Everything You Need to Know – Uganda–Tanzania War (Kagera War)

Everything You Need to Know – Uganda–Tanzania War (The Kagera War)

The Uganda-Tanzania War, known as the 1979 Liberation War in Uganda and the Kagera War in Tanzania, was fought between Tanzania and Uganda. The war broke out in October 1978 and ended in June 1979. The Kagera War led to the ouster of President Idi Amin of Uganda. A breakdown of relations between Uganda and Tanzania preceded the war. The breakdown came after Idi Amin overthrew President Milton Obote, an ally of the Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere. In the years that followed, economic problems, displeasure in the Ugandan Army and violent purges destabilised Amin’s regime.

The events surrounding the breakout of the Kagera War are unclear, and there are various accounts of the events. Ugandan forces started penetrating Tanzania in October 1978. The Ugandan Army started an invasion later that month, killing civilians and looting properties. Ugandan official media announced the takeover of the Kagera Salient. On November 2, President Nyerere declared war on Uganda and mobilised the Tanzania People’s Defence Force (TPDF) to take back the salient. He also mobilized Ugandan rebels faithful to Yoweri Museveni and Obote to cripple Idi Amin’s regime. After Amin refused to relinquish his claims to Kagera and the OAU failed to denounce the Ugandan invasion, the Tanzania People’s Defence Force occupied the towns of Mbarara and Masaka in southern Uganda.

While the TPDF made plans to clear the way to the Ugandan capital of Kampala, Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya and Amin’s ally, sent several thousand soldiers to Uganda to aid the Ugandan Army. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) also sent several fighters to help Amin. In March, the biggest battle of the Kagera War took place when the Ugandan rebels and Tanzanians defeated a joint Ugandan-Palestinian-Libyan force at Lukaya. The defeat at Lukaya led the Ugandan Army to start to crumble. Nyerere felt the Ugandan rebels needed time to organise their own government to succeed Idi Amin. Later that month, he sponsored a conference of exiles and rebels in Moshi, where the Ugandan National Liberation Front (UNLF) was established. Libya’s intervention ended in April with its troops fleeing the country. On April 10, a joint UNLF-TPDF force invaded Kampala and secured it the next day. Idi Amin fled the country while a UNLF government was created. In the months that followed, the TPDF occupied Uganda, facing only scattered opposition. TPDF captured the Ugandan-Sudan border in June to end the Kagera War.

The Kagera War seriously harmed Tanzania’s weak economy and wreaked long-lasting damage to Kagera. The Kagera War also had adverse economic effects in Uganda and brought about a wave of political violence and crime as the UNLF government tried to maintain order. Political conflicts, as well as the tenacity of the remnants of the Ugandan Army in the border areas, eventually led to the eruption of the Ugandan Bush War in 1980.

Background of the Kagera War

Deterioration of Tanzanian-Ugandan Relations

Idi Amin inspecting one of the bazookas while his military commanders are watching him
Idi Amin inspecting one of the bazookas while his military commanders are watching him

Colonel Idi Amin took power in 1971 following a military coup d’etat that ousted President Milton Obote of Uganda, bringing about a deterioration of relations with neighbouring Tanzania. Idi Amin made himself President of Uganda and governed the nation under a despotic dictatorship. President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania had close ties with the ousted Milton Obote and had backed his socialist philosophy. Julius Nyerere did not accord the new government diplomatic recognition and offered asylum to Milton Obote and his loyalists. As Idi Amin began large-scale extermination of his adversaries in Uganda, which led to the death of 30,000 to 50,000 Ugandans, thousands of other dissidents and opposition figures soon joined Obote. With Nyerere’s approval, these Ugandan exiles organized a small army of insurgents that made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Uganda and oust Amin in 1972. Idi Amin criticized President Nyerere for supporting and arming his foes and exacted retribution by blowing up Tanzanian border towns. Although Nyerere’s commanders advised him to retaliate, Nyerere agreed to mediation overseen by President Siad Barre of Somalia that culminated in the signing of the Mogadishu Agreement. The agreement specified that Tanzanian and Ugandan forces had to retreat to positions at least 6.2 miles (10 kilometres) away from the border and desist from backing opposition forces that targeted either government.

Nonetheless, relations remained tense between the two presidents. Nyerere regularly criticized Idi Amin’s government, and Amin made continuous threats to invade Tanzania. During the same period, relations between Kenya and Tanzania turned sour, and the East African Community eventually collapsed in 1977. Uganda also contested its boundary with Tanzania, asserting that the Kagera Salient—a 1,900km2 (720 sq mi) stretch of land between the official boundary and the Kagera River 29 km (18 miles) to the south—should be under its control, stressing that the river was a more logical boundary. German and British colonial officers had originally negotiated the border before World War I.

Instability in Uganda

In the meantime, in Uganda, Idi Amin declared an ‘Economic War’ that saw the expulsion of thousands of the Asian minority living in Uganda in 1972 and their ventures placed under the management of Africans. The consequences of the reform were disastrous for Uganda’s economy. A US boycott of Ugandan coffee because of the government’s nonobservance of human rights further exacerbated the situation. At the same time, Idi Amin bolstered the power of the military in his government by placing many soldiers in his cabinet and providing patronage to those loyal to him. Moslem northerners, especially those of Sudanese and Nubian extract, benefited most from his actions as they were increasingly enlisted into the army. Idi Amin forcibly removed southern ethnic nationalities from the armed forces and killed political opponents. In the years that followed, he survived many assassination attempts, which made him increasingly mistrustful and regularly purged the senior ranks of the Ugandan armed forces.

In 1977, a division in the Ugandan Army developed between Amin’s supporters and soldiers loyal to Vice-President Mustafa Adrisi, who wielded significant power in the government and wanted to throw foreigners out of the military. Adrisi sustained severe injuries in a questionable car accident in April 1978. Amin stripped Adrisi of his ministerial positions when he was flown out of the country for treatment. Amin also announced the arrest of many police officials, and during the month that followed, he dismissed many military officers and ministers. The overhaul weakened Amin’s already slim power base in the military. The military was also getting weaker due to the situation of the economy, which stopped patronage opportunities. Fearing for his safety and having less confidence in his influential abilities to quell the growing tension, Idi Amin started to withdraw from the public sphere and made fewer visits with his troops. Around that same time, he started accusing Tanzania of violating his country’s border.

The course of the Kagera War

The Outbreak of the Conflict

Milton Obote
Milton Obote

Kagera War started between Tanzania and Uganda in October 1978, with many Ugandan assaults across the border leading to the invasion of the Kagera Salient. The events surrounding the breakout of the war are unclear, and there are various accounts of the events. According to Milton Obote, the decision to attack Kagera was a dire measure to free Amin of the consequences of the failure of his plots against his own army. Many soldiers of the Ugandan army blamed Lt. Col. Juma Butabika for starting the war. Colonel Abdu Kisuule also accused Butabika of concocting an incident at the border to have an excuse for attacking Tanzania. According to Idi Amin’s son, Jaffar Remo, whispers of a potential Tanzanian invasion made members of the Ugandan high command sanction a pre-emptive attack on Tanzania. The Tanzanian armed forces later contended that Amin’s ultimate goal was to take over a large chunk of northern Tanzania, including Tanga city, to have access to the sea for the purpose of trading. Ugandan reporter Faustin Mugabe did not find any evidence to back this theory in Ugandan sources.

Many other officers of the Ugandan army offered more ordinary explanations for the Kagera War, which claimed that isolated clashes along the border culminated in a series of violence that led to open warfare. A few incidents pinpointed as probable start points of the conflict are cases of tribal tensions, cattle rustling, a bar brawl between a Ugandan military officer and Tanzanian soldiers or civilians, as well as a fight between a Tanzanian woman and a Ugandan woman in a market. Many Ugandan soldiers who affirmed the bar brawl theory differed on the exact circumstances of the confrontation but agreed that the incident happened on October 9 on the premises of a Tanzanian business. They also agreed that after Butabika was told about the brawl, he unilaterally commanded his unit, the Suicide Battalion, to exact revenge by attacking Tanzania. According to the soldiers, Idi Amin was not apprised of the decision until much later and only went along with it in order to save face. According to a Ugandan commander, Bernard Rwehururu, Butabika lied to Idi Amin about his reasons for launching an attack on Kagera, stating that he was repelling a Tanzanian invasion. According to two American journalists Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan, the bar incident happened on October 22, when Tanzanian soldiers shot and killed a drunk Ugandan intelligence officer after he opened fire on them. That evening, Radio Uganda announced that the Tanzanians had kidnapped a Ugandan soldier and reported that Idi Amin had threatened that “something” would be done if they failed to return the soldier.

Another theory claims the Kagera War was the result of Ugandan troops pursuing insurgents over the Tanzanian border. There are many variations of this story, which were mostly spread by non-Ugandan sources. The local managing director of Royal Dutch Shell and a Ugandan diplomat Paul Etiang reported that soldiers belonging to the Simba Battalion had shot new Sudanese draftees. When other Uganda forces were deployed to contain them, they fled over the border on October 30. Other accounts attribute the insurrections to elements of the Suicide Battalion and the Chui Battalion. Okon Eminue, a political scientist, stated that close to 200 mutineers purportedly took shelter in the Kagera salient. According to this account of events, Idi Amin ordered the Suicide Battalion and the Simba Battalion to go after the deserters, at which point they invaded Tanzania. In an interview with Drum, a Ugandan soldier alleged that the opening actions of the invasion were actually a three-way tussle between Ugandan deserters, Tanzanian border guards and soldiers of the Ugandan Army, with most of the deserters and some Tanzanians being killed. Some surviving mutineers allegedly found refuge in Tanzanian villages. This theory was discounted as being unlikely by researchers Julian Schofield and Andrew Mambo. They noted that the battalions that were said to have revolted remained relatively loyal to Idi Amin’s cause for the duration of the Kagera War. Rather, they supported the view that Lieutenant Colonel Butabika escalated a dispute at the border into an outright invasion.

The TPDF had only received very limited intelligence about a likely Ugandan invasion and was not prepared for this possibility. The Tanzanian leadership felt Idi Amin wouldn’t consider attacking Tanzania while Uganda was battling economic, military and political instability. Beyond the demilitarised area that the Mogadishu Agreement established, there were virtually no defenses. Tanzania’s relationship with Malawi, Kenya and Zaire was tense, and the 202nd Brigade located in Tabora was the only unit guarding the land along the Ugandan boundary. The understrength 3rd Battalion was located close to the frontier. In early September, the Tanzanians reported uncharacteristically large numbers of Uganda patrols close to the border—some armed with APCs—as well as a high volume of air patrol flights. By the middle of September, Ugandan aircraft began crossing into Tanzanian airspace. The local command officer told the brigade headquarters in Tabora about the activities and assured him that anti-craft guns would be sent to him. The guns were never delivered, and by October, the officer’s warnings had become more panicky.

Initial Actions Involved in the Kagera War

Ugandan forces made their initial incursion into Tanzania in the middle of the day on October 9. A motorized detachment entered Kakunyu and set two houses ablaze. Tanzanian artillery responded and destroyed an armored personnel carrier belonging to the Ugandans, killing two soldiers in the process. Ugandan artillery responded with more fire but didn’t cause any damage. Later in the evening, Radio Uganda reported that a Tanzanian invasion had been repelled. The next day, Tanzanian forests were bombed by Ugandan MiG fighters. Ugandan artillery kept on bombarding Tanzanian territory, so on October 14, the Tanzanians brought their mortars, and the Ugandans subsequently stopped firing. In the days that followed, the two sides exchanged artillery fire that gradually expanded across the entire border. Tanzanian leaders believed Idi Amin was merely making provocations. Bukoba, the capital of the West Lake Region, was bombed by Ugandan MiGs on October 18. Despite facing ineffective Tanzanian anti-aircraft fire, the bombings did not do much damage. However, the reverberations of the explosion smashed windows and caused panic among the population. As opposed to Tanzania’s silence, Radio Uganda reported what it termed a Tanzanian “invasion” of Ugandan territory with stories of fabricated battles and declared that Tanzanian troops had advanced 9.3 miles (15 kilometres) into Uganda, destroying properties and killing civilians. Amin informed residents in Mutukula that despite the “attack,” he still hoped for cordial relations with Tanzania. At the same time, the Kinyankole language broadcast of Radio Uganda—which West Lake residents followed and understood—criticised Nyerere bitterly, claiming that Tanzanians wished to fall under the jurisdiction of Ugandan to escape Nyerere’s rule. Meanwhile, Idi Amin’s regime faced increased internal strain. Several soldiers of the Masaka garrison considered disloyal were executed, rival government operatives were involved in a shootout in Kampala, and more operatives were killed while trying to arrest a former minister of finance.

Kagera Invasion

Ugandan Attack

At dawn on October 25, Tanzanian observers using a telescope observed large Ugandan vehicular activities in Mutukula. After then, Ugandan artillery opened fire while ground troops advanced. All Tanzanian troops broke ranks and ran away under fire except for a platoon that was quickly withdrawn. More than 2,000 soldiers under the command of Colonel Kisuule, Lt. Colonel Butabika and Lt. Colonel Marajani attacked Kagera. The Ugandan forces had M4A1 Sherman and T-55 tanks, OT-64 SKOT APCs, and Alvis Saladin armoured vehicles and advanced in two columns under the direct command of Butabika and Kisuule, respectively. Although they encountered little to no resistance, the terrain slowed down the Ugandan advance, as Butabika’s column got trapped in mud near Kabwebwe and had to wait for a few hours before they were able to proceed further.

The Tanzanians started monitoring Ugandan radio frequencies and were able to listen in on transmissions between Republic House (the headquarters of the Ugandan Army in Kampala) and Marajani. Marajani informed the Republic House of heavy resistance even though all TPDF operatives had left the border area. The Tanzanians set up their artillery 6.2 miles (10 kilometres) from the Ugandans and fired many shells, making them retreat across the border. Ugandan MiGs flew into Tanzanian airspace throughout the day, where they were harassed by insignificant anti-aircraft fire. Having been subdued, the Ugandans made preparations for a new attack.

On October 30, roughly 3,000 Ugandan soldiers invaded Tanzania along four routes through Mutukula, Minziro, Masanya, and Kukunga. Led by Yusuf Gowon, the Ugandan Army Chief of Staff, they were equipped with APCs and tanks. They only encountered ineffective rifle fire from a few dozen fighters of the Tanzania People’s Militia. Despite minimal resistance from Tanzanian forces, the Ugandans proceeded cautiously. Slowly, they occupied the Kagera Salient, firing shots at civilians and soldiers alike before arriving at the Kagera River and the Kyaka Bridge later in the evening. Although the withdrawal of the TPDF left the land between Bukoba and the river virtually undefended, the Ugandans halted their advance at the north end of the bridge, thus occupying the Kagera Salient. Wayward Ugandan soldiers began looting in the area. Nearly 1,500 civilians were shot and killed, with an additional 5,000 taking shelter in the bush. On November 1, Radio Uganda reported the “liberation” of the Kagera Salient and announced that the Kagera River marked the new border between Tanzania and Uganda. Amin visited the area and posed for photos with abandoned war materiel belonging to the Tanzanians. Ugandan commanders were worried that the Kyaka Bridge could be utilized in a counter-attack. Thus, they destroyed the crossing with explosive charges on November 3.


Nyerere at the war site with TPDF near the border of Tanzania and Uganda
Nyerere at the war site with TPDF near the border of Tanzania and Uganda

After preliminary reports of the October 30 attack reached Dar es Salaam, Julius Nyerere held a meeting with TPDF commanders and his advisers at his beach residence. He doubted the ability of his forces to withstand the Ugandan invasion. However, the head of TPDF, Abdallah Twalipo, was positive the army could dislodge the Ugandans from Tanzania. Nyerere charged Twalipo to “get started,” and the meeting ended. On October 31, Radio Tanzania announced that Ugandan forces had occupied territory in the northwest part of the country and that the TPDF was getting ready for a counter-attack. On November 2, President  Nyerere declared war on Uganda, declaring in a radio broadcast that Tanzania had the reason, the resources and the will to fight Idi Amin.

Half a dozen African leaders condemned the invasion of Kagera as Ugandan aggression: Samora M. Machel of Mozambique, Kenneth D. Kaunda of Zambia, Agostinho Neto of Angola, Didier Ratsiraka of Madagascar, Seretse Khama of Botswana, and Mengistu H. Mariam of Ethiopia. The governments of Senegal, Mali and Guinea, as well as many other African countries, did not condemn the action. Instead, they called for an end to hostilities and asked the two sides to respect the OAU charter. The OAU itself stayed neutral on the issue while its representatives attempted to mediate between Tanzania and Uganda.

Tanzanian Counter-Attack

Julius Nyerere commanded Tanzania to undertake total mobilization for Kagera War. The TPDF was made up of four brigades at the time. Of the four brigades, only the Southern Brigade, which had just performed excellently in war games, was ready to be moved to the battlefront. The brigade had its headquarters in Songea, which was farther from Kagera than the three other brigades. After a long journey via road and rail, the brigade arrived at the Bukoba-Kyaka area and set up camp. More soldiers were sent from Tabora. Prime Minister Edward Sokoine ordered regional commissioners to pool all civilian and military resources for Kagera War. Within a few weeks, the Tanzanian army grew from under 40,000 men to more than 150,000 men, including approximately 40,000 militiamen as well as members of the national service, prison services, and the police. Many of the militiamen were sent to Tanzania’s southern border or deployed to guard important installations within Tanzania. President Samora Machel offered Nyerere the service of a Mozambican battalion to support Tanzania’s war efforts. The 800-strong unit was quickly airlifted to Tanzania and promptly moved to Kagera.

In the months that preceded the outbreak of the Kagera War, the Ugandan Army had suffered from infighting as well as extensive purges and had recruited close to 10,000 new troops. In an interview with Drum magazine, a Ugandan soldier said the newly recruited personnel had little training and were incapable of participating in real combat. In addition, the Ugandan Army allegedly suffered from large-scale defections as early as late 1978. Overall, the Ugandan military’s strength was estimated at around 20,000 or 21,000 personnel by 1978/1979, of which less than 3,000 were sent to the front lines at any given time.

Despite being told of the preparations of the Tanzanians for a counter-attack, the Ugandan military failed to set up any proper defenses like trenches. The majority of the commanders on the front line, as well as members of the high command, paid no attention to the intelligence reports and instead concentrated on plundering the Kagera Salient. Initially, Tanzania wanted to start its counter-offensive, named Operation Chakaza, on November 6, but they had to delay it. By the second week of November, Tanzania had mobilised a strong force on the southern coast of the Kagera River. The Chief of Staff of the Tanzania People’s Defence Force, Major General Tumainie Kiwelu, took charge of the troops. The Tanzanians started a heavy artillery shelling of the northern coast, triggering the retreat of many soldiers of the Ugandan Army. On November 14, Idi Amin, realising that other African countries did not approve of his position and unreasonably fearing that the Soviet Union was ready to provide Tanzania with new ammunition, announced that Ugandan troops would withdraw from Kagera unconditionally and invited OAU observers to witness the withdrawal. The government of Tanzania discredited the statement, calling it a “complete lie,” while international observers could not reach a general agreement on the authenticity of the supposed withdrawal. The OAU responded by claiming that its reconciliation efforts had yielded a positive result.

On November 19, the Tanzanian constructed a floating bridge across the Kagera River and in the days that followed, they sent patrols into the salient. Amid the counter-attack, the Ugandan command and control descended into chaos. Only a few officers tried to organize any counteraction. On November 23, three TPDF brigades crossed the floating bridge and started to occupy the Kagera Salient. In late November, the Ugandan government declared that it had withdrawn all troops from the Kagera Salient and that all fighting had stopped. Uganda flew 50 foreign diplomats to the border, and they reported that there was barely any evidence of ongoing conflict. Tanzanian officials discredited the statement of withdrawal, claiming that Ugandan forces had to be removed from Tanzanian territory by force, and announced that some were still in the country. On December 4, the TPDF’s Southern and 206th Brigades secured Mutukula on the Tanzanian side of the boundary without incident, while the 207th Brigade took back Minziro. By early January, all Ugandan forces had been dislodged from Kagera.

Battle of Mutukula and Border Clashes

The morale and discipline of the Ugandan Army deteriorated as the Tanzanians chased it out of Kagera and attacked it along the border. After the invasion was repelled, the Tanzanians feared that the Ugandans would try to capture the territory again. Tanzanian commanders thought that as long as the Ugandan forces controlled the high ground at Mutukula, Uganda remained a threat to the salient along the frontier. President Nyerere agreed and commanded his troops to capture Mutukula. While getting ready for this operation, the TPDF was preoccupied with organizing and training its heavily expanded forces. As a result, fighting in December 1978 was largely limited to “trench warfare” along the border, characterized by air raids and sporadic clashes. By this point, fighters belonging to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) were fighting alongside the Ugandans at the frontline. The Palestine Liberation Organization had been allies of Idi Amin’s government for years, and nearly 400 Palestinian fighters were posted for training in Uganda. These fighters were deployed to the borders to help the Ugandan Army, as the PLO regarded the war with Tanzania as a potential threat to their presence in the area. According to the journal Africa, “informed sources” alleged that “Pakistani air force personnel and technicians” supported Amin’s troops during the Kagera War. Between 200 to 350 Pakistani experts had been posted to Uganda since early 1978. According to African Review, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rendered “military assistance” to Idi Amin’s government in 1978/1979. Amin purportedly travelled to Saudi Arabia twice to seek financial help during the Uganda-Tanzania War.

The lack of activity at the border made the Ugandan high command believe that there was no imminent Tanzanian offensive, in spite of contrary reports from the frontlines. The Ugandan Army was consequently caught off-guard when the TPDF launched a large-scale artillery shelling along the border on December 25 using BM-21 Grad rocket launchers. The Ugandans did not have weapons to counter the Tanzanian artillery and were filled with fear of the devastative capabilities of the BM-21 Grads, which they named “Saba-Saba.” The initial inability of the Ugandans to identify the weapon heightened their fears until they recovered an unexploded rocket from the Lukoma airstrip. The TPDF bombarded the border for weeks, dispiriting the Ugandans. Efforts by the Ugandan Air Force to sabotage the rocket launchers failed because of effective anti-aircraft fire. Amin sent a team of officers to Spain to make findings on the purchase of napalm bombs and aircraft to counter Tanzania’s rockets, but eventually, no weapons were bought. Tanzanian-led forces occupied some minor border settlements close to Kikagati on January 20, 1979, pushing Amin to plan a counter-offensive. On the night of January 21, the Southern Brigade of the TPDF (renamed the 208th Brigade)finally crossed the border and launched an attack on Mutukula the next day. They easily overwhelmed the Ugandan garrison, who quickly fled the scene, enabling the Tanzanians to secure Mutukula and grab abandoned weaponry. The TPDF went ahead to destroy the whole town and killed many civilians to get revenge for the destruction in Kagera. Julius Nyerere was dismayed upon being told and ordered the TPDF to desist from hurting civilians or destroying properties from then on.

The government of Uganda largely ignored the loss of Mutukula, sending only the First Infantry Battalion to bolster the frontline. At the same time, it focused on celebrating the 8th anniversary of Amin’s reign as president. The behavior demoralized the Ugandan population further. The TPDF used the pause in fighting to make preparations for further operations. They built an airstrip at Mutukula and deployed additional forces to the border area. Small quantities of arms were sent to Tanzania by Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Zambia as a gesture of support. According to researcher Gerald C. Mazarire, Ethiopia sent “Russian ground-to-ground missiles and troops” that helped Tanzania to fight Uganda. It was also claimed that ZANLA militants fought alongside the TPDF. The government of Tanzania also sought military assistance from China. China wished to stay out of the conflict as far as possible without alienating Tanzania. Although the Chinese proposed negotiation, they hastened the delivery of some previously ordered equipment and sent a shipment of “token” arms. The UK did not want anything to do with the Kagera War too. However, they cooperated with the Tanzanians by delivering the non-lethal military supplies they purchased from them speedily. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union put an end to shipping arms to Uganda and announced it was withdrawing all of its military advisors.

Mobilization of Ugandan Rebels and Exiles

Shortly after the Kagera War, Julius Nyerere hinted that with the Mogadishu Agreement being rendered useless, his government would train, arm, and finance any Ugandan willing to fight to depose Idi Amin. Different groups of exiles from across the world and members of the opposition in Uganda responded. The larger armed rebel movements included the Yoweri Museveni-led Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), the Save Uganda Movement (SUM) commanded by Ateker Ejalu, William Omaria and Akena p’Ojok and the Kikosi Maalum, a militia commanded by David O. Oyok and Tito Okello and loyal to Obote. In addition, some smaller groups, including the Uganda Nationalist Organisation and the Catholic Group, claimed to have armed wings.

These groups were not strong when the conflict started, but they expanded rapidly afterwards. Though they were allied nominally, the Ugandan rebels were, in fact, political rivals and operated independently. Whereas FRONASA and Kikosi Maalum contributed frontline forces and guerillas that served as scouts and auxiliaries to the TPDF, SUM carried out bombings and raids to undermine Amin’s regime from within. The Zambia-based Uganda Liberation Group encouraged its members to make financial donations to support the Tanzanian war effort. The Ugandan exiles tried to organise resistance efforts in Kenya, but Kenyan authorities obstructed these efforts. They arrested guerillas, and in a few cases, they turned them over to the Ugandan authorities. In January, Milton Obote broke his public silence and openly appealed to Ugandans to take up arms, reportedly causing huge consternation to Amin’s government. In the early stages of the Kagera War, many rebel factions, including Obote’s faction, SUM and FRONASA, loosely united under the umbrella group called “National Revolt.”

Tanzanian Invasion of Southern Uganda

Initially, Nyerere only went for the Kagera War to defend Tanzanian territory. After Idi Amin failed to give up his claims to Kagera and the Organisation of Africa Unity failed to condemn the Ugandan invasion, Nyerere decided that Tanzanian forces should seize southern Uganda, especially the two major towns there – Mbarara and Masaka. The Tanzanians decided to occupy them as revenge for the devastation the Ugandan troops wrought in Tanzania and to instigate a rebellion. Milton Obote assured Nyerere that a mass anti-Amin uprising would occur if the towns were captured. With the uprising, Amin’s government would be ousted in a few weeks, allowing Tanzania to exit the war. Obote was also confident that the Ugandan Army would collapse if Masaka were seized, although Nyerere was only partially convinced. The Tanzanians began meticulous planning for an attack on the two towns. Major General David B. Musuguri was named commander of the 20th Division of the TPDF. He was tasked with overseeing the advance into Uganda. Originally, it was hoped that Ugandan rebels could lead the attack, but there were only about a thousand of them, so the Tanzanians had to spearhead the operation. Between Masaka and the TPDF’s position was a series of places occupied by Ugandan forces that had to be cleared out, including many artillery batteries and the airstrip at Lukoma. The 207th, 208th and 201st Brigades were instructed to clear the way.

The Tanzanians started their attack in mid-February. Steadily, they advanced, killing many Ugandan soldiers, sabotaging large quantities of their equipment and taking over the airstrip on February 13. Meanwhile, Idi Amin alleged that Tanzanian troops and mercenaries had captured a large portion of Ugandan territory. Fielding questions from the international community, Tanzania maintained that its forces had only occupied land just over the Ugandan boundary. Tanzanian diplomats reiterated Nyerere’s proclamation that Tanzania had no desire for an inch of Ugandan land. However, they dodged more specific questions about the movement of their troops. While the Tanzanian troops advancing on Masaka were moving forward speedily, the 206th Brigade of the TPDF faced tougher resistance as it advanced towards Mbarara. The Ugandan Army successfully waylaid a battalion of the brigade near Lake Nakivale, killing 24 Tanzanian soldiers in the process. This was the TPDF’s single biggest loss during the Kagera War, and after that, it slowed its offensive. Along the Masaka axis of the advance, the TPDF displaced the garrison of Kalisizo, a town 17 miles (28 km) south of Masaka, inflicting heavy casualties. The Ugandan soldiers that fell back to Masaka were panicked, and this demoralized the troops posted there. As the Tanzanians advanced through southern Uganda, they were hailed by groups of civilians they passed.

The TPDF went on to surround Masaka on three sides but were commanded not to move in, as a meeting of the OAU was convened in Nairobi in a bid to provide mediation between the warring sides. Ugandan Brigadier Isaac Maliyamungu saw a chance for a counter-offensive, so his forces launched several probes against the Tanzanian positions on February 23. The TPDF repelled the attack effortlessly and that night initiated a heavy bombardment of Masaka, concentrating their fire on the barracks of the Suicide Battalion. Most of the garrison consequently ran away, and in the morning, the Tanzanians captured the town. To exact revenge for the damage caused in Kagera, Tanzanian forces went on to burn most of the remaining structures with explosives. On February 25, the TPDF and many Ugandan rebels led by Yoweri Museveni attacked Mbarara and, after capturing it, destroyed the surviving buildings with dynamite. There was no mass uprising against Amin. After the capture of the two towns, the TPDF stopped to reorganize. Silas Mayunga was elevated to major general and given charge of a newly created “Task Force” – a unit comprising the Minziro Brigade and the 206th Brigade, which was to work semi-independently from the 20th Division. While the 20th Division left southeast Uganda to attack major locations in the country, the Task Force moved up north into western Uganda in the months that followed, fighting Ugandan forces conducting rearguard defensive actions. Meanwhile, the heavy losses suffered by the Ugandan Air Force during the February operations effectively eliminated it as a fighting force.

Battle of Lukaya and Libyan Intervention

Libyan mercenaries brought by Gaddaffi to help Idi Amin
Libyan mercenaries brought by Gaddaffi to help Idi Amin

Libyan leader and Amin’s ally, Muammar Gaddafi, felt that a Christian army was threatening Uganda—a Moslem country in his opinion—and wished to stop the Tanzanians. Gaddafi also felt that Uganda under Amin’s leadership served as an important counterbalance in northeast Africa to Egypt and Sudan, which had tense relations with Libya. Attempts by Libya to mediate in February 1979 and November 1978 failed to yield any resolution between Uganda and Tanzania. Gaddafi allegedly decided to launch a military intervention without deliberating with other Libyan officials and over the disapproval of his army chief, Major Farak Suleiman. In mid-February, Libyan troops were airlifted to help the Ugandan Army, though the Libyan government in early March denied that its forces were being deployed to Uganda. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation high command had observed that Idi Amin’s government was facing imminent threat because of Tanzanian military triumphs. Chairman Yasser Arafat and top assistants Saad Sayel and Khalil al-Waziri deliberated their options and agreed to deploy more PLO forces to Uganda to protect Idi Amin’s regime. Col. Mutlaq Hamdan, also known as Abu Fawaz, and some other commanders were sent as the first batch of fresh troops to help the Ugandan high command organize the Kagera War. On March 18, Arafat affirmed that Palestinian guerillas were fighting on behalf of Amin in Uganda.

In the meantime, the 20th Division of the TPDF made preparations to move from Masaka to Kampala. The only road that led to Kampala from Masaka passed through Lukaya, a town 24 miles (39 km) to the north of Masaka. From there, the route continued on a 16-mile (25-km) causeway that passed through a swamp until it reached Nabusanke. Vehicles could not pass through the swamp, and the demolition of the causeway would delay a Tanzanian assault on Kampala for months. Although the TPDF would be exposed on the passage, Major General Musuguri ordered his men to secure it. The 207th Brigade of the TPDF was sent through the swamp to the east, the 208th Brigade was sent to the west to carry out a wide sweep that would bring it around the swamp’s northern end, and the 201st Brigade, reinforced by a battalion of Ugandan rebels, was to move up the road into the town directly. Also, as part of the plot to capture Kampala, the 205th Brigade of the TPDF was to advance on Mpigi in early March and subsequently to Mityana and attack the capital from there. Idi Amin made a radio broadcast where he boasted that his men were about to encircle the TPDF. Interested in knowing if the claim had any merit, Tanzanian commanders evaluated their plans and recognized that they didn’t account for the Tiger Regiment at Mubende. Presuming the unit was headed south, they sent the 205th Brigade from Masaka to intercept it. The 205th Brigade faced entrenched Ugandan forces in Sembabule, marking the start of a three-week-long battle.

Meanwhile, Amin rejected a plan to destroy the Lukaya causeway when it was presented to him in Kampala, saying it would hinder the ability of his army to launch a counter-offensive against the Tanzanians. He also felt that with the support of the Libyan troops, they would soon defeat the TPDF, and thus destroying and reconstructing the causeway later would not be necessary. On March 2 to 4, the Ugandan Army crushed a rebel attack during the Battle of Tororo, raising Amin’s spirit. Along with the urgings of his commanders, the triumph at Torororo persuaded Idd Amin to order a counter-offensive. On March 9, more than 1,000 Libyan fighters and about 40 PLO guerillas belonging to Fatah were airlifted to Uganda. The Libyan troop included members of the Pan-African Legion and sections of the People’s Militia. They were accompanied by more than 12 APCs, 15 T-55 tanks, 12 BM-21 Grad 12-barrel Katyusha rocket launcher, many land rovers equipped with 4.2 in (106 mm) recoilless rifles as well as other big pieces of artillery like 4.8 in mortars (122 mm) and 2 batteries of D-30 howitzers. Throughout the Kagera War, a total of 4,500 Libyan fighters were sent to Uganda. Amin instructed the Libyans, together with PLO guerillas and some Ugandan troops, to retake Masaka.

On the morning of March 10, the 201st Brigade of the TPDF occupied Lukaya in anticipation of crossing the causeway the following day. In the late afternoon. The Ugandan-Palestinian-Libyan force started its advance towards Lukaya with instructions to capture Masaka within three hours. Upon sighting the Tanzanians, the Libyans launched a deluge of Katyusha rockets. The artillery overshot. However, because most of the Tanzanian soldiers of the 201st Brigade were inexperienced, they were scared, and many of them broke ranks and ran away. The rest swiftly retreated into the swamp along the Masaka road after spotting the Ugandan M4A1 Sherman tanks and Libyan T-55s coming towards them. Despite its orders to retake Masaka, the Ugandan-Palestinian-Libyan force stopped in Lukaya.

Tanzanian commanders resolved to change their plans to make sure the loss of Lukaya didn’t turn into a collapse. Brigadier Mwita Marwa’s 208th Brigade, which was 37 miles (60 km) northwest of the town, was instructed to reverse its course and cut off the Libyans and Ugandans from Kampala as quickly as possible. The 208th Brigade got to its flanking position at the Kampala road at dawn on March 11 and initiated the counter-attack. The 208th Brigade attacked from the rear while the regrouped 201st Brigade attacked from the front putting huge pressure on the Ugandan-Palestinian-Libyan force. Accurately aimed Tanzanian artillery fire wrecked their ranks. Subsequently, most of the Libyan troops began to withdraw. Accidentally, Lt. Col. Godwin Sule, the Ugandan commander at the battle, was run over by one of his tanks. His death led to the collapse of the Ugandan command architecture, and the remaining Ugandan troops left their positions and ran away. After the battle, Ugandan forces counted more than 400 dead soldiers in the area, including close to 200 Libyans. The Battle of Lukaya was the largest confrontation in the Kagera War.

After the Battle of Lukaya, the Ugandan Army started to crumble completely. Shortly after that, the TPDF started Operation Dada Idi, and in the days that followed, the 208th  and 207th Brigades cleared the Kampala road and took Mpigi. Libyan and Ugandan troops ran away from the frontline towards the capital. Amin sacked Gowon from his post as chief of staff. Gowon subsequently fled to Zaire in the face of the hostility of resentful troops. Ali Fadhul replaced hum. In early April, the TPDF captured Sembabule. The capture of Sembaule marked the end of the longest battle of the Kagera War. With the collapse of the supply of many Ugandan Army units, a resultant lack of provisions, fuel, and ammunition ravaged the Ugandan troops. Many Ugandan soldiers went rogue, looting, raping and murdering as they fled into Sudan and Zaire. According to researcher Alicia Decker, the collapse of discipline was not the only thing that motivated the deserted troops’ behaviour. They acted deliberately; they got better cover for their retreat by spreading anarchy and causing civilians to run. The soldiers that remained at their posts often began carrying out revenge attacks on those suspected to be sympathetic to the rebels’ cause, oppressing, abusing and killing people without due process. Other members of the Ugandan army planned to overthrow Amin when they realised the Kagera War was lost. Rumours circulated about the involvement of members of Amin’s inner circle in these coup plots. At this point, most Ugandan citizens were opposed to Idi Amin’s government and wished for a quick end of the Kagera War. They started referring to the Tanzanians as bakombozi (liberators)

Moshi Conference

After the capture of Mpigi, President Nyerere ordered the TPDF to stop its advance. Although he believed that after the Libyan attack at Lukaya, it was now impossible to count on the Ugandan rebels to capture Kampala on their own, he felt it was very important they should be given time to set up their own government to take over from Amin. Tanzanian officials started making preparations to establish a new government, as did the Ugandan rebels, led by Dani Wadada Nabudere and Obote in their respective circles. The exiles and rebels had been preparing for this for many months, contacting one another since the start of the Kagera War. While deliberations among the factions were going on, Museveni suggested that his FRONASA—supposedly bigger because of recruitment efforts around Mbarara—unite with Milton Obote’s Kikosi Maluum to establish a unified army. Obote said no to the proposal and tried to unite his forces with other armed groups, but other exile leaders aligned with Museveni’s idea. As the Tanzanians started organizing a conference for the exiles and rebels, President Nyerere was reassessing Obote’s part in the movement. He wanted to avoid giving the impression that Tanzania was installing a government of its own choice in Uganda by aiding Obote’s rise to leadership of the rebel movement, and there was antagonism to Obote from the Baganda people of southern Uganda as well as other nations like Kenya. President Nyerere was also afraid that Obote’s presence would hinder cooperation at the meeting and make it a failure. Therefore, Nyerere convinced Obote to stay away from the conference and instead send a contingent from Obote’s party – the Uganda People’s Congress. Many Ugandan exiles started endorsing Yusuf Lule, a retired Muganda academic and political moderate in Obote’s place.

The conference commenced on March 24 in the Tanzanian town of Moshi, after a fierce debate over the factions and persons that could be allowed to attend. That afternoon, the delegates declared the formation of the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). The UNLF was to be administered by an 11-man National Executive Committee and a 30-man National Consultative Committee (NCC), the former including three special commissions — Military Affairs, Political and Diplomatic Affairs, and Administration and Finance. A debate over the balance of power among the governing bodies as well as the selection of a chairman for the organization dominated the next two days. Paulo Muwanga and Yusuf Lule hotly contested the chairmanship debate. After a heated argument, the conference reached a consensus that would see Muwanga made head of the Military Affairs Commission and Lule would be made chairman. On March 26, 1979, the conference dissolved. The armed rebel militias represented at the conference were unified as the Uganda National Liberation Army. (UNLA). The united rebel force initially had approximately 2,000 fighters.

Fall of Kampala and End of the Kagera War

Combined forces of the Tanzanian army and the Uganda National Liberation Army marching towards Uganda
Combined forces of the Tanzanian army and the Uganda National Liberation Army marching towards Uganda

A day after the end of the conference in Moshi, the Libyan ambassador to Tanzania handed Nyerere a note from Muammar Gaddafi, which threatened the involvement of the Libyan military on Amin’s behalf if Tanzania failed to withdraw its troops from Ugandan territory within 24 hours. The ultimatum surprised Nyerere since he knew that Libyan officers had fought alongside the Ugandans at Lukaya. Subsequently, he made a radio broadcast where he declared that while Gaddafi’s threat added other dimensions to the Kagera War, it didn’t change Tanzania’s view of Idi Amin. Four days later, in a bid to frighten Nyerere, Gaddafi ordered a Tupolev Tu-22 bomber to attack a gas depot in Mwanza. The bomber failed to hit its target and instead hit a game preserve. Tanzanian jets retaliated by hitting fuel depots in Tororo, Kampala, and Jinja.

In early April, Tanzanian forces started concentrating their efforts on enfeebling the Ugandan position in the capital (Kampala). The Ugandan Army had largely disintegrated by this point. Diplomats thought that only the soldiers of Sudanese and Nubian origin stayed loyal, while Amin held onto power thanks to the support of the Libyans. According to a New York Times reporter, John Darnton, an estimated 2,500 soldiers of the Ugandan Army remained loyal. Originally, the Tanzanian commanders assumed that Idi Amin would place most of his remaining troops in the capital. Their earlier plans called for a direct assault on the city. However, from the high ground in Mpigi, they could see a huge contingent of Ugandan and Libyan soldiers as well as a high volume of Libyan air traffic on the Entebbe peninsula. If the TPDF captured Kampala before securing Entebbe, TPDF positions in Kampala would be exposed to a flanking attack. Capturing Entebbe would cut off Uganda’s Libyan reinforcements and allow an attack on the capital from the south. Therefore, Musuguri instructed the 208th Brigade to capture the peninsula. The TPDF set up artillery and lightly bombarded the town for three days. Idi Amin was at the Entebbe State House at the time of the bombardment. However, he fled to Kampala via helicopter. His exit instigated the exodus of many Ugandan soldiers, but the Libyans stayed back.

The TPDF intensified the bombardment on April 6, with hundreds of artillery rounds fired. The 208th Brigade moved to Entebbe the next morning. A solitary Libyan convoy that tried to escape down the Kampala road was trapped and destroyed. By afternoon, the TPDF had captured Entebbe, confiscating huge stockpiles of Libyan ammunitions. The following morning, hundreds of Ugandan Air Force personnel surrendered to the TPDF. The battle signified the de facto end of the Ugandan Air Force. Most of the force’s aircraft were captured or destroyed. The air force officers who escaped to the airfields in Nakasongola and Jinja spread fear among the Ugandan forces stationed there. Mass defections and desertions resulted. Nyerere chose to allow Libyan troops, who had suffered a lot during the battle, to get away from Kampala and exit the Kagera War quietly without further embarrassment. He explained his decision in a message to Gaddafi, noting that Libyan troops could be flown out of Uganda unchallenged from the airstrip in Jinja. Uganda civilians targeted many fleeing Libyans by misleading them, betraying them to the TPDF, or murdering them outrightly. Most of the survivors retreated to Ethiopia and Kenya, from where they were flown back to Libya. The Libyan troops’ defeat was a huge blow to Gaddafi’s foreign policy and allegedly led to conflict within the Libyan government.

The TPDF moved into Kampala on April 10. Few Libyan or Ugandan units resisted; the Tanzanian troops’ greatest problem was that they lacked maps of the city. On the next day, while UNLF and Tanzanian troops were taking care of the remaining Ugandan forces in Kampala, Oyite-Ojok headed to Radio Uganda to announce the capture of the city. He declared in a broadcast that Amin’s government was overthrown and Kampala was under UNLF’s control and called on Ugandan soldiers to surrender and appealed to citizens to remain calm. Civilians trooped out of their homes to jubilate and engaged in destructive pillaging. On April 13, Yusuf Lule was flown into the city and made the new President of Uganda. Other countries quickly recognized the new UNLF government as the legitimate government in Uganda. The lack of effective civil service or police force and the carting away of equipment from offices greatly hindered the government in establishing itself. The government played no part in the subsequent military operations against Idi Amin’s forces.

Amin initially fled to Libya and subsequently to Saudi Arabia. Despite the fall of Kampala and Amin’s flight, disjointed and scattered remnants of the Ugandan military continued to mount a resistance. These loyalists moved to the north with Libyan support. PLO militants under Mahmoud Da’as’ command accompanied them before eventually crossing into Sudan. After the capture of Kampala, the fighting caused little further damage. On April 22, the TPDF captured the Owen Falls Dam, which supplied all the country’s electricity, and the town of Jinja intact. Most units of the Ugandan Army dispersed or mutinied, enabling the Tanzanian-UNLF troops to occupy most of northern and eastern Uganda without opposition. A few Ugandan units mounted firm resistance along the western border, but they were also surmounted. Attempts by forces loyal to Amin to hinder the Tanzanians’ northward movement were crushed during the Battle of Lira, the Battle of Karuma Falls, and the Battle of Bombo. 250 Ugandan troops defected in Mbale and decided to protect the town against retreating loyalists and await the arrival of the Tanzanians. Many civilians armed themselves and ambushed Ugandan stragglers and anyone from religious or ethnic groups associated with Amin’s regime. Mobs devastated entire communities. Ugandan rebels belonging to Kikosi Maalum and FRONASA carried out the worst massacres. In several cases, Tanzanian soldiers looked away and even aided the lynching of Ugandan soldiers at the hands of hostile civilians. Nonetheless, most sources agree that the Tanzanians conducted themselves relatively well, particularly in comparison to tribal militants and Ugandan rebels.

The final battle of the Kagera War took place on May 27 when a band of Ugandan troops shot at elements of the TPDF’s Task Force near Bondo before running away. Shortly after, the Task Force captured Arua without encountering resistance. FRONASA started a systematic murder of the local people upon reaching the West Nile region. Vigilantes belonging to anti-Amin tribes aided them in the killings. Consequently, a significant percentage of the civilian population in the West Nile ran into exile along with the remains of the Ugandan Army. A Tanzanian brigade moved from Arua towards Uganda’s western border with Zaire and Sudan. It captured the Sudanese frontier on June 3, 1979, thus ending the Kagera War. By the time the war ended, between 30,000 to 45,000 personnel of the TPDF were deployed in Uganda.

Over the course of the Kagera War, 373 TPDF soldiers died; of this figure, 96 were killed in the fighting. Close to 150 Ugandan rebels lost their lives, most of whom died when one of their boats capsized accidentally in Lake Victoria. About 1,000 soldiers of the Ugandan Army were killed, while 3,000 Ugandan soldiers were taken prisoner. No less than 600 Libyan soldiers were killed over the course of the Kagera War and approximately 1,800 were wounded. The TPDF took 59 Libyan soldiers prisoner and set them free several months after the Kagera War ended. Many PLO fighters lost their lives during the conflict, although the exact number remains contested. The PLO admitted that it lost 12 fighters in Uganda, counting those missing in action and the dead. However, the Tanzanians claimed that more than 200 Palestinians were killed during the Kagera War. The TPDF also captured a Pakistani national with the Libyan forces; he was subsequently released after the war. The Ugandan Army killed roughly 1,500 Tanzanian civilians in Kagera. According to Honey and Avirgan, all the belligerents killed close to 500 Ugandan civilians during the Kagera War. Other sources reported far higher civilian deaths in Uganda. According to an Indian diplomat, Madanjeet Singh, soldiers of the Ugandan army started killing expatriate and Ugandan civilians randomly after the Kagera War started. Within the month of February 1979, more than 500 people were killed. According to ABK Kasozi, retreating Amin loyalists murdered thousands in March and April 1979, while Ogenga Otunnu contended that anti-Amin rebels also murdered thousands in the West Nile region during the last stages of the conflict.

The Libyans were all over and didn’t know where they were headed. They had no idea where Kampala was, so they ran anyhow… And they were murdered. People would locate them, and people would exclaim that “they are here,” and at times, they would close them in the house and kill them

– Jane Walusimbi, a Ugandan farmer, narrating how Libyan soldiers were treated by civilians during the Battle of Entebbe

Media and Propaganda

During the early days of the Kagera War in October 1978, Radio Tanzania did not broadcast any news on the conflict, while Radio Uganda wrongly reported an attempted Tanzanian invasion and intense clashes at the border. Once the invasion of Kagera was made known to the public, Radio Tanzania began a comprehensive propaganda campaign to gather popular support for the Kagera War through the retelling of stories of the acts of cruelty committed in Tanzanian territory depicting the Ugandan attack as an egotistic endeavour by Amin to boost his self-image. Radio Uganda and Radio Tanzania soon became embroiled in a “radio war,” each making accusations against the other’s nation. Apart from a few Nyerere speeches delivered, the Tanzanian people had little official information in the first few months of the Kagera War. The Tanzanian government speedily created an “Information Committee” to handle news about the Kagera War. George Mhina, a top secretary in the Ministry of Information, chaired the body. The body also comprised the head of Radio Tanzania, representatives of the security forces and TPDF, Sammy Mdee (Presidential Press Secretary) and editors of the two state-owned newspapers in Tanzania. Mhina started suppressing information about the Kagera War so that while many Tanzanian photographers and journalists had gone to the front lines, not much of their reporting was ever published. The newspaper editors and Mdee boycotted the meeting of the committee in protest. Generally, the Tanzanian press was permitted to publish what it wished within the law. However, it hardly reported anything dissimilar from the official media and usually reprinted press releases from the news agency of the government, SHIHATA (Shirika la Habari Tanzania).

In response to the information suppression, Tanzanians resorted to listening to foreign broadcasts from Voice of America, BBC Radio, Radio South Africa, Radio Uganda, and Voice of Kenya for news on the Kagera War. In Dar es Salaam, people went to the Kilimanjaro Hotel to watch the news broadcast through the hotel’s Reuters telex machine. Eventually, the Information Committee had the machine deactivated. During the Kagera War, Radio Tanzania broadcast dramatic news reports, poems, and songs about the war and praise for the TPDF. Broadcasters fluent in Ugandan languages were employed, and their newscasts were transmitted into Uganda. Sam Odaka, a Ugandan exile, hosted a 45-minute propaganda programme on Radio Tanzania daily. The programme targeted Ugandan soldiers and successfully demoralised the Ugandan Army; the show ran until Kampala fell. SHIHATA regularly referred to Amin as a “fascist.”

In Uganda, there was no press freedom, and local media outlets gathered information from the state-owned Uganda News Agency. Idi Amin used official media to pass on information to the civilian populace throughout the Kagera War and to attack Tanzania rhetorically. Apart from being biased, Ugandan propaganda was deficient in factual accuracy. It tried to boost Idi Amin’s image and raise the morale of the Ugandan Army by spreading fantastic stories like claiming that crocodiles wiped out a Tanzanian unit or that the President could easily finish off 20,000 Tanzanians with only 200 Ugandan soldiers. The President’s wife, Sarah Kyolaba, featured in one of the most famous propagandist stories pro-Amin media spread. She allegedly led a battalion of armed ladies against the TPDF. No solid proof of the existence of such a battalion ever surfaced. Decker theorised that the stories about “Suicide Sarah” were meant to “feminize the opposition” instead of emphasizing the bravery of Ugandan female soldiers; people were supposed to believe that the Tanzanians were so weak that women could overpower them. The information that emanated from the UNLF were often outdated or dubious. After the end of the Kagera War, a Radio Tanzania employee was made available to the UNLF to direct them on how to use public broadcast to gather the support of the public for the rebuilding.

At the start of the Kagera War, Tanzania took four journalists to Kagera to show that Uganda had indeed attacked the ara. After that, correspondents were not permitted to travel to the war front, making it impossible to confirm each belligerents’ claim. Oftentimes, in order to validate Ugandan official media, journalists cross-referenced it with Tanzanian news for consistencies. Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan of Reuters were the two exceptions to the rule. They had Nyerere’s permission to follow the TPDF as it invaded Uganda. Ugandan soldiers shot four European reporters that tried to infiltrate Uganda from Kenya during the war. Instead, most journalists covered the war from Kenya, especially Nairobi. From Nairobi, they phoned foreign diplomats in Kampala and obtained reports from locals as the war progressed.

We were not good in war propaganda. It is important to inform the people or else they become afraid. I now realise that people must be told more. In this case, our opponent had verbal diarrhea.

President Nyerere’s thought on Tanzania’s propaganda efforts during the Kagera War.



Sociologist Ronald Aminzade stressed that “the key” to Tanzania’s triumph was how it ideologically framed the Kagera War as a threat to the nation, thereby aiding the mobilization of a well-known militia that did well in battle. Aminzade stated that Uganda, in contrast, fought a non-ideological territorial war. They deployed fighters low on morale and battling internal dissent. According to journalist Godwin Matatu, the failure of the Ugandan Army was due to low morale and dependence on vehicles and roads that made them exposed to Tanzanian ground forces, who travelled on foot for much of the Kagera War. In journalist Anne Abaho’s view, Uganda lost the war because of four important factors: the Tanzanian use of MM-21 Grad rocket launchers and Uganda’s failure to counter them, incompetence and internal tensions within the Ugandan Army, poor coordination with Libya, and inadequate military intelligence. According to some Western military analysts, Tanzania won the Kagera War because of the collapse of the Ugandan Army. They argued that the TPDF would have lost to most other African armies. Others opined that the TPDF’s victory indicated massive improvements in the capabilities of African military over the previous years. The TPDF’s ability to deploy its forces over extensive distances was praised by military analyst William Thorn. According to intelligence analyst Kenneth Michael Pollack, the Libyan troop failed because of inadequate military intelligence and low morale. In 1998, academic Benoni Turyahikayo-Rugyema wrote that if Amin did not invade Tanzania’s Kagera Salient, he would probably still be governing Uganda.

Many academics have assessed whether the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda and the subsequent effort to overthrow Amin could be categorized as a case of justified humanitarian intervention. Some writers concurred that Tanzania’s action was humanitarian in nature; others have disagreed, arguing that even if Tanzania fought the Kagera War with some humanitarian intentions, its invasion of Uganda was largely for different reasons. For its part, the Tanzanian government accused Idi Amin of committing heinous crimes against his people. It stressed that many Ugandans ”celebrated” the invasion. However, Tanzania didn’t justify the Kagera War on humanitarian grounds. Rather, it contended that Tanzania had acted in self-defense of its territory and that Amin’s regime was a raucous menace to the security and peace of East Africa. Christianity specialist Emmanuel Twesigye saw the Kagera War as a good instance of the just war theory. Political scientist Daniel Acheson-Brown came to the conclusion that according to just war theory as promoted by Michael L. Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, Tanzania’s decision to invade Uganda was justified on humanitarian grounds to depose a brutal dictator. Acheson-Brown also observed that the Ugandan Army committed a staggering number of atrocities during the Kagera War and that Tanzania also made some serious transgressions of the proper conduct of Kagera War, especially when the TPDF destroyed Mutukula. Walzer viewed the Kagera War as an instance of justified intervention. According to legal scholar Noreen Burrows, although Tanzania’s attack on Uganda breached strictly defined international law, the attack was justified by political and moral arguments. International law scholar Sean David Murphy described the invasion of Uganda by Tanzania as an invasion with mixed motives of human rights protection and self-defence. Belgium later mentioned the Kagera War as an instance of justified intervention when attempting to explain its decision to join NATO’s intervention in the Kosovo War.

International Political Debate

Never before had a sovereign head of state been deposed by a foreign military in post-colonial Africa; a turn of events strongly discouraged by the Organization of African Unity. At a conference of the OAU held in July 1979, Sudan’s President Gaafar Nimeiry stated that the Kagera War had grave precedent and observed that the OAU’s charter forbids interference in the internal affairs of other people and invading their territory by armed force. These concerns were shared by Nigerian Head of State, Olusegun Obasanjo. However, some observers disagreed with this line of thought, arguing that the situation showed that the organisation’s charter needed to be reformed. Julius Nyerere accused OAU of protecting black African leaders from criticism, pointing out that Idi Amin’s regime had murdered more people than the white minority regimes in southern Africa. Nyerere also distributed a Blue Book that the Tanzanian government published. The book contended that Uganda’s attack on the Kagera Salient and Libya’s armed intervention, which would have prevented the Ugandan rebels from deposing Amin on their own justified Tanzania’s role in the Kagera War. Lule’s successor, President Godwin Binaisa, lauded the Tanzanian intervention. Most Western countries cautiously stayed away from commenting on Tanzania’s role in overthrowing Amin, although British Foreign Secretary David Anthony Owen stated that he was happy with the end of Idi Amin’s rule. According to academics Oliver Furley and Roy May, the international community tacitly accepted the deposition of the regime, as shown by how quickly they recognized the UNLF government that took over.


The conflict with Tanzania caused Uganda great economic damage, as price gouging of items rose, and inflation increased rapidly. The planting season was disrupted by the movement of military personnel throughout Uganda in 1979, leading to the inflated prices of staple food crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, and bananas and causing starvation in some regions. In spite of the disruption, the fighting did not physically disturb most rural areas – the fighting was concentrated in other places. According to estimates, the conflict rendered no less than 100,000 Ugandans homeless. Much social unrest occurred after the Kagera War. With Amin deposed, different groups of ethnic and political rivals began competing and fighting for power. It also led to a resurgence of crime as bandits—popularly referred to as “kondos” armed with guns that used to belong to Amin’s security forces, TPDF and Ugandan rebels- took advantage of the lack of order to loot and rob. Political assassinations became common, and violence plagued Kampala until 1981. The lack of effective police and courts, which had suffered under Amin, facilitated the situation. The rural areas were relatively violence-free, as traditional norms provided some basis for peace. Also, the Kagera War led to a growth of illicit poaching across Uganda, leading to significant environmental damage.

The TPDF stayed back in Uganda to maintain order. Subsequently, many Tanzanian soldiers fathered many Ugandan children. Many TPDF soldiers wedded Ugandan women and took them to Tanzania. Some residents in the southern part of Uganda believed that Tanzanian soldiers brought HIV/AIDS to the area and spread it by copulating with civilians. Over time, many Ugandans became tired of the Tanzanian occupation. In the meantime, remnants of Idi Amin’s Ugandan Army regrouped in Sudan and Zaire and invaded Uganda in autumn 1980. The invasion led to a civil war that later became known as the Ugandan Bush War. More TPDF fighters died during the occupation than during the Kagera War. The last Tanzanian occupation troops departed Uganda in October 1981. However, Tanzanian military advisors remained in Uganda as late as 1984.

Uganda was involved in a political crisis almost immediately after the UNLF took over. Yusuf Lule neglected the agreements of the Moshi Conference that stipulated a weak presidential authority and tried to uphold his ability to wield stronger powers provided by the constitution being used in Uganda before Amin’s take over. He also did not trust the UNLA, which he considered to be entirely made up of Museveni and Obote partisans. Meanwhile, Oyite-Ojok and Museveni both tried to fill the army with their supporters. Lule’s decision to not consult the NCC about the appointment of ministers provoked anger in the committee, and on June 20, 1979, it voted to remove him from office. Godfrey Binaisa, the country’s former Attorney General under Obote who had come to oppose both Obote and Amin and had no previous role in the committee, was then elected president. The ouster of Lule led to large protests in Kampala as well as confrontations between demonstrators and Tanzanian soldiers trying to maintain order. Julius Nyerere declared that he would continue supporting Uganda as long as it kept an uncorrupted and unified government. Over the next month, many TPDF troops were pulled out of Uganda, leading to a surge in political violence around Kampala. In November, Binaisa began to worry that Muwanga—then a serving minister in his government—was plotting to return Milton Obote to power and considered relieving him of his duties. On Obote’s advice, Muwanga declared publicly that Obote was not interested in regaining power and would support Binaisa in the next national election. As Muwanga and Obote planned, the guarantee made Binaisa feel assured and instead sacked Obote’s rival, Yoweri Museveni, from his position as Defence Minister. The state of affairs in Uganda further declined as civilians clashed with Tanzanian troops, unofficial militias sprang up, and Binaisa concentrated on using his position to make himself richer. In 1980, Binaisa tried to remove Oyite-Ojok from his position as the UNLA’s Chief of Staff. This move angered many Ugandan soldiers. Therefore, with the approval of Museveni, Oyite-Ojok and Muwanga started moving to overthrow Binaisa. On May 12, the Military Affair’s Commission of the NCC declared that it was assuming the responsibilities of the presidency. Julius Nyerere chose not to intervene, fearing clashes between UNLA and TPDF.

Soon, Obote returned to Uganda and started preparing for the general elections to be held on December 10 by reorganising the UPC. Partly aided by electoral irregularities, the UPC triumphed in the parliamentary elections and formed a government with Milton Obote as president. In February 1981, Museveni denounced the elections, organized a small gang of rebels and subsequently entered the civil war by attacking UNLA forces. Shortly after that, they co-founded a new coalition of rebels known as the National Resistance Movement. Museveni became president in 1986 after overthrowing the Ugandan government.


The Kagera War broke out when Tanzania’s economy showed signs of recovery from a serious drought in 1974-1975. All planned government programmes were halted in every ministry except the Ministry of Defence, and the administration was told not to fill vacancies. In January 1979, Nyerere stated that the Tanzanian operation to eject the Ugandans had warranted a “tremendous” diversion of the nation’s resources away from developmental projects. According to his estimate, the Kagera War cost $1 million per day to finance. Scholars estimated the direct costs of the Kagera War for the Tanzanians to range between $500 million to $1 billion. $108 million worth of economic assets were destroyed in Kagera, Tanzania got no monetary aid from other member countries of the OAU during the Kagera War. Thus, the Tanzanian government had to fund the invasion of Uganda and the peacekeeping mission that followed from its pocket, which further drove the country into poverty. Healthcare services and food supplies were severely disrupted by the financial burden. Tanzania did not bounce back fully from the cost of the Kagera War until 2007 when Uganda repaid its debt to Tanzania.

When the TPDF started returning to Tanzania en masse, only a few soldiers were let go, contrary to the expectations of the public. Subsequently, military commanders started making adjustments to make the wartime growth of the army permanent by creating new divisional headquarters and units. Some in the military hierarchy disapproved of the move, considering the country’s bleak financial state. Eventually, Tanzania’s depressed economy forced the TPDF to dissolve many of the extra units. Nonetheless, the TPDF kept a large number of soldiers in the standing army, thinking that they could be used to manage militiamen if they needed to be recalled into service. Throughout the next ten years, the TPDF’s post-Kagera War size remained larger than the pre-Kagera War size.

Upon the end of the Kagera War, the Tanzanian government announced that residents of Kagera could return to their region, and by August 1979, most of them had gone back to their homes. However, for security reasons, civilians were forbidden from going to many border towns by the government. Thus, the government created more permanent accommodations for people affected further south. Many of them could not go back to their homes until the early 1980s. Julius Nyerere announced a scheme to rejuvenate the Kagera border region. The scheme focused on rebuilding ruined infrastructure and promoting the Ujamaa political philosophy. Inhabitants of the region later indicated that while social services were restored, their quality paled in comparison to that of the pre-war times and that the rejuvenation scheme focused majorly on government institutions, major roads, and community centres and did not do much to support individuals. In 2000, MPs from rural Bukoba and Nkenge constituencies complained that some residents were yet to return—because of the continued presence of unfamiliar corpses in their homes—or were yet to achieve a living standard on par with that of the pre-war times. The Home Affairs minister replied by stating that the government would not give financial aid to residents of Kagera affected by the war because the Kagera War had come at a great cost for all Tanzanians, and they were therefore not entitled to special compensation.

In spite of the PLO’s involvement in the Kagera War, Nyerere harbored no ill will towards the organization. Instead, he cited its isolation on the international stage as the basis for its closeness to Idi Amin. Tanzania’s relations with Libya became more cordial in 1982. After the Kagera War, the Tanzanian government bolstered its presence in Kagera. It strengthened its police station in Kyaka and established many others in border towns. For safety reasons, villagers were forbidden from occupying land within 330 feet (100 metres) of the border. However, there was little supervision of the restriction over time and locals often ignored it. Immediately after the Kagera War, the government closed cross-border markets. This move led to shortages of goods and an increase in prices of commodities. Smuggling also became commonplace. Normal trade between Tanzania and Uganda did not resume until the 1990s.  Due to the fact that initial demarcation posts along the Tanzania-Uganda border were taken out during the Kagera War, the boundary dispute between the two nations persisted after the Kagera War, albeit at a lower intensity. Negotiations between Tanzania and Uganda on reintroducing a complete, official border demarcation started in 1999 and was successfully concluded in 2001.

Also, as a result of the Kagera War, Tanzania witnessed a surge in communal violence and crime, most importantly cattle rustling. The recruitment of tens of thousands of soldiers had a significant effect on Tanzania’s society, as many young men from poorer households had tasted the power and chance of pillage and comparatively decent salaries of military life. Due to Tanzania’s economic struggle, these men typically became unemployed and found themselves swimming in poverty when they were demobilized. This situation resulted in rising dissatisfaction. Also, many Tanzanian soldiers illegally brought in large quantities of abandoned Ugandan weapons into Tanzania. Having grown used to violence during their time in the military, many veterans subsequently used their guns to amass wealth illegally. This did not only increase crime dramatically but also resulted in communal tensions. Certain groups dominated the TPDF; most notably, by 1978, more than 50% of all Tanzania soldiers were Kuria people despite making up less than 1% of the country’s entire population. Also, there were differences in the number of veterans from region to region, with some villages having more armed former soldiers than others. These lingering issues contributed to power shifts as well as growing inter-clan, inter-tribal and inter-village violence across Tanzania. A widespread notion among Tanzanians and some health workers is that the Kagera War contributed to the spread of AIDS across Tanzania (although the first identified case of AIDS in Tanzania was recorded in 1984).

Kagera War Legacy


The 435 Tanzanian soldiers that lost their lives during the Kagera War were interred at the Kaboya Military Cemetery in the Muleba District of Kagera Region. A white headstone was built in the cemetery on which the names of the dead were written. Nyerere, Prime Minister Sokoine, Vice President Aboud Jumbe, CCM Executive Secretary Pius Msekwa, and Chief of Defence Forces Abdallah Twalipo visited the headstone on July 26, 1979, to pay their respects to the fallen soldiers. Another monument was erected in Arusha. The monument displays a statue of a soldier celebrating victory. Julius Nyerere toured Arusha, Bukoba, Dar es Salaam, Dodoma, Iringa, Mara, Mtwara, Mwanza, and Zanzibar to show gratitude to the Tanzanian people for their contribution to the Kagera War effort. On September 1, 1979, various national ceremonies were held to appreciate the contribution of the public to the Kagera War effort. On July 25, 2014, Tanzania commemorated the 36th anniversary of the war and recognized the civilians and soldiers that died in the conflict.

After the end of the Kagera War and until Yoweri Museveni’s ascension to power in 1986, April 11 was celebrated as Liberation Day in Uganda. Uganda created the Kagera medal in the 2000’s. The medal was to be awarded to foreigners and Ugandan rebels who fought Idi Amin’s regime between 1971 and 1979. In 2002, Uganda reaffirmed its official commemoration of Amin’s deposition.

Historiography and Documentation

Not many books have been written about the Kagera War because historians have paid little attention to it. In 1980, Tanzanian journalist Baldwin Mzirai published a book titled Kuzama kwa Idi Amin. The book details the Tanzanian military operations during the conflict. In 1983, American journalists Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan published War in Uganda: The Legacy of Idi Amin. The journalists followed Tanzanian troops into Uganda and witnessed the battles of Kampala and Entebbe. In addition to covering the Kagera War, the 11-chapter book discusses some of its political consequences in Uganda. An Utenzi poetic account of the war titled Utenzi wa vita vya Kagera na anguko la Idi Amin Dada was published by Henry Muhanika in 1981. A colour documentary chronicling the Kagera War was released by the state-owned Tanzania Film Company and the Audio Visual Institute in 1980. The documentary was titled  Vita vya Kagera and emphasised the determination and bravery of the Tanzanian forces. In Uganda, the Kagera War is known as the 1979 Liberation War, while it is known as the Kagera War in Tanzania.

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