On July 27, 1985, Uganda’s president Milton Obote was ousted in a coup for the second, having been overthrown for the first time in 1971 by then army commander Maj Gen Idi Amin.
Obote was ousted in 1985 by soldiers who made then army commander, Lt Gen Tito Okello Lutwa, president.
Why Obote was overthrown
Nepotism bred factions in the army between the Acholi and Langi, both ethnic groups from northern Uganda. While majority of the soldiers of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) were from Acholi, key positions went to the Langi, president Obote’s tribe, although army chief Lt Gen Tito Okello Lutwa was an Acholi.
But by the end of 1984, the rift between the two factions had widened beyond fixing. In early July 1985, Obote called a Defence Council meeting to find a lasting solution to the rift between the Acholi and Langi soldiers.
In the meeting, Col Zed Maruru proposed that the UPC government dialogues with the National Resistance Rebels (NRA) rebels led by Yoweri Museveni to stop war raging in Luweero.
This angered the Acholi officers as well as the commander-in-chief, Obote. The meeting intended to unite the two factions ended up tearing them apart further, with the anti-dialogue group branding the pro-dialogue group as enemies of the government.
Because of the fear of an impending coup, it was decided in the meeting, that some military equipment be transferred away from army barracks in and around Kampala whose commanding officers were suspected to be “enemies”, beginning with Mbuya Barracks. This was done without the knowledge of the army chief, Lt Gen Lutwa.
On Sunday, July 7, 1985, Gen Lutwa ordered the Chief of Staff, Brig Smith Opon Acak, to return all the military equipment he had taken from Mbuya back to the barracks.
Opon Acak, with the backing of minister of State for Defence Peter Otai, minister of State for Internal Affairs Col Omaria, commanding officer of the 50th Brigade in Bombo, Lt Col John Ogole, and Maj Olwor, the commanding officer of the 9th Battalion in Makindye, as well as commanding officer of the Police Special Force, Ahamed Olweny, defied the army chief’s order.
War in the barracks
At around 3am on Monday, July 8, fighting erupted between Acholi-led soldiers from Makindye barracks and Langi soldiers at Mbuya Barracks in Kampala. The attackers, (Acholis) were, however, defeated and retreated back to Makindye.
A week later on the night of Sunday, July 14, 1985, the second in command of the 50th Brigade in Bombo, Maj Eric Odua, an Acholi, having known that his commander in Bombo, Lt Col Ogole, a Langi, had participated in the Mbuya battle, commanded a fight against Ogole in Bombo but was overpowered and Odua fled to Gulu, his home area. When the news of the fighting in Bombo reached the general headquarters in Mbuya, fighting between Acholi and Langi soldiers erupted, leaving many causalities on both sides.
During the fights, the home of the Mechanized Unit commander in Mbuya, Capt Ocero Nangai, was shelled. Capt Ocero was lucky to escape. He fled to his home area in Gulu and joined the anti-Obote forces that were reorganising in Gulu Barracks.
Fighting between the Acholi and Langi soldiers spread to Katabi Barracks in Entebbe and Makindye in Kampala. On July 16, after a brief fighting at Katabi Barracks, the home of Maj Obonyo, the commanding officer of the 6th Battalion in Entebbe, was bombed by the Police Special Force.
Maj Obonyo and other Acholi soldiers fled the barracks to Entebbe Military Airbase, escaped to Gulu in a military helicopter and also joined the Acholi anti-Obote forces commanded by Brig Bazilio Olara Okello.
On July 17, the army chief, Lt Gen Lutwa, left Kampala for Gulu, ostensibly on an inspection tour of the barracks. When Lutwa and Bazilio met in Gulu, the two generals agreed to fight what they termed as the UPC, Langi government of Obote.
On Thursday, July 18, 1985, president Obote chaired another Defence Council meeting to try and extinguish the fire. But it was too late.
None of the Acholi officers attended the meeting.
Brig Bazilio dismissed from army
During the meeting, it was resolved that Brig Bazilio Olara Okello, the commanding officer of the 10 the Brigade in northern Uganda, and Col Zed Maruru be dismissed from the army with disgrace.
The dismissal message to Bazilio was like slapping an already angry man. On July 23, 1985, Brig Bazilio Olara Okello led his anti-Obote forces and overran the UNLA forces stationed at Karuma Bridge and sealed off the whole of northern Uganda.
Earlier, forces under Bazilio had overrun the UNLA Artillery Unit at Aloi in Lira, Obote’s home district. After the Karuma battle, Bazilio’s forces joined with those in Masindi Barracks and having got in contact with Museveni’s NRA rebels, moved through the rebel territory in Luweero and headed for Bombo Barracks where they expected a fierce battle. But there was none.
Worthy of note was that the NRA rebels had had a gentleman’s agreement with the Bazilio-Lutwa forces to stop at Bombo, pending Museveni’s from Sweden where he had been so that the two forces could confront the Obote forces and march to Kampala to together.
Because of intrigue, Bazilio and Lutwa decided to dishonour the agreement and moved to Kampala, which angered the NRA rebels.
Prisoners taken to frontline
Meanwhile, after Obote realised that Bazilio and Lutwa were determined to finish him off, he mobilised for war, but he had no strong and loyal army to depend on.
On July 20, UNLA Langi soldiers who had been imprisoned at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison in Kampala were set free. They were armed and sent out to fight the rebelling Acholi soldiers.
The first to be released was Capt Ageta, who together with the officer in-charge of Upper Prison, screened prisoners to be set free.
Among the released prisoners included those accused of murder such as 2nd Lt Agaba who in 1980 commanded the Ombaci massacre in West Nile, 2nd Lt Peter Mugasha who in February 1981 bombed Museveni’s home in Makindye, and 2nd Lt Mokiri. In the meantime, Obote sent for political and military assistance from his friend, Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere.
On Thursday July 25, Obote sent a delegation to Tanzania led by prime minister Eric Otema Allimadi to convince Nyerere to come to his rescue.
Also on July 25 and 26, Brig Opon Acak and Lt Col Ogole tried to command the remaining loyal forces onto the two Bombo and Tororo front lines in vain.
Reports indicate that on the night of Friday, July 25, Opon Acak informed Obote that the forces he sent to attack forces advancing from Tororo had instead joined the enemy and were now moving towards Jinja.
It is said he advised Obote to escape to exile. Still arguing and contemplating what to do, Opon Acak bundled Obote onto a Mercedes-Benz and the presidential convoy headed for the Busia border town.
On the night of Friday, July 26, the Bazilio-Lutwa forces overran Bombo Barracks and early on Saturday morning, the forces loyal to then overrun Tororo Barracks and advanced towards Jinja in eastern Uganda.
At around 10am, they captured the Owen Falls Dam at Jinja. And it was at the Jinja bridge that the Bazilio-Lutwa forces captured Chris Rwakasisi trying to escape to Kenya.
On Saturday, July 27, 1985 at 11.28am the army chief, Lt Gen Tito Okello Lutwa, on Radio Uganda announced that the UNLA led by Brig Bazilio Olara Okello had toppled Obote’s government.
The new president, Gen Tito Okello Lutwa, said the action was taken in order to restore security, peace and reconciliation as well as to revamp the economy.
Attendence of final meeting
Officers who attended the meeting included, chief of staff, Brig Smith Opon Acak, Brig David Ogwang, UNLA financial controller, Col Oketcho, chief of personnel and administration, Lt Col John Ogole, commanding officer of the 50th Brigade, Bombo, Maj Olwor, commanding officer 9th Battalion, Capt Ocheng, commander Military Police, Capt Terensio Okello, director of finance, Capt Odur, records director, Capt Mukasa, adjutant Mbuya Military Barracks, Maj Nyakairu and Maj Mukasa of the Air force.
Ministers who attended what came to be the last regime meeting were: Chris Rwakasisi, minister of State in the office of the President, prime minister Eric Otema Allimadi, minister of State for Defence Peter Otai and minister of Labour Anthony Butele.