Remembering Uganda War: The start, cost, development and philosophy

Idi Amin of Uganda shakes hands with Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere at a past meeting. In 1978 Amin ordered his troops to invade Tanzania resulting in a war that ended in 1979 with his own ousting.   File | Photo

What you need to know:

  • KAGERA WAR: We have reason, we have determination, and we have capability to defeat dictator Idi Amin of Uganda

If there’s accurate account of the Kagera War, many analysts agree, is the book titled ‘War in Uganda: The Legacy of Idi Amin’, written by the then Reuters journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey. The two were, the only foreign journalists, which Julius Nyerere allowed to be embedded in the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF), which were at the frontline—a decision that many within the top government circles especially security agencies disliked. But, Mwalimu had a reason—he wanted unbiased account of the Kagera War—and when this book was published for the first time by Tanzania Publishing House, HolyWood movie makers quickly bought the right to produce a film at a whopping £1 million (Sh2.6 billion).

Our senior reporter and editor Lucas Liganga, read the book and he      shares some of the key issues captured by the two foreign journalists, who were also considered to be spies, working for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and MI6—the allegations, which till today have never been backed by any concrete proof.

Declaring the War

 It was perhaps the most memorable speech in the minds of Tanzanians not because of the time it took or the tone, but some few phrases, which President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania used to prepare the nation to fight Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin -- who had ordered his troops to invade Tanzania -- when he announced the war.

Mwalimu said in that speech, “We have reason, we have determination, and we have capability to defeat dictator Idi Amin of Uganda, the bastard who has invaded our country.”

Madaraka Nyerere, one of Mwalimu Nyerere’s sons, recalled in an interview with the BBC World Service some years back that most of the people who listened to that speech recall that they had never seen Mwalimu Nyerere so angry.

His tone of voice was rich with anger as he explained reasons and the preparedness of attacking Uganda.

Amin’s troops had launched several air raids on Tanzania, invaded it and occupied a piece of land in the north-western region of Kagera.

“I had never heard or seen my father so angry because he wasn’t this type of person who brought home his daily stresses as the president,” said Madaraka.

In 1978, Ugandan despotic leader Idi Amin Dada launched an invasion of Tanzania. Shortly before he had launched the invasion Amin reportedly bragged himself that he was ready to fight with his Tanzania counterpart -- Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.

The Tanzanian-Ugandan War was a rare example of state-on-state war in Africa. Books that cover the campaign are even rarer.

But in War in Uganda: The Legacy of Idi Amin—Western journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey under the auspices of the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) have detailed how the war was fought by the Tanzanian army.

The authors were with the Tanzanian army as it invaded Uganda following the Kagera Salient attack from Uganda.

In their 244-page book, the authors view both armies not by comparison to European models but on their own terms, players are not seen on comedic terms but individuals working within the limits of what are available.

“By doing this we sense the tempo of warfare in these difficult logistic considerations and the importance of the international political dimension,” say Avirgan and Honey.

With a steel iron determination, Nyerere defeated Amin and forced him to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia where he died on August 16, 2003.

Indeed, War in Uganda is a first-hand account of the Tanzania military response to Amin’s provocations and of the struggles and manoeuvres that took place within Ugandan political factions seeking to re-establish a legitimate government.

As the only Western reporters to accompany the Tanzanian army into Uganda, they were uniquely placed to tell what happened, militarily and politically. But these series by The Citizen only focus on the military side of the war, leaving out the political side.

On the morning of October 31, 1978, Avirgan and Honey awoke as usual at six in the morning.

“After breakfast we tuned on the seven o’clock newscast from Radio Tanzania and were jolted out of our early morning drowsiness by the first item, which was a report that Ugandan forces had seized a section of Tanzania,” they say in the book’s preface.

They add that the announcer gave no further details, except to say that the Tanzanian government was taking “appropriate action.”

As efforts to expel Amin’s troops from Tanzanian territory got underway, it became apparent that Tanzania was not going to say very much publicly about what was going on.

“If an army’s primary duty is to defend the national boundaries, the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces failed miserably the first time it was called on to do so,” the journalists say in chapter 3 of their book.

Despite strained relations with several of its neighbours—Malawi, Kenya and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo)—the one place most likely to have trouble was with Uganda, they say in the book published in 1983 by Tanzania Publishing House based in Dar es Salaam.

The Mogadishu Agreement prohibited Tanzanian troops from being within 16 kilometres of the border, but even beyond this line, Tanzania’s defences were almost nil, according to them.

“Military planners really did not think it conceivable that Amin would order an attack against Tanzanian territory,” say Avirgan and Honey.

They write that the defence of the Ugandan border was the responsibility of the 202nd Brigade, based in Tabora and under the command of the elderly Zanzibari Brigadier (now Brigadier General) Yusuf Himid.

On this chapter entitled: ‘Amin’s Invasion and Tanzania’s Response’, Avirgan and Honey say in the border area itself was the 3rd Battalion, which was so under-strength that it should not have been called a battalion at all.

The battalion was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Morris Singano, who had been transferred from Mbeya to West Lake in late August.

“His mission was to maintain reconnaissance of the lengthy border area and to try and deal with smuggling, which was rampant,” the say.

Within weeks of arriving, Singano began to notice what he considered unusual activity on the Ugandan side of the border, they say, adding that by early September reconnaissance patrols sent to the border were reporting an abnormal number of sighting of Ugandan patrols, some of them with armoured personal carriers (APCs).

The number of Ugandan army reconnaissance aircraft also began to increase dramatically in early September.

However, the journalists narrate, the Ugandans remained  on their side of the border and there was no contact between the two armies.

By mid-September, however, the Ugandan planes—slow flying Cessnas—were beginning to fly into Tanzanian airspace. “Singano informed his brigade headquarters at Tabora that something was afoot and received assurances that antiaircraft reinforcements would be sent,” he say, adding: “But no reinforcements of any kind came.”

By early October, Singano’s messages to headquarters were taking on a more alarmist tone. But still no reinforcements came.

They say it was midday on October 9 that the Ugandan troops crossed into Tanzania, explaining that a detachment of Amin’s soldiers entered near the village of Kakunyu and burned two houses.

The Ugandan operation was spotted by a Tanzanian observation post which radioed a report to Singano, who in turn ordered Tanzanian artillery to open up on the Ugandans.

The war had started, say Avirgan and Honey, though no one at the time realized that it would expand into a conflict that eight months later would topple the Amin regime.

On October 9 it was simply a border incident in which Tanzanian artillery destroyed one Ugandan APC and one three-tonne truck and killed two Ugandan soldiers.

The journalists, who covered the whole war, say during the exchange of fire, Tanzanian artillery was, for the first time, directed at suspected artillery positions on the Ugandan side of the border.

“Ugandan artillery returned the fire but hit nothing, an early but unrecognized indication of their military incompetence,” say Avirgan and Honey.

That day Radio Uganda announced that Tanzanian forces had attempted an invasion of Uganda, but had been beaten back. Tanzania said nothing, recall the journalists.

They say next day Ugandan Mig fighter bombers were brought into action, adding that the Migs streaked into Tanzania at a high altitude, dropped their bombs ineffectively in forests near the border and sped back to home base.

Ugandan artillery continued to fire into Tanzania. Colonel Singano ordered the biggest weapons he had, 120-mm mortars, brought up, and on October 14 they began firing at Ugandan positions across the border.

In short order the Ugandan firing ceased, they say, adding that Singano had no way of knowing if his artillery had scored a hit or if the big mortar shells had simply scared the Ugandans away. Exchanges of artillery across the border continued sporadically over the next few days where Ugandan artillery shelled Murongo, in the far northwestern corner where Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda come together.

The journalists narrate that although the fighting was now spreading along the entire border and Singano sent increasingly urgent pleas for help, the military and political leaders in Dar es Salaam thought Amin was only making minor border provocations.

“Finally, after repeated pleas, he was told that reinforcements would be coming. But still for quite some time he was left alone in an increasingly untenable situation,” they say.

On October 18 Amin’s Migs made their first attack on the town of Bukoba, the commercial and administration centre of West Lake Region (Kagera).

The bombs did little damage, but the violent concussions broke dozens of windows throughout the town.

“Panic set in as hundreds of frightened people dashed through the streets. Tanzanian antiaircraft guns fired but failed to bring down the Migs,” they say.

Kagera regional commissioner Mohamed Kissoky called a meeting of party and government leaders to say that the trouble with Uganda was a minor misunderstanding and people should not panic.

He told the leaders to spread the word that , “We are great friends with Uganda, and Idi Amin has been at the border shaking hands with our people.”

Kissoky’s message did little to calm the increasingly frantic population around Bukoba. But residents could see Amin’s observation planes flying high overhead, and there was constant fear of another bombing attack.

The journalists say all this time Tanzanian officials, aside from Kissoky, said nothing publicly. Radio Tanzania broadcast no news of Amin’s provocative statements or the Uganda-Tanzania border clashes.

In contrast Radio Uganda carried lively accounts of a Tanzanian “invasion”.

Embellished with reports of battles that never took place, these Ugandan broadcasts claimed that on October 12 Tanzanian troops armed with machine guns, anti-tank and mortars advanced 15 kilometres into Uganda, killing civilians, wounding three soldiers and destroying property.

Three days later Amin was reported telling crowds in Mutukula that, despite the “attack” he wished to be friends with Tanzania.

In reality, reveal Avirgan and Honey, these broadcasts were designed to conceal not only Amin’s incursions into Tanzania, but also the new upheavals in his army.

For instance, during this period Amin’s hitmen killed more than 20 soldiers in Masaka. Later, two truckloads of arrested army dissidents were driven out of town and reportedly murdered.

Singano’s alarmist reports seemed to convince TPDF commanders that they were not without foundation. A six-member team armed with Soviet-built SAM-6 shoulder fired, heat seeking antiaircraft missiles, commonly known “Strella,” was dispatched from Tabora to Bukoba and arrived on October 27.

On the morning of October 27, before the arrival of the Strella team, three waves of Ugandan Migs attacked Bukoba town.

Avirgan and Honey report that some of the Ugandan bombs landed in Lake Victoria, some in forests, and one 250 pounder hit just 50 metres from the Bukoba Hospital, where it dug a deep hole, later to be used as a garbage pit. “The bombs did no damage other than to violently shake the ground and shatter windows, but the attacks were enough to convince even the most reluctant to abandon town,” the say, adding:

“By afternoon all roads leading out of Bukoba were jammed with vehicles and people moving on foot. Those wanting money for their journey crowded around the office of the National Bank of Commerce, but the bank manager had already locked the vault and fled town.”

By the morning of October 28, Bukoba was a ghost town with shops, schools and offices shuttered and streets empty of all but soldiers.

All this time Tanzania’s official newspapers and radio station remained silent, continuing to report news from other parts of the world and local football matches as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening.

Outside Bukoba, where those fleeing from the town and from the North had gathered, conditions were becoming extremely difficult. Tens of thousands of displaced persons were crowded into small settlements with insufficient food and water.

Profiteers began selling what little food was available at grossly inflated prices. Local officials attempted to have food moved from government stores to the gathering places, but by this time Singano had commandeered most available transport to move his troops and the few newly arrived artillery pieces.

Others with support and gasoline, including personnel of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Bukoba, formed a convoy and drove around the southern tip of Lake Victoria to the safety of Mwanza.

Avirgan and Honey narrate that for those left in the displaced persons’ gathering places, the total lack of information about what was happening led to bitter debates about how to proceed.

Some argued that if they did not return they would be fired from their jobs. Others argued that if they did return they would soon be blown apart by Amin’s bombs or mowed down by Uganda’s troops.

After a few days most men decided to return to Bukoba and leave their families in the countryside. Offices reopened with skeleton staff, but not much work was done and all talk was of war.

Mobilising the troops to Kagera Region

On the morning of October 30, thousands of Ugandan troops crossed into Tanzania on four axes at Kukunga, Masanya, Mutukula and Minziro, write journalists Avirgan and Honey in their book.

They say the only resistance they encountered was rifle fire from a few dozen civilian members of the Tanzania People’s Militia (mgambo) who bravely but vainly tried to stand up to Amin’s tanks and APCs. Those who tried to fight were quickly killed, they add.

Firing machine guns at an enemy that didn’t shoot back, the Ugandans rolled slowly southward through the Kagera Salient. It was evening before they covered the 30 kilometres to the Kagera River and the bridge to the southern bank and Kyaka.

Having occupied the 1,800 square kilometres of the Kagera Salient, the Ugandan troops began an orgy of looting, raping and killing. A total of about 1,500 Tanzanian civilians were killed and their bodies left to rot in the African sun.

Officials of Tanzania’s ruling CCM were hunted down and often decapitated. Women and young girls were raped and then taken away to Uganda or shot.

The journalists recount that everything worth taking was looted, from 13,000 prime head of cattle at the Kitengule state ranch to tin sheets from the roofs of peasants’ houses.

Vehicles that would not start were stripped for spares. Personal belongings were looted from houses along with pots and pans. Everything movable was taken away from the Kagera Sugar Factory.

Amin’s soldiers then set up mortars and, as they swigged waragi, a favourite Ugandan alcohol, they blasted the remaining buildings and heavy machinery into ruins. The cattle looted from Kagera were taken to Mbarara in Uganda and distributed to soldiers and their friends.

Radio Uganda boasted openly of the “liberation” of the Kagera Salient, saying that the new border between Tanzania and Uganda was now the Kagera River. Idi Amin made a personal visit to his newly acquired territory, where he posed for Ugandan photographers with weapons left behind by fleeing Tanzanian troops.

As reports of the seizure of the Kagera Salient reached Dar es Salaam, President Nyerere summoned his top advisers and TPDF commanders to his beach-front home at Msasani.

Avirgan and Honey write that Nyerere was far from confident that his own untested army had the ability to expel the invaders.

The TPDF commander (Chief of Defence Forces) General Abdallah Twalipo, harboured no doubts, at least none that he expressed to Nyerere.

“Twalipo told the President that the TPDF could expel Amin’s troops but that a major operation, which would take some time to mount, would be required,” say the journalists.

They add that Nyerere’s immediate order was to “get started.” The meeting broke up at 4:am.

On the 7:am news bulletin on October 31, Radio Tanzania finally broke its silence about events on the Ugandan border. In a very matter-of-fact way, as though he was announcing political developments in Turkey, the announcer said that Uganda forces had seized a section of northwestern Tanzania and that preparations were being made to expel the invaders.

Tanzania had never fought a war since attaining independence, and Amin’s invasion found the TPDF ill-prepared for one.

A number of Tanzanian soldiers had experienced combat in Mozambique, where a TDPF battalion had been stationed on the Rhodesian border since 1975. However, not many Tanzanian instructors had actually gone into Rhodesia to fight alongside the ZANU guerilla forces they had trained.

An even smaller number had experienced combat during periods of training in such places as North Vietnam, say the journalists.

They say despite a general lack of battlefield experience, TPDF officers were among the best trained in Africa, a factor that would later prove to be decisive.

“Ever since the TPDF was formed, following the dissolution of the Tanzania army after a 1964 army revolt, the Tanzanians had followed an independent and unconventional course in defence,” they point out.

Unlike most of Third World countries, which structured their armies and modelled their tactics on those of their main suppliers of arms, whether they were the Americans, British, Russians or Chinese, the Tanzanian mimicked no one.

They bought their arms and equipment from whatever quarter could supply the needed item at the best price. “Officers were sent for training from all corners of the earth, to capitalists as well as communist countries,” say Avirgan and Honey.

Most TPDF officers had received training in at least one communist and one capitalist country. This policy greatly upset the countries doing the training. Both Canadian and Chinese officers had told Tanzanian officers on numerous occasions that established structures of armies and philosophies of warfare could not be mixed. “But the Tanzanians rejected these exhortations to cast themselves in someone else’s mould and continued to do things their own way,” they say.

They say when Nyerere’s order for full mobilization came, only one of the TPDF’s four brigades was ready to move on short notice and that was the Southern Brigade headquartered at Songea in the Southwest corner of the country. Under the command of Brigadier James Luhanga, the Southern Brigade had recently completed war games during which it had performed excellently.

They say military equipment and personnel were moved from Dar es Salaam and other parts of the country by trains and trucks to Mwanza.

However, unusually heavy rains had turned the Bukoba-Kyaka Road into an almost impassable sea of mud. Six-tonne trucks sank up to their chassis in mud holes and had to be dug out and pushed by soldiers.

Gun carriers overturned and tanks became bogged down, their treads sinking and churning ineffectively in the brown ooze.

The more traffic that travelled the road, the worse the road became. Some hills became impassable to any vehicle without the help of hundreds of straining backs. But the road to Kyaka stayed open, carrying bumper-to-bumper military traffic around the clock. Soldiers covered from head to toe in caked mud, stood by every trouble spot ready to push, pull, dig, or shovel stones.

They say ammunition dumps, vehicle workshops, antiaircraft and artillery placements, field hospitals and field kitchens were quickly established and soon everything was covered in the thick brown goo. Newly arrived soldiers dug trenches in which they would sleep protected from expected air or artillery attack. Although ponchos kept the rain out from above, water seeped through the saturated earth at the bottom of the trenches and the soldiers had to get used to sleeping in  foot-deep trench of water and mud.

Back in Dar es Salaam, Prime Minister Edward Sokoine, on Nyerere’s instructions, issued an order to all 20 of Tanzania’s regional commissioner’s calling for full mobilization of all government and civilian resources for the war effort.

Buses and trucks from government and civilian companies were commandeered to be used to bring troops and supplies to the front.

According to Avirgan and Honey, the army took the commandeered vehicles to their workshops to get them into good mechanical order before putting them into service.

The government promised private owners that any damage done would be repaid or paid for, they say, adding that realizing a good opportunity, several private businessmen arranged to have their vehicles, some of which were close to total write-offs, commandeered.

“They then hoped to have their vehicles reconditioned free of charge and eventually returned to them in good shape,” they say.

Government and private factories were ordered to increase production and produce to army specifications. “Everything from tinned beef to T-shirts went to the army, and civilians were warned to expect shortages,” they add.

Still amazed at how easy their territorial acquisition had been, but fearing a Tanzanian counterattack, Amin’s commanders sought to destroy the one possible means of such a counterattack, the Kagera River Bridge at Kyaka.

 Singano’s troops had placed guns on high ground at the south end of the bridge, making it impossible for Amin’s tanks to come close on the southern bank.

Amin’s troops decided that air power was the way to take out the bridge, and on November 1 and 2, Ugandan Migs made runs at the span. On each occasion Tanzanian gunners on the south bank filled the air with antiaircraft fire and the deadly SAM-7s. Several of Amin’s planes were brought down, and the remaining pilots quickly lost the enthusiasm to go in low and deliver their bombs.

However, using a civilian explosives expert, at dawn on November 4 the charge was ignited as Tanzanian troops looked on helplessly when 75-metres of the centre of the bridge plunged into the waters of the Kagera. “Tanzanian hopes of a quick recrossing of the river had been dashed,” say Avirgan and Honey, however, adding that but fortunately for the Tanzanians, the charge only destroyed the centre span and did not damage the stanchions, thus making eventual temporary repair a possibility.

The same day the Tanzanians suffered another serious setback. A squadron of Chinese-built Migs was being ferried from their base at Ngerengere, near Morogoro, to Mwanza, the nearest airport to the war front.  One group of these aircraft made a pass over the Mwanza airport and the section leader decided that they should make a slow turn to the north before coming in.

The authors of the book say their course took them out over Lake Victoria and then over the town of Musoma, where antiaircraft units had been told to be on the lookout for enemy planes coming from Uganda. No one had told the Musoma units about the possibility of Tanzania planes entering their sector.

As the Migs flew slowly, over Musoma, the units on the ground let loose a barrage of SAM-2 missiles, say the authors, adding that all three planes were hit and exploded in the air, killing their unsuspecting pilots instantly.

“A story quickly circulated around Tanzania that one of the pilots was Nyerere’s son, but this was not true,” say Avirgan and Honey. On around November 2, Nyerere flew to Beira and met President Samora Machel of Mozambique where he promised Machel that Tanzania could fight Amin without slackening support for the Zimbabwean struggle.

At the same time Machel offered to send a battalion of Mozambican soldiers to Tanzania to fight on the “Second Front” as a gesture of solidarity.

The Mozambicans were dispatched to Tanzania in a matter of days and were immediately sent to Kagera.

Not a word of their presence ever appeared in the Tanzanian press, and one of the very few bits of evidence that there were Mozambicans in the Tanzanian ranks was a copy of the Mozambican newspaper Noticias left inadvertently behind in the lounge of the Mwanza airport.

The authors say despite rumours that eventually surfaced of Egyptian officers, Cuban advisers and soldiers of various other nationalities in the Tanzanian ranks, the truth is that, aside from 800 Mozambicans, no foreign troops were ever involved in the war on the Tanzanian side.

The probable reason for such rumours emerging was the multiracial make-up of the TPDF, they narrate, adding that people who saw Asians, Arabs, brown-skinned Africans, black-skinned Africans and people of mixed race in TPDF uniform often had a hard time believing that they were all Tanzanians.

While Nyerere was preparing his counteroffensive to “hit back” at Amin, the Ugandan dictator tried to divert world attention from his soldiers’ atrocities in the Kagera by making the invasion into a joke.

On November 5, the six-foot four-inch, 240-pound Amin challenged the slight, white-haired Nyerere to a boxing match to be refereed by Muhammad Ali.

“I am keeping fit so that I can challenge President Nyerere in the boxing ring and fight it out there rather than the soldiers lose their lives on the field of battle,” Amin said.

An ex-Ugandan heavyweight boxing champion himself, Amin pledged to fight with one arm tied behind him to give Nyerere’s “sporting chance”. Nyerere did not respond.

By the second week of November, despite the troubles of getting there, the Tanzanians had begun to amass a sizeable military presence on the soggy south of the Kagera.

The TPDF chief of staff, Major General Tumainieli Kiwelu, had arrived to take command of the operation. Although Tanzanian commanders regretted the loss of the Kagera River Bridge, its absence did preclude the possibility of Amin’s forces crossing to the south bank and attacking the Tanzanians as they prepared. This confidence allowed the Tanzanians to proceed with the first phase of the retaking of the Kagera Salient.

Read more about Nyerere and the Kagera war Part Three tomorrow.