He recruited Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema (RIP) into the bush war and survived Idi Amin’s 1974 public executions of captured rebels. In this eleventh part of our continuing series of Bush War Memories to mark this year’s heroes day, R0 014 Col. Kahinda Otafiire, chief political commissar throughout the five-year bush war and current minister of lands, water and the environment, recounts to William Tayeebwa the role he played to rally the population to support the liberation struggle
Sometime in 1972, when I was in my first year at Makerere University, a group of ex-students at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania including Yoweri Museveni, Mwesigwa Black and others contacted us.
I remember that the late Kisimba Matsiko, who was president of the National Union of Students of Uganda (NUSU), initiated me into student activism. Our mission was to fight Idi Amin. Mind you, Amin had actually not done anything bad to me personally. But as a student activist, I just did not like him. The fellow was so bad that he left you no option not to hate him.
His functionaries were arresting people, throwing them in car boots, people were disappearing and the economy was in shambles with no sugar, nothing at all. Besides, the man’s way of doing things was tomfoolery and he was such a buffoon. There was no government—just a bunch of buffoons marauding around.
Working with Museveni
Actually, nobody recruited me into the struggle against Idi Amin. I did not have to be recruited. I was a student political activist all along and we were excited about democracy, freedom and equality. We read books and got all these ideas.
My first contact with Yoweri Museveni was when he was working in president’s office in the early 1970s because he used to come around. At the time he was preparing to run against John Babiiha in Ankole, we used to listen to his speeches.
Later, I was to work more closely with him when he had gone into exile in Tanzania. I started recruiting people for FRONASA (Front for National Salvation) between 1974-76. I am therefore one of the founding fathers of FRONASA.
However, between 1974-75, FRONASA run into difficulties when our comrades were executed publicly in several towns in the country. I used to go to Tanzania as someone who was participating in the war, but I was based mainly here in Uganda.
In 1976, we reorganised. I was elected to the national executive of FRONASA as treasurer and we spent the whole of 1976 and 1977 re-organising and recruiting from all over the country. That is how I ended up recruiting the late Fred Rwigyema, Ivan Koreta (Maj. Gen) and many others. I did not go into exile, but remained here doing coordination work, which was basically intelligence work until the war of liberation in 1978-79.
After the war, I joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Beijing, China as second secretary. But the way the politics were going here, we could see that we were headed for a second confrontation.
In July 1980, I quit Beijing to come and participate in the elections, which were scheduled for September 1980. They did not take place as earlier planned and instead took place in December 1980.
Of course Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) rigged and so we decided to re-launch the struggle. We decided to fight the government of the day because we did not feel that the problems of Uganda were being addressed. Yes, Amin had gone, but the situation was not different. Clearly, the question of democratisation, of security for people and property and many other issues were not addressed. We could see that we were in the same circus as before. We therefore decided to embark on an armed struggle again.
To the bush
I personally did not join the bush war until June 1981. In January1981, I had been sent to do some mobilisation work in the southwestern region.
While I was busy mobilising, the Obote forces tried to arrest me and I went underground for three months from March until I linked up with bush war colleagues at the end of May and then joined them in Matugga in June 1981. I joined when they were a small group.
Coping was not a problem because I had done some bit of training and when I joined, I embarked on further military training. Then, at the end of July 1981, I was appointed the chief political commissar for the army.
My job was teaching political education, army discipline and then mobilisation of the population. Later on, I was appointed NPC (National Political Commissar.)
Creation of RCs
As NPC, my job involved a combination of responsibilities dealing with the army and then the population as a whole. As a method of having the population participate more actively in their self-governance and to actively participate in the war effort, we organised the population in the liberated territories into RCs.
The genesis of the RC system was actually the war. The system’s key objective was to mobilise the population to support our cause, co-operate with the army and actively participate in protecting the population.
Organising peasants was not difficult because (as you may know) they may not be educated, but they are not stupid. When you explain and remind them about their interests, they will fight for them.
The majority of the population actually appreciated our role because they were tired of bad governance, undisciplined armies and so on. From our conduct of the war and our politics, the population saw hope for the future and anticipated the redemption of their country.
They quickly realised that our army was exemplary, while our politics and our line of argument were correct. We stood for national unity, for democracy, for equality and we were for justice for all. You find all the principles we fought for contained in our ten-point programme. But I must emphasise that the discipline of our army set us apart. Ugandans had never seen such a situation where armed people did not have rights to anything. I consider the discipline of our army to have been the linchpin of the struggle.
As the war progressed, we always made it clear to the population that our war was not a partisan one. It was for everybody. We had all political opinions participating in the war. Therefore, we had to adopt a minimum programme, which rallied everybody.
Since we were multi-ideological, we wanted a minimum programme for the restoration of peace in the country. We therefore came up with a programme on which everybody was agreed. Everybody agreed that we needed democracy, security, national independence, a good national economy, redress of previous mistakes and so on.
These are the general issues on which we were all agreed and they formed the ten-point programme. As NPC and a member of the high command, I was part of the process to form the ten-point programme. I, however, cannot put a date when it was formed because it was a result of a series of meetings throughout our stay in the struggle.
Our political and military leadership used to sit together regularly to think out these issues, write them down and review them. By the end of the liberation struggle, we had eventually come up with our minimum programme.
But in every struggle, you always get some problems with people who get discouraged and always see dark clouds hanging over their heads.
One would be foolish not to anticipate such a situation. We had ups and downs with some people turning against us and others giving up, but it was anticipated and we knew how to deal with it.
At times when things got difficult getting food, I would also act as the quartermaster general. This was a difficult task particularly around 1983 when we hardly had any food.
During the first phase of the struggle, we had no problem with food because the area we were operating in was richly endowed. It was not until about 1983 when we retreated from he heavily populated areas of Bulemezi into Singo and Ngoma that we started depending on only meat.
For several soldiers, meat alone without starch was quite difficult to accommodate. Some of our people fell sick and died because of lack of carbohydrates. It was such a tough endeavour to get them cassava, potatoes and other carbohydrate foods.
This meant that sometimes, we had to make incursions into enemy territory. Otherwise, the rest of us were depending on meat. The situation lasted for about nine months. After that, things changed and then we started gaining the upper hand in the war.
For the most part of 1984, we concentrated on training and consolidating our held positions. Then in April 1985, we decided to open up the western front. We divided the army into the mobile brigade under Salim Saleh and the western axis under Fred Rwigyema. At this time, I was still national political commissar and a senior member of the high command.
But before we opened the western front, we had a battle at a place called Kembogo in Singo, Luwero district in June 1985. About 78% of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) participated in that battle. We defeated them and they dispersed. From what happened during that battle, I could easily discern that we had won the war. The UNLA army was badly dispersed and I knew there was nothing else they could do. During that battle, the commander actually surrendered. We had won many battles before, but after this particular one, I knew that was the end of the war.
In fact, I remember telling Generals Saleh and Rwigyema after that battle that the next thing we were going to hear would be a coup d’etat against Milton Obote. Indeed in July 1985, Obote was overthrown by his Generals Bazilio Olara Okello and Tito Okello Lutwa.
By the time Obote was overthrown, we had taken almost all the western region. After the Kembogo battle, there was a rebellion within the UNLA.
It is after that decisive battle that we decided to reinforce the Western front under Rwigyema. As they moved towards the Rwenzoris, I stayed behind in the mobile brigade commanded by Salim Saleh.
Thereafter, what followed were the failed peace talks in Nairobi. We could see the peace talks not withstanding the test of time because clearly, Tito Okello was not in charge. The rogue elements of the UNLA were still in charge of the army and Extra-judicial killings were still going on.
So, it did not make sense to us to participate in the regime of the day. We therefore decided to terminate the life of the government in January 1986. As we advanced to the western and central region, my job was to ensure the smooth administration of more than half the country’s territory under our control.
I also served as some kind of foreign affairs minister organising with the Kigali government to ensure that they gave our people safe passage because that was the only exit route out of the country.
This was quite difficult because there were no telephones. President Juvenile Habyarimana was not friendly to us either, but he had nothing to do because we had cut off his supply route when we blocked Katonga.
It was in his interest to work with us so that Katonga reopens sooner. He was also clever enough to realise that we were going to seize power and would be the next government.
We fought many tough battles. I cannot underrate any armed engagement. Every battle has its dangerous moments. What you may call light is what turns out to be most dangerous.
What you call heavy is when most people survive. Whichever battle we fought, some people would die on either side and all these were Ugandans.
In a civil war, there can’t be moments of triumph because you are killing your own people. Those who are killed are Ugandans. Yes, you have won because you were fighting for ideas, but the people you have killed are your own who were also fighting for their ideas. Those who died during the 1981-86 bush war were Ugandans being used by bad ideas. If there were a way of avoiding killing or hurting them, then that would have been the most welcome thing to do. So, I have never glorified killing people because all these were Ugandans pursuing bad ideas.
I always had hope. There was no time when I felt discouraged. There was a time especially when we had no food and we would see soldiers starving because they could not handle meat, then I would feel sad.
I, however, knew we were going to win. All the problems we faced were issues incidental to any war. Normally when you struggle, you aim for certain objectives. If you achieve seven out of ten objectives, then you will have done very well because very few people achieve that. The situation never remains static. As you struggle to achieve your objectives, there are changes in the world, which alter your programme.
Certain objectives become unachievable because of changing circumstances. So, we have achieved quite a lot of what we had intended. But at the same time, there are certain things we have not achieved because of extenuating circumstances. We expected to make money out of coffee, but international prices went down. We expected to provide free secondary school education and the prices of fuel went up.
There are things we have achieved which are irreversible, but there are other things that we wanted to achieve and could not. That is normal.
Our greatest achievement is security and freedom to air out views, opinions and to participate in democracy. Yes, the northern conflict is still going on, but it is there not because of government but due to banditry. There is no war in northern Uganda. You do not fight government by killing unarmed people in displaced camps.
To wage a war, you have to fight what we call the legitimate targets, which are the machinery of the government, notably the army. You don’t kill people in camps who have nothing to do with the government. That is not a war but banditry which is a criminal activity. War is not about attacking children, women and sick people in villages and displaced camps. That is criminal activity.
There is also freedom to air out views and opinions and participate in democratic elections. I have heard people accusing this government of harassing the opposition.
It is not, and it has never been, government policy to beat up opposition members. If you get fellows in an encounter and they fight, you can’t blame government.
For instance, if we wanted to beat up Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (pafo) members in Jinja, we would have used the arms of government, which is the police or the army.
But here you had some excited fellows who support the Movement and others who support pafo who engaged in some unlawful activity. You can’t say that was government. If we used the coercive arms of government, then you would be justified to say pafo was beaten. But if you find pro-Museveni and anti-Museveni fellows fighting, then all of them are actually breaking the law and they should all be arrested.
I call upon those who are coming after us to better keep up the struggle. We struggled for ideas and we have not reached perfection. I implore the young people coming after us to carefully study our ideals, understand them and keep up the struggle.