganised the surviving enemy at Lukoma near Mutukula, sending them scampering for cover in different directions.
I convened an impromptu meeting with all the sub commanders and non-commissioned officers. We unanimously agreed to withdraw to our tactical headquarters in Sanje and wait for the reinforcements.
At my tactical headquarters, tension was at fever pitch. All eyes were on me, as though my obviously fatigued troops expected me to conjure up ammunition and extra men by some miracle. At around four o'clock, a helicopter carrying Brig Taban Lupayi and Lt-Col Godwin Sule landed at our position. I sighed with relief when I saw them alight from the chopper. I inquired about the reinforcement that Amin had promised.
What I got for an answer was amazing. Taban revealed that the force that had been dispatched to reinforce us was at that material time conducting a field firing exercise in Lukaya, about 120 km from Mutukula.
For once I forgot the fact that Taban was my superior and a good friend to Amin. I asked him why the soldiers were wasting ammunition on trees when there were hundreds of enemy troops, their proper recipients, besieging us; but he neither knew who had ordered the soldiers to go on such an exercise nor the motive behind it.
Sensing the possibility of a mini revolt, Sule ordered Taban to immediately order the troops to advance and relieve us from the frontline. Then Taban tried to give the fatigued and angry soldiers a pep talk. His words fell on deaf ears. Many of the soldiers had come to the conclusion that their failure to defend Mutukula and the forced abandonment of Lukoma, Bigada, Kibale, Nazareth and Naluzale, was the fault of the army top brass, to which Taban belonged.
A warrant officer, who knew how high feelings were running, advised Taban to forget about addressing the soldiers, saying he feared one of the men would pick up a rifle and vent his anger on him. Sule and Taban left hastily; by evening, the First Infantry Brigade commanded by Lt. Col Abdallatif had arrived at Sanje. Before ordering Suicide Regiment to withdraw to Kasijjagirwa barracks, we gave Lt-Col Abdallatif a brief about our tactical position and warned him not to take the situation lightly.
At the barracks, I found that my family had already left and most of our fellow officers had also evacuated their families. My wife had sought sanctuary in a small village located along the Masaka-Kalungu Road, where I found them at the home of a friend. By then, most of the Mbarara-Masaka road had already been taken over by the enemy. We loaded a few household items on to a Tata tipper lorry and told the driver and his escort to travel home via Fort Portal. Next I told my wife and children to board a Landrover and tried my luck with the Mubende route... I spent the night at my home village in Ruhoko, but it was not like any other night I had spent at home with my family, everything was so quiet. Everyone seemed lost in thought. We all seemed to know that hard times lay ahead.
-Meanwhile, at the frontline, having regrouped, the enemy resumed shelling our positions and advancing towards Sanje, where we had left the First Infantry Regiment. In Kampala, despite the news that Mutukula had fallen and that the enemy was advancing deeper into our territory, members of the army high command, including my commanding officer, were busy celebrating the eighth anniversary of Amin's rule.
A big parade was held at Kololo airstrip in Kampala on January 25, 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 Duruka. Watching the live television coverage of the national celebrations at my home in Masaka, I realised that many of the people there, including senior army officers who were dancing the Duruka, 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.