What you need to know:
- Nearly 35 years after the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) bravely defended the country and finally ousted Uganda’s Idi Amin Dada, Colonel Abdu Kisuule, a former close ally of the dictator, reveals why he and thousands of his soldiers were defeated. A few months after the 1971 coup, Ugandan troops, led by Col Kisuule, went into Tanzania to rescue their colleagues who had strayed into the country, ostensibly looking for water. Seven years later, he commanded the Ugandan troops which invaded the Kagera Salient, sparking off the 1979 liberation war.
Kampala.The main purpose of this meeting between Amin and his soldiers was to get the commanders acquainted with the territory and to get to know the way forward.
The G Branch (mainly for operations) head, A branch’s Major General Vincent Yekoko and Lt Col Nzimuri (administration), told Amin, the Commander-in-Chief, that we were not logistically ready to embark on this catastrophic mission.
It was only the notorious General Juma Ali Butabika who said as far as he was concerned, he was ready to attack Tanzania without any delay.
I was asked what I thought about the situation. I could not go against G Branch head and the staff officer who knew better what was in stock for the Uganda Army. On concluding the visit to Mutukula, Amin said no one must enter Tanzania unless the three conditions were fulfilled.
The war was to be fought on three fronts; the marine unit was to attack through Minziro Forest, Simba Unit in Mbarara was to attack through Kitagata, while the Marile mechanised Regiment and the Artillery were to move from our operational base in Kyotera. The attack was supposed to be in a way that we reach our main target at the same time.
The marines were to advance through Minziro Forest to Kasambya to Kyaka border. Marile Regiment supported with two other companies and three batteries from the artillery unit were to attack via Mutukula through the Kyaka Road.
The fourth battalion from Simba in Mbarara plus another four from Mountains of the Moon were to advance from Nyakanyansi - southern front to Kyaka Bridge.
All activities were to be properly coordinated so that all the forces on the three prongs arrive at Bumazi at the same time ready to capture the bridge and advance to Bukoba. The capture of Kyaka Bridge was very important because it is the only entry to Tanzanian territory.
However, Juma Ali Butabika was always looking for favours and cheap popularity from the Commander-in-Chief. One evening, he decided to send his body guard, who was also his brother in-law, into Tanzanian territory with the aim of taking or kidnaping a Tanzanian soldier. He was armed with a pistol and a commando knife. Butabika did this without any order from us or from the headquarters which were now in Rakai, just a kilometre away on the Kanoni Road.
Unfortunately, Butabika’s in-law was captured and killed. A flash message was signalled to the tactical headquarters in Bombo by Butabika himself who had gone to Bombo to see his family. I summoned his deputy at Marile Regiment, Captain Rumano, to my headquarters for further explanation.
I could not commit my troops because of the death of this unfortunate soldier who had been ordered into Tanzania by his brother-in-law. Butabika later that afternoon came to my office fuming and demanding that we go and attack Tanzania.
I told him: “I’m not a fool and I will not be the one to commit the nation to war because of a stupid action”. This incident did not justify any war basing on the conditions Amin had set.
During our short-lived stay at Kyotera, we kept on registering targets of tactical importance in Tanzania. These included the Kikagati ferry, the Tanzanian administration head offices at Kabwebwe, about four miles inside Tanzania from Mutukula, the Minziro Forest, and the Kyaka Bridge.
October 22, 1978, is a day to remember. On the night of October 21, our forces at Mutukula on the Ugandan side were heavily shelled by the Tanzanian forces. We had put a screen force, made up of Saradines, Jeeps, APC’s and tanks. This is a hard-hitting mobile force. It engages the enemy for a very short time and withdraws. In this case at Mutukula, it had to withdraw to the defensive lines at Lukoma airfield about two kilometres into Uganda from the Mutukula border.
The following morning, before I even had breakfast, word came through that we had been attacked. I jumped onto my Land Rover with my driver, body guard and the signaler and immediately got on radio and sent a verbal message. I ordered: “Hullo all stations, engage all known targets” and the war started.
I drove towards Mutukula and I found my troops at Lukoma airfield. The screen force had established that the main road in Tanzania was free and at around 11am, I gave orders to my forces to advance into the Tanzanian territory.
There was no fire coming from the enemy direction. However, as we advanced through a banana plantation before getting to Kabwebwe, Butabika got off the main truck to the bush with his APC. His APC and those following him got stuck until 6pm when we pulled them out.
When his APC got out of the mad, Butabika requested to perform some ritual which he ended with tying a fiber around his waist.
We spent the night of October 22 in a valley overlooking Bumazi Hill well inside Tanzanian territory but we had not come under enemy fire yet.
The next day, Butabika had gone ahead of all of us to Bumazi and from a distance, we saw him and his men retreating.
I ordered either major Aloysius Ndibowa or Aseya to put a car across the road to block their retreat; we had to advance. By then, our air force was in its second day of bombing the Tanzanian territory, mostly the Kagera Bridge. However, much as they had hit it, the bridge did not cave in because it had been built on a heavy metallic framework.
With the bridge proving hard for us, Brigadier Sabuni devised a way to break it. He got explosive experts from Kilembe mines in Kasese, who planted explosives below the bridge and detonated them.
With the bridge blown up, the Kagera Salient was thus cut off from the rest of Tanzania.
By the time the bridge fell, the Ugandan soldiers had also looted the Kagera Sugar factory clean. All the soldiers participated; they took everything that pleased their eye.
By this time, I thought it was risky for us the planners to stay in Tanzania because we were left with only 10, 106 rockets and we could not defend ably. I urged during a meeting in Mutukula in Tanzania that we leave Tanzania because once the enemy retaliated; we were unable to fight back.
In less than a week, a bulk of our troops left Kagera after causing total damage to the area. We managed to convince Amin to agree on the idea of defending ourselves from within Uganda even when he declared Kagera part of Uganda.
I don’t recall the exact date the Tanzanians went on the counter offensive against the Uganda Army inside Kagera, Tanzania, but on Christmas Day of 1978, they started using the Saba-saba rocket launchers. That day alone they hit 12 of my posts. I will never forget that day.
Launching their rockets from Tanzanian side, Julius Nyerere men hit the bridge after Kakuuto towards Mutukula. They hit us so much that I ran away from Lukoma air field to other places. One Saba-saba bomb could easily bury a car.
Don’t miss the second and final part of this enthralling article in Monday’s The Citizen
That day they forced me to withdraw the remaining forces from Mutukula to Bigada. By the time we reached Bigada, everybody was trembling. This really weakened us. In early January 1979, my unit was relieved and went back to Masindi.
Shopping for weapons
A week after my return to Masindi, I was called to go to Europe on a special mission to shop for weapons. I went with Yekoko and major Ndibowa. Our destination was Spain; we went down to Bilbao to test the equipment we wanted.
The list included mortars, the Napalm bomb to counter the Saba-saba, and the 112 planes which were to drop the bombs. The Napalm bomb is a fire bomb and when dropped burns a place like fire.
Unfortunately everywhere we went the Tanzanians were tracking, blocking our orders. This was a blessing in disguise because had the Napum bomb been brought, it would have been the talking subject and not the Saba-saba.
While we were in Spain looking for arms, the Tanzanians entered Uganda.
When I came back from Spain, I went back to Masindi. One night towards the end of February, I got a call that I was needed at State House. At State House, I was told Masaka was captured and I was to lead the battle to recapture it. I went with Amin up to Buganzi Hill to recce what was happening.
Amin came back to Kampala, leaving the operation to retake Masaka in my hands. By then, Lukaya was still in our control but our soldiers had looted everything they could lay their hands on, and the locals had all fled. This made us a target anytime and for that reason I decided to put my tactical headquarters in Buwama at the county office, and I ordered all soldiers to stay 500m away from the centre.
Unfortunately, they didn’t follow orders and at around 2pm as I was setting up my tactical base in Buwama, the Tanzanians shot at us and eight of my soldiers were killed. I was not sorry for the loss since I had ordered them out of the centre. That night I decided to move closer and monitor the situation; I slept in Kayabwe just on the way to Nkozi University.
Libyans join in
The Libyans had now joined us and we mounted heavy guns which they brought on the hills across Katonga; all of them facing Lukaya and we also deployed tanks. We planned to advance to Masaka on March 9 after briefing the more than 1,000 Libyans at Mitala Maria who had come to boost our ranks. They came with many big guns that we did not have like the 122mm mortars.
After giving orders to both Libyans and Ugandan troops at around 3pm, I took valium and gave a tablet to Sule so that we have enough sleep ahead of the long operation to retake Masaka. I was used to taking valium a day before any operation.
A few hours into our sleep we were woken up by the stampede of the fleeing Libyans, their jeeps which had been facing Lukaya were now retreating to Kampala. I told Major Aloysius Ndibowa to block the road so that they don’t retreat.
At about 6pm when the war had started, Sule insisted he was going to move with the tanks. I was coming from the rare from Kayabwe. The fighting was so fierce and many of my men were killed and tens of jeeps were ferrying dead bodies from the frontline to Kampala. The Saba-saba rocket launcher was giving us a real hard time.
Immediately after Katonga Bridge towards Lukaya, there was a eucalyptus forest on the right hand side. The Tanzanians had laid a death trap for us. Many of our infantry men, including Libyans, were killed there. Sule, who had been walking behind the tanks, was crashed by one of the tanks as he tried to reverse in retreat. It took me long to know he was dead and the president was asking me his whereabouts but nobody knew.
At around 10am, I told the president to send people to look among the bodies that were brought back to Kampala because I was not seeing him on the battle front. That day we lost many soldiers. Amin later sent me word that the body had been found and that the head had been crushed.
We had managed to force the Tanzanians back and moved my headquarter to Kabale Bugonzi. Unfortunately, there was laxity on our side. Had we kept the momentum, we would have taken back Masaka. I am sure that was the last serious battle and that’s where we lost the war.
Many of the commanders who had survived up to Nyendo instead retreated back to Kampala. When I got back to Buwama, I found Major General Gowan had also left, all the commanders had deserted the front. I told the remaining forces to withdraw back to Buwama. While at Buwama information got to me that the withdrawing troops were wreaking havoc in Masindi, looting every place they could.
About the war
Relations between Tanzania and Uganda had been strained for several years before the war started. After Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971, the Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere offered sanctuary to Uganda’s ousted president, Milton Obote. Obote was joined by 20,000 refugees fleeing Amin’s attempts to wipe out opposition.
A year later, a group of exiles based in Tanzania attempted, unsuccessfully, to invade Uganda and remove Amin. Amin blamed Nyerere for backing and arming his enemies. The relationship between Uganda and Tanzania remained strained for many years.
In early October 1978, dissident troops ambushed Amin at the presidential lodge in Kampala, but he escaped with his family in a helicopter. This was during a period when the number of Amin’s close associates had shrunk significantly, and he faced increasing dissent from within Uganda.
When General Mustafa Adrisi, Amin’s Vice President, was injured in a suspicious car accident, troops loyal to Adrisi (and other soldiers who were disgruntled for other reasons) mutinied. Amin sent troops against the mutineers (which included members of the elite Simba Battalion), some of whom had fled across the Tanzanian border.
The rebellion spilled over into Tanzania, where Tanzania-based anti-Amin exiles joined the fighting against Amin’s troops.
Uganda declared a state of war against Tanzania, and sent troops to invade and annex part of the Kagera region of Tanzania, which Amin claimed belonged to Uganda.
Nyerere mobilized the Tanzania People’s Defence Force and counterattacked. In a few weeks, the Tanzanian army was expanded from less than 40,000 troops to over 100,000 including members of the police, prison services, national service, and the militia.
The Tanzanians were joined by several anti-Amin groups consisting of Ugandan exiles, who at a conference in Moshi (Moshi Conference) had united as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). These included Kikosi Maalum commanded by Tito Okello and David Oyite Ojok, FRONASA commanded by Yoweri Museveni, and Save Uganda Movement commanded by Akena p’Ojok, William Omaria, and Ateker Ejalu.
The Tanzanian Army acquired a Soviet BM Katyusha rocket launcher (known in Uganda as saba saba), with which they started to fire on targets in Uganda. The Ugandan Army retreated steadily.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi sent 2,500 troops to aid Amin, equipped with T-54 and T-55 tanks, BTR APCs, BM-21 Grad MRLs, artillery, MiG-21s, and a Tu-22 bomber. However the Libyans soon found themselves on the front line, while Ugandan Army units were using supply trucks to carry their newly plundered wealth in the opposite direction.
The Libyan troops were a mix of regular Libyan Army units, People’s Militia, and sub-Saharan Africans of the Islamic Legion, a further force created by Libya for this type of expeditionary mission.The Tanzanians, joined by UNLA dissidents, moved north for Kampala but halted at the vast deep-water swamp north of Lukaya. The Tanzanians decided to send the 201st Brigade directly across the causeway over the swamp while the better-quality 208th Brigade skirted the western edge of the swamp as an alternative in case the causeway was blocked or destroyed.
A planned attack by a brigade-sized Libyan force with fifteen T-55s, a dozen APCs, and BM-21 MRLs, intended to reach Masaka, instead collided with the Tanzanian force at Lukaya on 10 March and sent the 201st Brigade reeling backwards in disarray. However, a Tanzanian counter-attack on the night of 11–12 March from two directions, involving a reorganised 201st Brigade attacking from the south and the 208th Brigade from the north-west, was successful, with many Libyan units, including the militia, breaking and retreating at a run. Libyan casualties were reported at 200 pluc another 200 allied Ugandans.