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Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA)

Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) is [presently inactive] armed group formed around 1962. The Uganda National Liberation Army was the backbone of President Milton Obote's second regime from 1980 to 1985. After independence, Uganda was governed for a period of 22 years by leaders (Obote, Amin, Obote and Okello) who hailed from the North. Those leaders did not address the mistakes which were inherited from their colonial masters. They instead sustained the status quo, given the fact that it enabled them to maintain a grip on the reigns of political power.

The NRA had been formed in 1981, but its political wing, the NRM, had not been organized as a government until 1985. And because the NRA had been confined primarily to Buganda and western Uganda when it ousted the northern-based Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), many Ugandans believed it had simply substituted southern political control for northern domination. Underlying this orientation was the composition of both NRA (“Southerners”) and UNLA (“Northerners”).

By 1978 Idi Amin's circle of close associates had shrunk significantly — the result of defections and executions. The once reliable Malire Mechanized Regiment mutinied, as did other units. In October 1978, Amin sent troops still loyal to him against the mutineers, some of whom fled across the Tanzanian border. Amin then claimed that Tanzanian president Nyerere, his perennial enemy, had been at the root of his troubles. Amin accused Nyerere of waging war against Uganda, and, hoping to divert attention from his internal troubles and rally Uganda against the foreign adversary, Amin invaded Tanzanian territory and formally annexed a section across the Kagera River boundary on 01 November 1978. Nyerere mobilized his citizen army reserves and counterattacked, joined by Ugandan exiles united as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). The Ugandan army retreated steadily, expending much of its energy by looting along the way.

The UNLA was mainly composed of members of the Acholi and Langi tribes from the northern part of Uganda. According to Amnesty International, the army ranks of the UNLA were filled by the urban unemployed; it was ill-clothed and ill-fed and paid irregularly... this combination of indiscipline and material shortage led to widespread theft and looting from the civilian population, and also the frequent imprisonment of individuals for ransoms (June 1989).

During Amin’s era, Acholi and Langi soldiers were purged as he narrowed the power base in the army in favor of his ancestral home of the West Nile. Finally, on April 10, 1979, Kampala fell. Amin went into exile in Tripoli, Libya, and approximately 8,000 of his soldiers retreated into Sudan and Zaire. The TPDF eventually withdrew from Uganda, and the victorious UNLA established an unstable government to restore peace and stability. The Acholi and Langi soldiers who fled as a result of Amin’s trauma returned in 1979 to dominate the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). A deliberate recruitment policy into the army of people from Acholi and Lango was designed to sustain the Obote II government’s power.

Yusuf Lule, chair of the UNLA's political arm, formed the new government. He called for law and order and outlined a strategy to rehabilitate Uganda. To improve the military's reputation, he set new standards of literacy and political education for army and police recruits. To reduce the army's political role and build a truly national force, he proclaimed his intention to draw military recruits from all ethnic groups in proportion to their population. In achieving this goal, Lule hoped to authorize increased military recruitment among the Baganda, Uganda's largest ethnic group. Non-Baganda government officials opposed this policy. The National Consultative Council (NCC), which became the new legislature, and the Military Commission, which oversaw the army's operation, refused to support Lule's policies, and they voted him out of office after only sixty-eight days as president.

In late 1979, the NCC elected Godfrey Binaisa, who had served as attorney general under Obote and Amin, to form a new government. Binaisa, an ineffective president, failed to consolidate support within the military. His failure to do so allowed senior army officers to operate almost independently of the government. Rather than authorizing military recruiting among all ethnic groups, Binaisa allowed then Minister of Defence Yoweri Kaguta Museveni to enlist a disproportionate number of volunteers from his home region in the southwest. The use of regional and ethnic affiliation as a political lever prompted a power struggle with Chief of Staff David Oyite Ojok, a northerner. Binaisa tried to resolve this dispute by dismissing Ojok.

The Military Commission rejected this action, ousted Binaisa and the NCC, assumed control of the government, and called for national elections in December 1980. Milton Obote, who had been ousted by Amin's 1971 military coup, returned to the presidency. Obote called on the army to restore peace, but instead several ethnic-based military forces emerged to challenge his authority.

The UNLA was notorious for the gross human rights violations committed against the people of Uganda during the Obote II regime (Minority Groups Rights Report 1989). The atrocities committed by the UNLA in the "Luwero Triangle" attracted the attention of the international community. Amnesty International further reports that according to the US State Department Report of 1984, between 100,000 and 200,000 people had been killed.

The government of President Milton Obote was overthrown in a military coup masterminded by one of his army commanders, Lt-General Tito Okello in July 1985. The government of Lt-Gen. Tito Okello was in turn overthrown six months later in another military coup which brought President Yoweri Museveni to power. The UNLA reportedly retreated to the north and waged a war against the National Resistance Army (NRA), the army that supports the government of President Museveni but some members were reportedly incorporated into the NRA (Africa Confidential Feb. 1987, 4).

As a result of battle fatigue from the conflict between the National Resistance Army (NRA) and government in 1985, an in-house fight developed between the Acholi and Langi. The Acholi faction of the UNLA led by Brigadier Bazilio Okello staged a coup d’ etat against Obote. To consolidate itself in power, the Okello junta incorporated into the army the various factions that had previously fought the Obote II regime. These included the Federal Democratic Army/Movement (FEDEMU), the Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM), the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF), and the Former Uganda Army (FUNA). The involvement of UNRF and FUNA raised the issue of northern domination of the army once again. The harmonization of all these factions was to be done on the basis of the Nairobi peace accord of 1985; unfortunately, the process collapsed.

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