The untold story of Kagera War by TZ, Uganda top soldiers


  • In Uganda, it is known as the Liberation War, while in Tanzania it is simply called the Kagera War, which was fought from 1978 to 1979 between the two countries. In this second series on the war, which ended nearly 35 years ago, two former top soldiers who took part, Colonel Abdu Kisuule, the once close ally of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and retired Brig Gen Burton Richard Lupembe of the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF), give their accounts. While Colonel Kisuule narrates why his soldiers were defeated, Brig Gen Lupembe, also known as Mwilipanga Richard Lupembe, recalls how he was preparing to go to Namibia as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force when the Ugandan army invaded Tanzania. The 71-year-old was a Staff Officer to Gen David Msuguri, who headed the operation to invade Uganda. The Citizen’s Henry Lubega records their narration of the war.

Kampala/Dar es Salaaam. 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: Gen Kisuule

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 Napalm 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 see 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 500 metres 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

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 rear  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 crushed 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 of 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 headquarters 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 everything 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 mobilised the Tanzania People’s Defence Forces 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.

Tanzania hits back: Gen Lupembe 

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 plus another 200 allied Ugandans.

We destroyed Mbarara and Masaka towns in revenge.

By the time Uganda invaded Tanzania in 1978, I was a Lieutenant Colonel, commanding a battalion and had been chosen to command a contingent of the TPDF that was preparing to go to Namibia under the UN peacekeeping mission.

While at Makambaku base where I was preparing my battalion, I got a message from the defence headquarters asking me to go to Mbeya.

With help from the local business community, I mobilised transport to Mbeya where I was told we were to be airlifted to a destination only known by the pilots.

As I waited for the airlifting from Mbeya, I suspected that the Namibia deployment had been cancelled.

We were airlifted to Tabora, where I met Gen Kiwelu who was the chief planner and commander of the forces preparing to force the Ugandan army out of Tanzanian territory.

My battalion moved with the rest of the troops under Gen Kiwelu’s overall command to Bukoba.

At Bukoba, orders came that we prepare ourselves for war against the invaders from Uganda who had taken over the Kagera Salient.

Soon upon arrival in Bukoba, I was reassigned from a battalion commander to brigade staff officer in the 206th Brigade under General Silas Mayunga which took the western axis to capture Mbarara town.

My responsibility was to write orders for the different battalions. I was assisting the commander to prepare the orders and brief the battalion commanders on what was to be done.

The war was fought in phases and so was the planning. When the war started on December 4, 1979, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s instructions were to first liberate Kagera.

This was the first phase of the war which was completed by early January 1979.

Having finished the first phase, there were demands by some forces, for instance Milton Obote’s group in Tanzania, others in Lusaka, Nairobi, and some from Europe that asked us to help them remove Idi Amin from power.

With the plea from these different groups to help get rid of Amin, Mwalimu Nyerere agreed on Phase Two of the war which was to go up to Masaka and Mbarara.

The Ugandan groups in exile that had pleaded with Nyerere were to be responsible for the fighting once the two towns had fallen.

The capture of the two towns was aimed at two things: one was to gauge Amin’s actions and the other was to destroy and do as much damage to the towns of Mbarara and Masaka as Ugandan troops had done to Kagera Salient, when Amin invaded it.

When my brigade reached there, we really did some destruction. While in Masaka the buildings that were missed by the artillery were destroyed by other explosives when the TPDF got there.

It is difficult to say whether the FRONASA boys led by Museveni were good or not because we had to build a big force.

To do that on the side of TPDF we had to use the people we called Mgambo.

These people had been trained to defend our country and when the need arose to fight, they were called upon.  We also had people from the National Service; they were joined by a team from the police and the prisons in the war against Amin.


While heading to Mbarara, we knew of the Simba Unit, but we didn’t know there was a river passing nearby the town.

Our plan was to encircle Mbarara, then a member of FRONASA told us there was a river and we could not encircle the town.

It was decided we enter the town across the bridge but it had to be secured first before the rest of the troops crossed over.

Fortunately, the bridge was not defended by Amin’s men.  We crossed over easily, entered Mbarara and then spread in different places in the town.

We thought the Simba Battalion had run away.

The Brigade Commander Mayunga and I were watching from a distance as our troops marched into Mbarara town.

From our vantage point, Mayunga, using his binoculars, saw Ugandan soldiers running away from the barracks.

Three days after taking over Mbarara we got more troops and our battalion was rearranged for the mission ahead.

When troops in Masaka started moving to Kampala, we also started moving towards Kasese and later Fort Portal, leaving one battalion behind to guard Mbarara.

While in Kasese, I was posted to the Division head office in Masaka as the Staff Officer replacing Col Kitete who had been appointed to head another newly created brigade.  At the Division headquarters, I was reporting to Msuguri. I would prepare orders for Msuguri to give to the brigade commanders from our military headquarters in Masaka.

When Entebbe fell, the headquarters moved there and that’s where we were based throughout the time TPDF was in Uganda.

We were not housed within State House.

Most of the orders, while we were in Entebbe, were based on the intelligence information we would get through reconnaissance (scouting or exploring- especially to gain information about an enemy or potential enemy).

The other source of intelligence was the local people. They were fed up with Amin. The war should have ended in Masaka and Mbarara.

However, two incidents prompted Phase Three of the war. One was Amin’s remarks when he promised to retaliate on the people of Masaka and Mbarara for having supported the Tanzanians.

“You the people of Masaka and Mbarara have supported the Tanzanians, when they go back you will see,” Amin said.

Mwalimu Nyerere found himself in a tricky position that Amin was threatening to deal with local people and he knew the threats meant killing them.

The other idea of stopping in Masaka was because Mwalimu wanted to talk to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to convince them to condemn Amin for having invaded Tanzania.

But the OAU didn’t do so, as some member countries had their own issues with Tanzania.

The other cause for the push which annoyed Mwalimu most was when former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said: “Mwalimu, if you don’t remove your forces, I am coming in to help Amin.”

The threats from Libya, the pressure from the Ugandan exiles in Tanzania and other parts of the world, prompted Mwalimu not to back off but continue with the war. Phase Three of the war was to go up to Mpigi and leave the Ugandans to take over Kampala.

Before taking over Kampala, there was the Moshi Conference in Tanzania and they formed a government to come and take over after the fall of Amin.

When Mwalimu asked the Ugandan forces to take over Kampala, they pleaded with Mwalimu to finish up the job as they didn’t have the capacity.

Ugandan troops had tanks supplied by Russians who also supported them. On our side, we used the BM-21 rocket launchers (saba saba) to terrorise Amin’s men.

 Don’t miss the third part of our enthralling series on the Kagera War in The Citizen tomorrow