NYERERE & KAGERA WAR-4: Kagera War: Lessons and challenges

Friday October 17 2014

Then Commander-in-Chief of Tanzania’s armed forces Julius Nyerere in one of his visits of the Kagera War front line. PHOTO | FILE

Dar es Salaam. Besides recapturing the Kagera Salient and driving Idi Amin out of Uganda, Tanzania’s second major success in the eight-month war lay in the organisation of its fighting force.

Out of 45,000 Tanzania troops, only 15,000 were members of the Tanzania Peoples Defence Forces (TPDF). Most of the TPDF soldiers were officers and they led troops during the execution of the war or were skilled personnel who operated sophisticated military equipment, tanks, jet fighters and long range weapons.

The rest of the 30,000 young men—two-thirds of the entire force—were members of the People’s Militia. Some members of militia were thrown into the deep end after three months of training that started after the invasion of the Kagera Salient.

As the war progressed on the battlefield, it got difficult to tell the difference between TPDF soldiers (who had been sprinkled with militia in order to build confidence) and those from the 30,000-strong militia force.

The 30,000 members of militia who had been civilians before the start of the war fought so well in their capacity as riflemen that those who had not known the secret and had witnessed the men on the battlefield thought they had been TPDF soldiers before the start of the war.

Senior TPDF officers, including retirees, would not explain why two-thirds of Tanzania’s troops were men who had been civilians before the war. But we can report today that it was due to the Tanzanian government’s fears that if it depended solely on its two or three brigades, the war would drag on for more than a year and it would be a problem getting men who could take on Idi Amin’s troops.


The two American journalists who were the only foreigners President Nyerere allowed to cover the war, Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, write in War in Uganda that the performance of the former Tanzanian civilians in the war would later completely change TPDF’s military philosophy.

The idea was that instead of keeping a large, professional standing army, the country now needed a small but professional army of highly trained officers and handlers of sophisticated military equipment.

Moreover,  in the event of the country being forced to defend its territory, it could always get its riflemen from civilians who had and continued to have military training in the National Service and the People’s Militia.

Tanzania’s second success in the Ugandan war lay in the manner TPDF conducted the war, concentrating on military targets and protecting the civilian population from harm. The end result, almost unheard of in African conflicts, turned Tanzanian troops into heroes overnight and they became very popular in Uganda.

Throughout the war campaign, Tanzanian troops were not only feted by the civilian Ugandan population. They also helped them find the hideouts of Amin’s soldiers. All this was possible only because Tanzanian troops were not associated with harassment of the civilian population.

Had the Tanzania government, and Mwalimu  in particular, not acted fast when Tanzanian troops had their first combat inside Uganda, the TPDF would not have perhaps became what they would later turn into—a  true people’s army. They immediately started taking on the Ugandan troops in the Kagera Salient, quickly re-taking the land that had been deserted by Idi Amin’s troops.

Tanzanian troops were enraged by what they discovered deep in the deep forests—hundreds of decaying bodies of Tanzanians from all walks of life who had been slaughtered by the invading Ugandan troops.

Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey also write in their book that Tanzanian troops stumbled upon more than 100 bodies of Ugandan soldiers who appeared to have been killed inside Uganda and dumped in Tanzania.

When the enraged and highly charged Tanzanian troops finally entered Uganda, they flattened houses in an area they had captured, killing everything in sight, including old men.

To understand the “tortured frame of mind” the Tanzanian troops were in, consider the following story of a TPDF member who hailed from the region.

When the TPDF soldier arrived in his home village, accompanied by his colleagues from other parts of Tanzania, he was shocked to find the rotting bodies of his parents in the compound. They had been killed by Ugandan soldiers.

The young man did not weep and, after his colleagues helped him bury his parents, he picked up his gun and joined his colleagues on the war front. One could, therefore, understand the tortured frame of mind Tanzanian troops were in after seeing hundreds of the decaying bodies of their countrymen.

When Mwalimu finally got wind of what Tanzanian troops had done in their first battle inside Uganda, he ordered his military commanders to stop their troops from engaging in such mayhem.

The Ugandan incident would mark the first and last time that Tanzanian troops committed crime in the war. For from then on, they dealt only with military targets. They also refrained from killing the Ugandan soldiers they had captured in the fighting.

That is one of the reasons why hundreds of Libyan and Palestinian soldiers captured by Tanzanian troops survived and were later flown back home by the Tanzania government after the war ended.

Had it not been for the Tanzania government’s decision to make it mandatory for TPDF commanders to enforce strict observance of international rules of engagement in the battlefield and adherence to human rights, one shudders at what would have happened in that war.

In the light of how Ugandan troops had conducted themselves in the Kagera Salient, prompt action was required to restrain Tanzanian troops from taking revenge.

One of the challenges Tanzania faced during transportation of troops and military hardware to the warfront was poor infrastructure and in particular roads, especially in Tanzania.

Trucks carrying tanks, armoured vehicles and other gun carriage and heavy armament would get stuck in mud for days. It required a lot of human and other efforts to dislodge them and continue the journey.

It is important to note that November and December was the onset of long rains, not only in Tanzania, but also the entire East African region.

Tanzanians should thank their stars that during the time, the central metre gauge railroad built by the German colonialists before the start of the First World War was still intact and operational. The railroad would come in handy in transporting tanks and other heavy military equipment to the war front.

One wonders what would have happened had the first phase government conducted itself the way subsequent governments have, leaving both the railroad and the national airline to disintegrate.

The war challenges

It took the Tanzania government not less than two months to transport troops and equipment to the war front.

Paradoxically, Tanzanians should thank none other than the enemy and architect of the invasion—General Idi Amin—for decimating soldiers from some of his most important military units as soon as he came to power in January 1971.

The General killed soldiers included the best educated and trained officers in field engineering, the air force and operators of heavy and sophisticated weapons and tanks.

General Amin killed soldiers, no matter how well educated and trained they were as long as they belonged to what he considered to be the wrong tribes—the Lango, Acholi and Lugbara. One of those Idi Amin ordered killed was the Lugbara tank commander, Colonel Ocima, who was considered the best tank commander south of the Sahara.

At the time Amin deposed President Milton Obote, Uganda and Somali tank units were considered the best in black Africa. The Ugandan air force, which had a couple of squadron of Russian built Mig 21 jet-fighters, was considered one of the best on the continent.

But  by the time the General ordered his troops to cross to Tanzania and take the Kagera Salient (as there had been no resistance against Ugandan troops at the border on account of the area almost being left defenceless)  the dictator had not only reduced to almost to zero his country’s  military capability but had also succeeded in islamising his army by 40 per cent, according to an  account by Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey in War in Uganda: The Legacy of Idi Amin. The two Americans further note that General Amin had reduced the Uganda Army into a foreign-dominated army.

Had the General had the kind of army he had inherited from his Commander-in-Chief, Milton Obote, Ugandan troops would have easily moved on to Tabora and Tanzanian troops would not have had a chance of dealing with the problem.

After Ugandan troops had taken Kagera Salient, they tried and failed to destroy the Kagera Bridge in order to stop Tanzanian troops from using it during their pursuit of Ugandan soldiers.

The main reason was that General Amin had decimated the entire field engineering corps for fear that they would blow up his entourage. It was because of the absence of such an important military unit that the Ugandan army officers finally sought the assistance of a mine detonation expert from Kilembe Mines in the western part of the country in blowing up the bridge.

Because of his decision to eliminate from his army field engineers that the Ugandan dictator could not check the advance of Tanzanian troops because he no longer had people who could lay landmines as they retreated. In short, the way General Amin handled his own army ultimately helped in easing Tanzanian troops’ efforts in dealing with the Ugandan army.

Tanzanians should not expect to get the kind of “favourable conditions” they had when they took on the Ugandan army inside Uganda should they face a similar challenge from another country.

There is, therefore, a need for Tanzanians to learn from problems they faced 36 years ago by getting rid of the bottlenecks that had militated against them.

For instance, one would have expected that, after experiencing many problems then in transporting troops and heavy military equipment due to poor infrastructure,

successive Tanzanian governments, which luckily all have been led by the ruling CCM party, would have considered the issue of infrastructure, and in particular, construction of the 18 meter gauge standard railroad (similar to that of Tazara which is similar to others in the Southern African Development Community, SADC region), nothing but a matter of life and death.

 That subsequent successive CCM governments would have been engaged in establishing a good network of railroads, not only along the central and part of the northern corridor, but throughout the length and breadth of the country which is bigger than Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi all put together.

From the second to the fourth phase government, nothing has so far been done to get a lasting solution to the railway problem.

As the cheapest mode of transport in country, railway transport had for years been heavily relied on by the poor majority of Tanzanians.

Instead promoting construction of railroads which is also the safest compared to motor transport, Tanzanians have increasingly witnessed their third and fourth phase governments being heavily involved in the construction of network of roads, which is not a bad idea, if such efforts had been combined with construction of modern railroad network.

If Tanzania expected not to fight against but rather to help Uganda in dealing, militarily, say with South Sudan problem.

The country would face more or less similar problems it faced 36 years ago in transporting its troops and heavy armour due to almost non-existence of the central railway line!

Indeed, Tanzanians today no longer remember when they last saw an efficient running passenger and goods train services along the central railway, Tanga and Moshi lines.

Yet the fact still remain, and that’s, much as successive Tanzania leaderships have been ‘madly’ in love with construction of roads, it’s an open secret that roads don’t last long, especially Tanzanian constructed roads some of which are sub-standard.

Secondly, no matter how well constructed some of the roads are, they still don’t last due to heavy loading of trucks.

And this is because those who man weigh-in bridges have failed, miserably, to tame transporters who are quick to make big bucks due to massive corruption involved.

Therefore hundreds of culprits are let off the hook, almost on daily basis, after ‘oiling the palms of men and women who man such weigh-in bridges.’

For instance, consider the following: If the meter gauge, German built central, Tanga and Moshi railroads could obediently serve, Tanganyikans, and later Tanzanians and the East African region for over 100 years, what would have been the case had Tanzania replicated the 18 gauge standard railroad (similar to that of Tazara), throughout the country?

Had Tanzania done that as far back as the second phase government, economically, this country would not have been where it is at present.

This is because the construction of a standard railroad gauge along the country’s central corridor could have opened it up to massive economic development by serving not only Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda, but also livestock keepers, mining companies and other agro-based businesses such as tobacco and cotton from Morogoro to Dodoma, Singida, Tabora, Shinyanga, Kigoma, Mwanza and Kagera Regions.

After the kind of problems the TPDF went through in 1978 in the realm of transport, it was Tanzanians’ hope that their subsequent governments would have learnt hard lessons from such experiences that would have galvanized their leaders to embark on railroad construction like people possessed.

Fixing Uganda, restoring stability

 The third TPDF’s successes (which is of course shared by the Tanzania government), is the final installation in Uganda of a stable President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s government.

Of course, there are people who may raise eyebrows over the foregoing assertion by arguing that President Museveni came to power in 1986 after waging a guerrilla war against General Tito’s Ugandan forces.

It’s true, but partly, if one was to look at the genesis of the officer corp of Museveni’s guerrilla army which would later become part of the new, present Uganda Army.

Before dwelling on how the TPDF and by extension, the Tanzania government contributed to the arrival, on the scene, of a stable Ugandan government under President Museveni it is important to survey how the situation was before President Museveni took power.

After the fall of Kampala in April 1979 through the former southern Tanzania brigade (which had been headed by Brigadier General James Luhanga and trained by Colonel Barton Lupembe) that had been handed over to Colonel Benjamin Msuya.

A new Uganda government led by Professor Yusuf Kironde Lule was sworn in.

Unfortunately, President Lule did not last due to a combination of factors that included, among other things, poor leadership.

Professor Lule was later replaced by President Godfrey Binaisa who like Lule did not last and finally came n Mwalimu’s friend and confidant, Dr Milton Obote. Intrigues between Obote and his colleagues continued and within no time Uganda lost one of its best trained army officers, Colonel Oyite Ojok who was killed in a helicopter accident after it got blown off in the Ugandan sky!

According to well informed sources, misunderstanding had risen between Dr Obote and Colonel Ojok who had been the chairman of the Uganda Coffee Board.

After his second coming, Dr Obote is alleged to have spent most of his time not rebuilding the country, but rather making money.

And Uganda’s cash-cow at the time was the Uganda Coffee Board where Colonel Ojok was making a lot of money through coffee smuggling.

Dr Obote now wanted the coffee board for himself.

He summoned Colonel Ojok and told him he was removing him from the coffee board.

Colonel Ojok is reported to have slapped Dr Obote right on and told him that he would not have been where he was had it not been for him.

After the macabre incident, Dr Obote is reported to have summoned one of the army officers who had allegiance to him but who also served as one of Colonel Ojok’s bodyguards and directed him to place a bomb in the Colonel’s bag which the bodyguard used to carry around while with the Colonel and place it in the chopper that Colonel Okok used to fly in.

And the rest, as they say, is now now history as the man who had the guts of slapping his commander-in-chief in broad daylight would be turned into past tense where dead men told no tales.

It was however, such machinations that later lead not only to Dr Obote’s fall, but Mwalimu would distance himself from his former friend.

Dr Obote was replaced by his Chief of Defence Forces, General Tito Okello, who would later be defeated by Museveni’s guerrillas.

Museveni’s road to Uganda’s presidency started in earnest after he was appointed defence minister in the now liberated new, Uganda government.

No sooner than Museveni was sown in to head the defence docket than Tanzania asked Uganda to send its best educated young men so that they could undertake officers’ course at its elite Monduli Military Academy in Arusha.

And the first batch of about 80 new Ugandan army officers (second lieutenants) that were part of 180 officers, 90 Tanzanians and ten young officers from the Seychelles were commissioned in September 1980 at Monduli Military Academy by the then Chief Political Commissar of the TPDF, Brigadier General, Moses Nnauye.

Now to appreciate Tanzania government’s role in playing a hand in bringing Museveni to power, let’s make digression through a fast back.

Upon completion of my two-year diploma course at the Tanzania School of Journalism (presently part of the Institution of Journalism and Mass Communication of the University of Dar es Salaam), I received two appointments, one from my employers, Tanzania News Agency (SHIHATA) to report to Arusha as my new working station; and second one from the National Service headquarters in Dar es Salaam, requiring me to report to Oljoro National Service for my compulsory one year service.

I duly reported to Oljoro National Service Camp on June 1st 1979 and completed my first six recruit course in January 1980 after which I was posted to Mgulani National Service and the latter posted me to Ngome (TPDF defence headquarters) where as a journalist, I served in the Ulinzi (a defence magazine of the TPDF) editorial board.

I was joined in the board with two other journalists who had also completed their National Service stints after their journalism courses, Edward Kahurananga (whom we have been together at the TSJ) from Radio Tanzania and Shimye Ahmed (who has since passed on) who had just completed his journalism course at Nyegezi Training College on the shores of Lake Victoria and would later, on completion of his National Service join the ruling party owned kiswahili newspapers, Uhuru and Mzalendo.

As our last six month stay, as servicemen, at Ngome was about to end, we (jounalists on the Ulinzi Editorial Board) were one day directed by one senior army officer in the office of the Chief Political Commissar to prepare a speech that would be read by the Brigadier General who would be a guest of honour on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief, President Julius Nyerere, at the commissioning of the young army officers at their pass-out parade.

However, after the Ulinzi Editorial board had been given the directive, army officers on the board pushed the job, in a military fashion, to the three of us, that’s me, Kahurananga and Ahmed. Of course, having been trained and lived in National Service for almost a year, we were not surprised with what our senior army officers had shifted the job to us.

For as servicemen, we were very junior and the officers who held the military ranks of Lieutenant and Captain could not do the job with us.

However, before we embarked on the job, our first speech writing, we asked our commanders to furnish us on what would be the Brigadier General’s audience.

Of course, the function involved the commissioning of army officers, but we wanted to know where they had come from. And that’s how we came to know the composition of the young army officers; that they came from Uganda, Tanzania and the Seychelles.

Our next difficult task was writing the speech. We could not dwell on the just ended Tanzania, Uganda War.

We argued among ourselves that dwelling on the subject was likely to cut out our country as a bellicose nation.

Suddenly one of us hinted that, since graduands included young officers from the Seychelles where TPDF had recently helped in putting down a planned coup by mercenaries from apartheid South Africa who had flown to Mahe aboard an Air India airliner, why not dwell on the Indian Ocean as Zone of Peace as it had several times been harped on by the United Nations?

The rest is of course history. We prepared a very good speech and a few weeks later we were through with our National Service obligations and reported to our different media stations.

Interestingly, a few weeks after my stay in Arusha’s Shihata office under my Bureau Chief, Juma Penza (who passed on three years ago), we received an invitation from the Monduli Military Academy Commandant, Brigadier General, James Luhanga (who would a few weeks later be promoted to Major General), to cover the function of the commissioning of the young army officers.

My heart almost stopped when the Chief Political Commissar, Brigadier General, Moses Nnauye, read out the speech we had written for him, almost word for word including jokes we had included to enliven his audience!

And that is the first speech, in my life as a journalist, I never jotted down notes because I knew it almost by heart having crafted it first in English after which it was later translated by my colleagues who were very good in Kiswahili, Edward Kahurananga and Shimye Ahmed.

I have had to go into the foregoing details because when you make a statement that the Tanzania government played not only a role, but a major one, in bringing Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to power, it is important you give evidence on how that happened.

The 80 plus Second Lieutenant Ugandan army officers, we would later learn that had been almost handpicked by Museveni.

What this means is that  the young army officers owed their allegiance to no one but the defence minister.

Therefore as long as Museveni was Uganda’s defence minister, young men send to Monduli Military Academy would be those who owed their allegiance to the defence minister.

By the time Museveni differed with General Tito Okello and resigned, it was therefore not surprising that he would be joined, in the forest to wage the guerrilla war against General Okello’s government, by over 400 young army officers who had all trained at the Monduli based military academy.

Therefore the over 400 Tanzanian trained Uganda army officers would continue in the bush to both train and lead the guerrilla war until 1986 when Museveni finally came to power through the barrel of the gun. Therefore Museveni would not have won that war had he not done what he did as Uganda defence minister, getting to Monduli Military Academy young men who owed their allegiance to him rather than the new Uganda Army.

In a nutshell, the core of Museveni’s army officers were trained in Tanzania and therefore by extension, the Tanzania government helped Museveni to get to where he is today.

This explains why no matter what leaders of the Coalition of the Willing (Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya), do in order to isolate Tanzania, Museveni would always find time to sneak out to Tanzania or Butiama, where his leader and political mentor, Mwalimu, is laid to rest to pay his respects.