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The War in the Bush

In February 1981, shortly after the new Obote government took office, with Paulo Muwanga as vice president and minister of defense, a former Military Commission member, Yoweri Museveni, and his armed supporters declared themselves the National Resistance Army (NRA). Museveni vowed to overthrow Obote by means of a popular rebellion, and what became known as "the war in the bush" began. Several other underground groups also emerged to attempt to sabotage the new regime, but they were eventually crushed. Museveni, who had guerrilla war experience with the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frente de Libertaçâo de Moçambique--Frelimo), campaigned in rural areas hostile to Obote's government, especially central and western Buganda and the western regions of Ankole and Bunyoro.

Museveni's National Resistance Movement (NRM) and its military wing, the National Resistance Army (NRA) both attracted members from western Uganda. Also working to oust Obote were the Former Uganda National Army (FUNA), most of whose members had served in the army under Amin, and the Uganda National Rescue Front (UNRF), which drew members from Amin's home territory in the northwest. In addition, the Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM) and the Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU), both based primarily in Buganda, opposed Obote. To suppress these groups, the Ministry of Defence spent one-fourth of the government's recurrent expenditures in 1983 and 1984; nevertheless, these groups remained active against the government.

The Obote government's four-year military effort to destroy its challengers resulted in vast areas of devastation and greater loss of life than during the eight years of Amin's rule. Obote's Uganda National Liberation Army had many Acholi and Langi who had been hastily enrolled with minimal training and little sense of discipline. Although they were survivors of Amin's genocidal purges of northeast Uganda, in the 1980s they were armed and in uniform, conducting similar actions against Bantu-speaking Ugandans in the south, with whom they appeared to feel no empathy or even pity.

The UNLA mounted counterinsurgency operations in numerous areas, including Arua and Moyo in the northwest, Karamoja in the northeast, and Luwero north of Kampala. The army, whose ranks were filled with poorly trained, poorly clothed, poorly fed, and irregularly paid foot soldiers, had almost no ability to sustain counterinsurgency operations. The government's inability to maintain discipline over the armed forces allowed many units to degenerate into unruly gangs. The military perpetrated numerous human rights violations and engaged in several illegal activities, including theft, looting, assault, and holding civilians for ransom.

In early 1983, to eliminate rural support for Museveni's guerrillas the area of Luwero District, north of Kampala, was targeted for a massive population removal affecting almost 750,000 people. These artificially created refugees were packed into several internment camps subject to military control, which in reality meant military abuse. Civilians outside the camps, in what came to be known as the "Luwero Triangle," were presumed to be guerrillas or guerrilla sympathizers and were treated accordingly. The farms of this highly productive agricultural area were looted--roofs, doors, and even door frames were stolen by UNLA troops. Civilian loss of life was extensive, as evidenced some years later by piles of human skulls in bush clearings and alongside rural roads.

The army concentrated on the northwestern corner of Uganda, in what was then West Nile District. Bordering Sudan, West Nile had provided the ethnic base for much of Idi Amin's earlier support and had enjoyed relative prosperity under his rule. Having born the brunt of Amin's anti-Acholi massacres in previous years, Acholi soldiers avenged themselves on inhabitants of Amin's home region, whom they blamed for their losses. In one famous incident in June 1981, Ugandan Army soldiers attacked a Catholic mission where local refugees had sought sanctuary. When the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported a subsequent massacre, the government expelled it from Uganda.

In pursuit of remnants of Amin's army in the northwest, UNLA troops entered the area and killed thousands of civilians, many of whom were women, children, and old people. According to a 1983 United Nations (UN) report, this reign of terror forced an estimated 260,000 refugees to flee to Sudan and Zaire. In the northeast, cattle rustlers acquired an army arsenal of automatic weapons and ammunition, which they used on raids in neighboring districts as well as southern Sudan and Kenya. In response to these raids, the UNLA and Kenyan authorities mounted a pacification campaign, which resulted in the eradication or displacement of most of southern Karamoja's population by mid-1984.

Despite these activities, Obote's government, unlike Amin's regime, was sensitive to its international image and realized the importance of securing foreign aid for the nation's economic recovery. Obote had sought and followed the advice of the International Monetary Fund, even though the austerity measures ran counter to his own ideology. He devalued the Uganda shilling by 100 percent, attempted to facilitate the export of cash crops, and postponed any plans he may once have entertained for reestablishing one-party rule. The continued sufferance of the DP, although much harried and abused by UPC stalwarts, became an important symbol to international donors.

The government's inability to eliminate Museveni and win the civil war sapped its economic strength, and the occupation of a large part of the country by an army hostile to the Ugandans living there furthered discontent with the regime. Abductions by the police, as well as the detentions and disappearances so characteristic of the Amin period, recurred. In place of torture at the infamous State Research Bureau at Nakasero, victims met the same fate at so-called "Nile Mansions." Amnesty International, a human rights organization, issued a chilling report of routine torture of civilian detainees at military barracks scattered across southern Uganda. The overall death toll from 1981 to 1985 was estimated as high as 500,000. Obote, once seen by the donor community as the one man with the experience and will to restore Uganda's fortunes, now appeared to be a liability to recovery.

Despite its many illegal activities, the UNLA's atrocities in the Luwero Triangle attracted the most international attention. In 1980 the inhabitants of this region had rejected Obote's rule and welcomed opposition guerrillas, including Museveni's NRA. Until the end of the Obote regime in 1985, the UNLA waged war against rebels and civilians in the area, and the Luwero Triangle became known for its devastation. Several local officials estimated that the UNLA killed between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians and that it detained, tortured, and assaulted several thousand others. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that 150,000 people displaced from Luwero had taken refuge in its camps.

In this deteriorating military and economic situation, Obote subordinated other matters to a military victory over Museveni. North Korean military advisers were invited to take part against the NRA rebels in what was to be a final campaign that won neither British nor United States approval.

By mid-1985 the demoralized UNLA began to disintegrate. The UNLA's failure to defeat the NRA, which had emerged as the strongest antigovernment guerrilla group, widened the gulf between the army and the Obote regime.The army was war-weary, and after the death of the highly capable General Oyite Ojok in a helicopter accident at the end of 1983, it began to split along ethnic lines. Acholi soldiers complained that they were given too much frontline action and too few rewards for their services. Obote delayed appointing a successor to Oyite Ojok for as long as possible.

In the end, he appointed a Langi to the post. Obote's promotion of Opon Acak, a junior officer from Obote's home region of Lango, to army chief of staff alienated much of the Acholi-dominated officer corps. Obote attempted to counter the objection of Acholi officers by spying on them, reviving his old paramilitary counterweight, the mostly Langi Special Force Units, and thus repeating some of the actions that led to his overthrow by Amin.

As if determined to replay the January 1971 events, Obote once again left the capital after giving orders for the arrest of a leading Acholi commander, Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) Basilio Olara Okello, who mobilized troops and entered Kampala on July 27, 1985. According to Okello, he launched the coup "to stop the bloodshed; to create conditions for viable peace, unity, development, and the promotion of human rights."

Obote, together with a large entourage, fled the country for Zambia. This time, unlike the last, Obote allegedly took much of the national treasury with him.

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Page last modified: 16-06-2015 20:52:48 ZULU