Preservation vs control: Why the NRA beat Obote at every turn

Saturday March 21 2020

NRA guerilla Jet Mwebaze bumps into an old man on an overgrown path in Luwero in July 1984. PHOTO | WILLIAM PIKE


A soldier collected me in the morning and we walked a quarter of mile through the long grass to a knot of thorn trees under which a field radio powered by car batteries had been set up.

After a short wait, we walked about 100 yards through the grass to the clump of thorn trees and scrub which sheltered Museveni’s hut.

The Chairman of the NRA High Command and Vice-chairman of the NRM was sitting on a small wooden folding chair on some beaten ground outside his hut.

He stood up and we shook hands. He was wearing faded UNLA camouflage fatigues, presumably captured, over a white tee-shirt. He looked relaxed and was fatter than the skinny firebrand I had seen in photos from 1980.

I sat down on a bench, fished out my tape recorder and started to fire off questions but he interrupted me.

“Tell me about yourself first”.


So I explained that I was the son of a colonial officer and that I had been born in Tanganyika, that I was working on ‘South’ magazine, that I was a friend of Ben Matogo and Eriya Kategaya, that I was very concerned by the impoverishment of Africa, that I was writing the story for the ‘Observer.’

We talked that whole day, occasionally shifting our seats to avoid the harsh African sun as it traversed the sky. I took a series of photographs that have been frequently reproduced in Uganda and across the world.


NRA guerillas rest in a matoke plantation near Semuto in July 1984. PHOTO | WILLIAM PIKE

In front of his grass hut or poring over a map, he looked every inch the guerilla leader. But what made the photographs remarkable was the faraway look in his eyes as he spoke, the look of a dreamer, a revolutionary.

“If we were fighting without caring about supplies, Obote would last just four weeks,” Museveni confidently told me.

“Of course we are equal to the UNLA. Their 39,000 soldiers are just mere figures. They do not represent any operational capacity”.

“Even if they are well-trained, soldiers will desert if you keep on bringing them in to be slaughtered in stupid offensives. Obote’s offensives are stupid because they cannot find us because of the terrain and the support of the population”.

He would not specify the strength of the NRA except to say “We have thousands of soldiers, some of them armed, some of them unarmed”.

He added “We can now deploy a brigade that would have five or six battalions of 500 men in our attacks. On 20 February, 1,500 men attacked Masindi town. That was our largest deployment so far. The equipment we captured in the police barracks was taken 30 miles by lorry towards the River Kafu in Hoima district and we had to bring in another 1,000 men to carry it out. So in the end 2,500 men were involved”.

“Masindi was a big barracks, almost like a small town. It is also an administrative centre. They thought we did not have the capacity to penetrate that far undetected. The 15th battalion of the UNLA, an artillery regiment with North Korean field pieces and Tanzanian instructors were there. So when we took Masindi, that did represent an advanced level of organisational capacity”.

After leaving the bush, I estimated in newspaper articles that the NRA had approximately 6,000 men, of whom about half were unarmed, based on what I heard the soldiers saying about other camps including the army headquarters and the Training Wing which were further north in the savannah. The assessment was accurate, I was later told.

There was definitely a shortage of weapons. At one point on our march north, Kale (Kayihura), who had nasty blisters because of his cheap canvas basketball boots, begged a soldier loaded with my luggage to let him carry his AK-47 for the next stage of the journey.

The soldier refused despite an AK-47 with an extra magazine weighing over five kilos. Luckily for his self-esteem, Kale found a gun to carry on the return journey.

Museveni said that the NRA’s operational zone covered 7,000 square miles including the whole of Luwero and Mubende districts, substantial parts of Mpigi and Mukono districts with occasional forays into Masindi and Hoima districts.

“Of course 7,000 out of 93,000 square miles is less than 10 per cent of the country. But so what?” he asked.

“We want territory for the purpose of having an internal base. When we were fighting Idi Amin, we had a bad experience of depending on outside bases (in Tanzania).

If you have to depend on a foreign country, even if it is friendly, you are hostage to that government”.

“What is essential in military terms is not control of territory, at least for a liberation army. What is crucial is preservation. If a liberation army succeeds in preserving itself and in dismantling enemy’s strength by killing troops and capturing equipment, by destroying his political image and disrupting his diplomacy, then that army is winning. So control of territory is secondary. It will only be a factor at the end of the war when we want to take over the whole country”.

Museveni’s analysis conflicted sharply with the Obote government’s dismissal of the NRA as “bandits”, an assessment publicly seconded by the British government and various other bodies.

Museveni was more phlegmatic about such misrepresentation than his soldiers who in camp fire conversation seemed hurt by the world’s ignorance of their struggle.

“We have no front line. This is deliberate. If the enemy advances, we retreat, encircle him or go behind him. That is why outsiders have been misassessing the situation”, said Museveni.

“Obote can go wherever he wants. The important thing is to preserve our troops and hit the enemy when we want to and leave him when we don’t want to”.

Museveni claimed that since January 1983, when the government offensives in Luwero started in earnest, that 1,500 UNLA soldiers had been killed.

He said that since the war started, 70 companies of the UNLA had been routed, annihilated or caused to mutiny. The NRA had lost less than 100 men since the war started in February 1981.”


Children stand next to skulls in a makeshift memorial in Luwero in February 1986. PHOTO | WILLIAM PIKE

“Obote lies that the guerillas are finished”, said Museveni. “The first strategy was encirclement, to try and starve us. This was mainly last year. He deployed 80 per cent of the UNLA around this zone.”

“There was a detachment every four miles on every road and every road crossing. The attack on Masindi was to defeat that strategy and to show him that what he was doing had failed. Then they turned to ‘search and destroy`, hunting for our camps and attacking them. But still we wiped them out”.

Museveni said the NRA was organised around zonal units which could cover several sub-counties and there were also mobile units, apart from the Mobile Brigade, which could mount independent attacks.

“I don’t know when I was born. My father could not write or read. It must have been about 1944. I was born in Ankole about 40 miles from Mbarara”, Museveni told me.

He said he was the eldest child and that he had a brother and a sister. His father also had seven children by another wife. (Museveni’s name was a derivation of ‘seven’ since he was born as many Ugandans returned from serving in the 7th battalion of the Kings African Rifles).

Museveni dismissed rumours that he was from the royal family. Ankole was divided into two castes, the Bahima or cattle-keepers and the Bairu or cultivators.

These castes were both commoners while the ruling or chiefly class were called Bahinda in north Ankole and Bashamba in south Ankole. The Bahima had a higher status than the Bairu but “a chief would be insulted to be called a Muhima”.

He said his father was a Muhima or a commoner but his mother came from one of the chiefly families.

“It is ignorance to say I am an aristocrat”.

He also explained that the Bahima had prospered after the murder by local noblemen in 1905 of Harry St George Galt, the Provincial Commissioner of Western Uganda.

“As a punishment, the British decided to break the power of the chiefs. One of the measures they took was to deprive them of their power over cattle. Until then Bahima could only have cattle at the sufferance of the chief. From 1905, the chiefs had no right to take cattle from the commoner and the Bahima started owning cattle and property”, Museveni said.

“After that reform, my family became prosperous. They had a very large hut. When my direct grandfather died in 1943 or 1944, he had 200 cattle but my senior grandfather had 700 cattle”, he said.

“My social background is that my father was a middle peasant and my grandfather was a rich peasant”.

Museveni’s parents were balokole, or revivalist Christians. The sober character and emphasis on literacy of ‘the saved ones’ led many of them to prosper in business and other spheres in the 1950s.

They emphasised the need to educate and impart moral values to their children. It is interesting to note that having parents who were balokole was the nearest thing to a common denominator among the leaders of the NRA in the bush days. Kategaya, Tumwine, Kazzora, Chefe Ali, all fell into this category.

“In 1947, my father decided to become a Christian and stop being an animist. He and his wife were baptised”, said Museveni.

“Christianity was a modernising influence and after baptism, they learned to read and write, mainly to read the Bible”.

“They said the main Christian church (the Anglican Church of Uganda) was no longer holy enough. It has been infiltrated by drinking, decadence and corruption”.

The balokole were a modernising force which attacked backward customs, such as the sharing of women.

“People embraced the religion because it preached against communalisation (of women)”, said Museveni.

“Although they were talking of God, they were mainly serving their own interests”, he said, recognising that as a class they were often upwardly mobile.

“This balokole suited my temperament. I am serious and disciplined”, said Museveni.

“I am still holyish but doctrinally I am sceptical. I still have the discipline of Christians, not drinking and smoking. I am a teetotaller”.

He also said he did not like dancing.

'Combatants - A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda' by William Pike, is available at Bookstop Yaya Centre, Prestige Bookshop in CBD and Village Bookshop in Village Market, plus Aristoc and Entebbe Airport Bookshop in Uganda'.