How NRF rebels helped overthrow Obote

By Henry Lubega

Maj (Rtd) Wahib Muhammed had been a military officer in the Amin regime and at the same time the commissioner for Kampala District from 1978 until the fall of the regime in 1979.
In exile, he was among those who formed the rebel outfit National Rescue Front (NRF) to fight their way back home from their base in Sudan, where they linked up with Tito Okello-Lutwa to come and overthrow Obote.

The NRF was formed around September 1971 in Rajaf, Sudan, by the former big shots in the Amin regime such as Moses Ali and Mustapha Adris. The NRF was already fighting the regime in Kampala way before the 1980 general elections that forced Yoweri Museveni into the bush.
“By the time of NRF formation, it was agreed that we are refugees who will have to go back home but the situation at the time would not allow us back home peacefully but through the use of arms. Our operations were being coordinated from capital cities such as Nairobi and Kinshasa but Nairobi was the main operation base,” says Maj Wahib.

Connecting with Tito Okello
“Tito was running away from Uganda because of the tribal conflict with the army. He crossed into Sudan and went to the officers’ mess in Juba where he was received by Sudan officers. They must have been shocked when they learnt that he was fleeing Uganda where he was the army commander. They told him of our existence and advised him to talk to us first before proceeding with his plans,” he adds.
Maj Wahib says the Sudanese army was already aware of their presence on the Uganda-Sudan border and they had a good working relationship.
“Our forces already controlled territory on the Sudan-Uganda border in the areas of Yumbe and Ladonga where we had established bases,” he says.
In Juba, the Sudanese officers told Tito to hold talks with Ali so as to reach consensus.
Tito was brought to Ladonga where he met the field commander, the late Amin Onzi.

During their meeting, Tito told Onzi that “these people in Uganda are denying us our rights we have been fighting you but for us, we have no problem with you. It was only the head of state who is not listening to us to solve the problem we are facing”.
Onzi told Tito that they had enough manpower to walk to Kampala but lacked weapons.
At the time of the meeting in Ladong, Gulu was in the hands of the Acholi army faction under the command of Bazillio Olara Okello. Tito was given a number of soldiers and they went to Gulu barracks from where they took trucks full of weapons and ammunition and brought them to the base at the border.

Maj Wahib says Obote had made a miscalculation of placing most of the weapons in Gulu and Lira, thinking that the two will forever be united. The men under Okello in Gulu also paid loyalty to Tito.
“When our group got the guns and were put in touch with the group under the command of Bazilio in Gulu, they started moving to Kampala, and I am sure without our men, it would not have been possible to remove Obote at that time,” he says.

However before Tito came into the picture, Maj Wahib says they had already reached an agreement with the NRA that was fighting from the west that whoever got to Kampala first, they would form a unity government. When the Obote government fell in July 1985, he says they did not want to appear traitors to their NRA colleagues friends fighting in the West, but that they had to stay with the new government just to weaken it.
“A short while after the fall of the Obote government, the people we had joined hands with to topple Obote changed their position on security. There was a lot of looting, raping and insecurity increased,” he says.
Maj Wahib adds that when we reached Kampala, the Lutwa government gave then Fairway Hotel as their administration base and Wakiso as the tactical base.

“As part of the government, we deployed at Katonga during the standoff with the NRA rebels but since we already had an agreement with them, we were not going to open fire at them. Our field commander then was Lt Col John Ona, our friends in government had left us in charge of the affairs in Katonga and concentrated on ferrying their families out of Kampala. Our friends on the government side had left us in-charge of the affairs at Katonga and many of them concentrated on how to take their families out of Kampala,” he says.

Cracks emerge
He adds that the Lutwa government was not spared the internal strife as seen in the Obote II government.
Maj Wahib adds that army officers from western Acholi were at logger heads with their colleagues from eastern Acholi.
“Those from western Acholi felt they were being segregated against,” he says.
He adds that when they withdrew from Katonga.

“From our administration base at Fairway hotel, communication from the top leaders came and we also realised that there was no cause to stay in Kampala since those we had joined hands with to fight Obote had melted away,” he says.
“It was now brothers fighting brothers, so what we did was to make a tactical withdrawal. I and other commanders such as John Bamuze led our troops, which had withdrawn from Katonga, all the way to Bombo, where we stayed for two days. From Bombo, we continued to Gulu then to Adjumani and finally to Moyo, where we formed an interim administration until when the NRA came.”

The impact

1985. The 1985 military coup that toppled president Milton Obote eased the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebels’ passage to Kampala.
Six months after the fall of Obote, Gen Tito Okello and Bazilio Okello’s military commission-led government was also toppled. After another two months, the whole country was in the hands of former rebels-turned national army.

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