How a bar fight sparked the 1979 Uganda - Tanzania war that brought to an end the bloody reign of Idi Amin

After the October 1978 incident Amin blamed Nyerere and declared a state of war against Tanzania. He sent troops to invade and annex part of the Kagera region of Tanzania, which Amin claimed belonged to Uganda.

However, before the war started relations between Tanzania and Uganda had already been strained for years.

After Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971, the Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere offered sanctuary to Uganda’s ousted president, Milton Obote. Obote was joined by 20,000 refugees fleeing Uganda fearing persecution by Amin.

After the October 1978 incident Amin blamed Nyerere for backing and arming his enemies and declared a state of war against Tanzania, and sent troops to invade and annex part of the Kagera region of Tanzania, which Amin claimed belonged to Uganda.

Tanzania president Julius Nyerere couldn’t just sit and watch as Amin forces attempted to march to Dar es Salaam, the place of peace, could he?

Nyerere mobilized the Tanzania People’s Defence Force and launched a fierce counterattack. In a few weeks, the Tanzanian army was expanded from less than 40,000 troops to over 100,000 including members of the police, prison services, national service, and the militia.

The Tanzanian troops were joined by several anti-Amin groups consisting of Ugandan exiles, who at a conference in Moshi (Moshi Conference) had united as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).

These included Kikosi Maalum commanded by Tito Okello and David Oyite Ojok, FRONASA commanded by Yoweri Museveni, and Save Uganda Movement commanded by Akena p’Ojok, William Omaria, and Ateker Ejalu.

Ill-equipped indiscipline and demoralized even with the help of Libyan forces and a token force of Palestinian volunteers, Uganda forces were no match to Tanzanians.

After a brief decisive battle of Lukuya the Libyan forces quickly fell into disarray and offered little resistance, allowing the Tanzanians and the UNLF to then proceed to Kampala where they liberated the city and brought to an end the bloody reign of Idi Amin.

After being overthrown, Amin fled to Libya temporarily and then to Saudi Arabia where he lived the rest of his life in exile until his death in 2003.

That is the long and short of the Uganda–Tanzania War of 1978–1979, at least according to historical accounts.

New information has however, emerged that as much as Amin’s blotted ego played a central role in fueling the war he was not entirely responsible in starting the war rather an innocent  bar fight was what sparked the whole war.

On the evening of October 9, 1978, one Ugandan soldier stationed at Mutukula military camp near the border sneaked into Tanzania for a drink.

At the bar, a quarrel started and he was roughed up by Tanzanian civilians. He later returned to Uganda disappointed.

Ready for revenge, the soldier picked his gun from his station near Sango Bay the following morning and went back to Tanzania alone, with intent to kill.

Luckily, people saw him and ran for their lives. But still filled with anger, the soldier shot in the Tanzanian territory; but no one was hurt.

He then returned to his base and reported the matter to his commander, Lt Byansi who in turn communicated to his superior, battalion commander in Kampala Lt Col Juma Oka of the Malire Mechanised Specialised Reconnaissance Regime at Lubiri.

Instead of informing his superiors, Lt Col Oka, aka Butabika (mental case), ordered Lt Byansi to immediately attack the Tanzanian territory as reinforcement came from Kampala. This is according to former Uganda Army officer UO 824, Lt Muzamir Amule, who was a friend of Lt Byansi.

The new account therefore suggests that it was Oka’s rush action and lack of self-restraint and diplomacy that sparked off the war. In fact, by the time Amin was informed, war equipment from Lubiri in Kampala had already advanced as far as Mutukula.

“Why would any sensible commander reinforce his troops at the Mutukula border with soldiers from Kampala?” says Amule, who was stationed at Masaka Barracks as reported by Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

In his book Cross to the Gun, Maj Gen Bernard Rwehururu, who has since long died,  mentions Lt Amule as good tank commander and driver in the Uganda Army by 1979.

In his book Sowing the Mustard Seed, while commenting on Uganda invading Tanzania in 1978 on page 92, President Museveni writes:

“ Hopelessly, out of his depth, Amin was always fond of doing and saying outrageous things…he appears to have thought that by invading Tanzania, he was ‘teaching president Nyerere a lesson’! Nyerere said Amin’s attack had given Tanzanians the cause (sababu), and they had the will (nia) and the means (uwezo) to fight him.”

Then a Staff Sergeant in the Artillery Regiment, Kasirye Gwanga, then 27, fought that war.

“The funny part is that a lot of people have come up with so many stories about that war. But the war was started by the brother-in-law of Lt Col Juma Oka, aka Juma Butabika,” Brig Gwanga says.

“One night, soldiers decided to cross over to Tanzania for a drink. In the process, they met Tanzanian soldiers and they had a fight and the Tanzanians beat the hell out of these ones [Ugandan soldiers].”

“After these [Ugandan soldiers] had been beaten up, they ran back to their camp in Uganda and got their Armed Personnel Carriers. They went back, now for war. When the Tanzanians saw these armed vehicles, they took to their heels.”

“And when they [Tanzanian forces] ran, they sent a message to Dar es Salaam, saying they had been attacked. Because there had been tension between Uganda and Tanzania, they sent a company [more than 100 soldiers].”

Asked if the 1979 war that toppled Field Marshal Idi Amin was actually started inside a bar at Mutukula, Brig Kasirye Gwanga says, “Oh, that boy, Juma Oka’s brother-in-law, brought us trouble.”


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