Forty years ago, between October 1978 and April 1979, Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) waged a full-scale war against the Ugandan government that ended in the ouster of president Idi Amin from power.
The war was as a result of the decision by Amin to invade the Tanzanian territory of Kagera in October 1978.
Thousands of Ugandan exiles in Tanzania were encouraged and supported by the Julius Nyerere government to mobilise themselves into groups and join the war.
Formation of militias
As a result, different militia groups joined, the main one being Kikosi Maalum formed by former president Milton Obote. It was commanded by David Oyite-Ojok and Tito Okello Lutwa.
Started after Obote’s overthrow in 1971, Kikosi Maalum had by September 1972 thought to have expanded to about 1,300 fighters. But their progress was hampered by the botched September 1972 invasion of Uganda when nearly half of them were wiped out by Amin’s soldiers.
The Uganda National Liberation Front was formed at the Moshi Conference in April 1979 and its leader was Prof Yusuf Lule.
But in his memoir, The Role of UPC in the Removal of Amin, Obote says since this group was formed towards the fall of Amin, there is no way it can earn credit for the liberation of Uganda.
Obote adds that the UNLF was not a political force since its formation was as a result of the direction by president Nyerere who had been pressured by the British Labour Government to organise Ugandans in exile to agree on which Ugandan administration, other than the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), should succeed Amin, thus Lule becoming president.
Yoweri Museveni formed the Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) whose members operated mainly from inside Uganda.
In his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed, Museveni explains the crucial role he and his Fronasa group played before and during the war. Obote, however, waters this down, especially after the failed 1972 invasion of Uganda.
There has always been dispute on what political force fought alongside the TPDF, with each of these groups claiming to have greatly contributed to the war that removed Amin.
In his memoir, Obote recounts that Amin’s 1971 coup was effected and supported by a powerful country abroad.
The dictatorship that the coup ushered in, he says, was a political force in which the country abroad had much interest and wanted it to last.
Obote says the only political force in Uganda, composed of leaders and members of UPC and DP, were not organised.
When Amin appointed DP leader Benedicto Kiwanuka Chief Justice in the dictatorship, Obote says DP’s competence as an organised counter political force became impotent, leaving only UPC in the struggle.
Obote claims that had UPC also done nothing, there would have been no other Ugandan political force in the removal of Amin.
He notes that disputes and claims arose because when TPDF and Kikosi Maalum captured Mbarara and Masaka districts, the Tanzanian government was pressured by the British Labour government to manipulate a conference whose purpose was to agree on what political administration was to succeed Amin.
“I was the first to receive in the afternoon on the April 11, 1979, the news of Amin’s fall. No member of the UNLF could have been the first, or even amongst the first 100 to receive that news. This was so because they were never involved in and were not in the war against Amin. As their record in office showed, they were not a political force at all,” Obote writes.
The former president says no member of the UNLF administration, “and not even Museveni who entered Uganda during the war on coat-tails of the Tanzanian army participated in raising Kikosi Maalum or any other militia who together with the Tanzanian Army fought against Amin”.
Throughout the UNLF administration (Lule and Godfrey Binaisa governments) Kikosi Maalum, Obote says, was known as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). He adds that another militia, Fronasa and its leader Museveni, only came out after January 1986 to claim it fought against Amin.
Obote says in January 1979 Masaka Town fell to Kikosi Maalum and TPDF took over Mbarara and the whole of Ankole. He adds that Museveni then began a recruitment spree centred mainly at refugee camps in Ankole, a group he would later use in his Luweero Bush War.
On April 11, 1979, the day Kampala fell to Kikosi Maalum and the Tanzanian army, Obote claims Museveni was in Fort Portal comfortably staying in the Omukama’s palace which the TPDF, who captured the town, never damaged at all.
According to the memoir, when the invading armies were around Kings College Budo, the Tanzanian officers who were in overall command asked Kikosi Maalum to enter Kampala first. The ground given was that Ugandans in Kikosi Maalum knew the nooks of Kampala better than the Tanzanian officers.
“When Kampala fell to Kikosi Maalum,” Obote writes, “what the officers of the army wanted uppermost was a telephone to ring Dar es Salam and report the fact to their political leader, the UPC president.”
Since the telephone lines to the countries outside Uganda were down, the officers worked very hard to find someone who could open the telephone lines.
The officers found an engineer, Chris Opio, who willingly went with the officers to Telephone House where pockets of Amin’s soldiers were firing still randomly at moving vehicles.
At Telephone House, the memoir notes, Opio reactivated the line to Dar es Salaam and the late Maj Gen Oyite-Ojok placed a call to Obote.
“The news that David [Oyite-Ojok] gave me was the most exhilarating. The struggle that the UPC had waged from January 25, 1971, came to an end that day when Amin’s dictatorship fell,” Obote writes.
“The first thing I did was to ring president Nyerere and reported what I had heard from David who rang me from Kampala which had fallen that morning. The president came to my residence immediately and we celebrated together.”
Obote says on that day they had double celebrations at his residence because Mrs Oyite-Ojok had delivered a baby boy that afternoon.
Obote says although Kikosi Maalum entered Kampala first and sent Amin running, the UPC always praised, thanked and acknowledged the political force which was the greatest factor in the removal of Amin.
The memoir says that political force was Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), Julius Nyerere’s party.
About Kikosi Maalum
Kikosi Maalum (special forces), was a Tanzanian-based Ugandan guerrilla group formed by former president Milton Obote to counter Amin’s regime which had overthrown him in a coup on January 25, 1971. On the day the coup occurred, Obote was in Singapore for a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. On January 26, Obote arrived in Dar es Salaam on invitation of president Nyerere who offered him asylum.