WHO FOUGHT? Chihandae supplied 16 of the first 27 NRA guns

Continuing our series, Who Fought? an insight into the fighters' contribution to the guerilla war that brought President Museveni to power in 1986, SSEMUJJU IBRAHIM NGANDA re-examines Col. JULIUS CHIHANDAE's role, the first man to be injured in the five-year war.

Just as his military number, RO 0024 suggests, Chihandae is one of the founders of the National Resistance Army (NRA), but he later fell out of favour after the takeover of Kampala on January 26,1986.

Veterans of the Luwero-bush war say Chihandae provided 16 of the 27 guns the NRA used to launch its rebellion in 1981. The guns were stolen from Gulu military barracks where he served as a junior officer in the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).

They were delivered to Kampala on a Nissan pick-up truck by Andrew Lutaaya who was his driver. Lutaaya, also a bush-war fighter is now a Brigadier. Chihandae who hails from Mbarara began his military career in 1979—the year he joined Yoweri Museveni’s FRONASA, one of the groups that fought late President Idi Amin’s regime.

FRONASA guided the Tanzanian People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) on the western axis whose main task was to capture Mbarara where Amin had a big barracks. Brig. Pecos Kutesa is also said to have joined FRONASA around the same time.

After the fall of Amin’s regime in April 1979, all Ugandan fighting groups were merged to form the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). Chihandae was one of the UNLA soldiers sent to Monduli in Tanzania for an Officer Cadet training. Upon his return from Tanzania, he was deployed in Nakasongola at the rank of second lieutenant.

While Chihandae could not be reached to be interviewed for this article, some of his fellow fighters say that Sam Katabarwa, another FRONASA fighter persuaded him to desert the UNLA and join the bush-war.

Now an attaché in Uganda’s embassy in Saudi Arabia, Chihandae’s first diplomatic posting was to Cairo in May 1996 as minister councilor. His posting to Cairo came as part of a rehabilitation drive after he spent about a year in a dungeon in Lubiri Barracks for allegedly aiding his friend, Col. Ahmed Kashilingi, to flee the country. Kashilingi had then fallen out of favour with the powers that be (see The Observer, June 18-21, 2009).

Both men were among the 10 commanding officers who headed the NRA’s 10 battalions that launched a final assault on Kampala.

Shot during first attack

Chihandae was one of the 33 men led by Yoweri Museveni who attacked Kabamba Barracks on February 6, 1981 in what marked the launch of the NRA bush-war. Of the 33 people, only seven, including Chihandae, were commissioned officers. It is reported that having been a trained soldier, he actually participated in planning the attack.
Others were; Lt. Rubereza, 2nd Lt. Sam Katabarwa, 2nd Lt. Sam Magara, 2nd Lt. Jackson Mule Muwanga, 2nd Lt. Elly Tumwine and 2nd Lt. Ahmed Sseguya. He is also said to have participated in mobilising the early recruits from places such as Kitgum, Lira and Moroto.

His role during the attack on Kabamba was to destroy the communication room (signal centre) in the barracks. For that mission, he commanded a squad of seven people.

His mission was successful; he indeed neutralized the signal centre. However, one of his colleagues shot and shattered his knee, making him the first causality of the NRA war. He was evacuated to the quarter guard where some of his colleagues had camped after they failed to gain entry into the fortified underground armory.

The failure to access the arms was attributed to Gen. Elly Tumwine’s blunder. It is reported that instead of wrestling and subduing the guard on duty at the quarter guard, Tumwine instead shot him and in the process alerted the whole barracks to the presence of the attackers.

The late Hannington Mugabi bandaged his knee and with the help of colleagues, placed him on the truck and the rebels fled to Kiboga. Andrew Lutaaya took him to Kiboga Hospital and handed him to a nurse called Florence Nakatto who informed Dr. Sserunjogi, the Medical Superintendent.

But luck was not on the injured man’s side as government soldiers swarmed Kiboga areas looking for rebels, days after his admission to the hospital. So, NRA veterans say that Nakatto smuggled Chihandae out of hospital and kept him in a neighbouring village from where he was picked by relatives and taken to Kampala.

His rotting knee was treated in Kampala. But he was later smuggled out of the country and taken to Nairobi. In Nairobi he reunited with Sam Katabarwa, the man who persuaded him to join the rebellion.

A senior UPDF officer told The Observer that Dr. Ben Mbonye who was working at Kabette Hospital in Nairobi supervised Chihandae’s treatment. This injury kept him away from the bush for about a year.

When he recovered, Chihandae was dispatched to Libya to acquaint himself with the way arms would be dropped to the NRA in the bush. This mission never materialized because of miscommunication, some officers said.

Return to the bush

So courageous and determined was Chihandae that even after this experience, he rejoined his colleagues in the Luwero jungles.

There are conflicting reports on how he returned to the bush. Some veterans said he returned with Yoweri Museveni in December 1981 after the Chairman of the High Command’s trip to Nairobi and Libya, others say that Chihandae returned later with some fighters who had escorted Museveni to Nairobi.

The escorts were supposed to go to Libya with Chihandae to train on how to receive Libya’s consignments. Veterans tell us that Sam Kalega Njuba, FDC national chairman together with Andrew Lutaaya transported Chihandae up to the point where he was able to walk back to Luwero triangle.

Upon his return from Nairobi, Chihandae was immediately appointed the Director of National Operations based at the High Command Headquarters. This new deployment was symbolic to fit with his status but with little work to do. He was deputized by Geoffrey Muhetsi (now a Brigadier) who had just been recruited.  

Like all senior officers at the High Command, Chihandae would be called upon to participate in operations, especially where experience was required. For example he deputized late Mutebi when the rebels carried out the Kakinga operation. Commander Mutebi died during the operation and Chihandae took over.
Chihandae also participated in the attack of UNLA soldiers who had camped at Katiti sub-county headquarters that took place in February 1983. This attack was so important, coming on the back of the UNLA’s February 21, 1983 ambush of NRA mobile forces, that killed 10 fighters and injured Commander Salim Saleh during the battle of Bukalabi.

Because Saleh had been injured, David Tinyefuza led the Rapid Response Force’s onslaught on UNLA forces that had camped at Katiti sub-county headquarters, a few miles from the rebel base.

So important was this operation that several senior officers were asked to take part. The senior officers included; Jim Muhwezi, Ahmed Kashilingi and Steven Kashaka and it came almost two days after the Bukalabi incident.

Chihandae was Tinyefuza’s second in command during this operation. This operation almost turned into a disaster with its overall commander, David Tinyefuza, severely injured by the UNLA fire. His colleagues at first thought he had been killed. They carried him back on shoulders to the High Command base for treatment.

With Saleh and Tinyefuza injured, Chihandae became the commander of the Mobile Brigade Force during a period some NRA veterans described as a bad for the guerrillas. After surviving the Bukalabi and Katiti battles, the starving and demoralized fighters decided to abandon their bases in Bulemeezi and went to Lukola, in Singo.

To morale boost the fighters, Museveni sent them to carry out a second attack on Kabamba under Elly Tumwine but called it off after the starving fighters deserted and misbehaved along the more than one week trek. Those who misbehaved were caned 50 strokes each hence the name, ‘Safari 50’ as the aborted journey came to be called.

The attack had been planned to be executed by three battalions; the 1st Battalion under Pecos Kutesa deputized by Edward Barihona, the 2nd Battalion under Chihandae, deputized by Ahmed Kashilingi and Joram Mugume’s 3rd Battalion.

Chihandae was also responsible for preventing the UNLA forces based in Bukomero from attacking the main rebel base. During that time, there were daily battles in which the NRA fighters like Kagina and Ngoboka died.

Chihandae also deputized late Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema when an NRA force attacked Kiboga in June 1983. The success of this operation lifted the spirits of the rebels who had been beaten at Bukalabi and Katiti and were being pursued by the UNLA.
When NRA resolved to attack Masindi barracks around 1984, Chihandae’s second battalion was supposed to be the point unit but it was hit by the UNLA and again an operation under Tumwine was called off. After the cancellation of the Masindi attack, Chihandae became the court martial boss, working with Paul Kagame, now President of Rwanda.

Some veterans alleged that it appears Saleh didn’t want to work with him. The two men later became great friends and Chihandae was Saleh’s best man when he wed Jovia in 1988. Chihandae with his second battalion was also part of the force commanded by Saleh that successfully carried out the third attack on Kabamba on January 1, 1985.

At this time, Chihandae was in charge of a section of the NRA called Nkrumah that was renamed 9th Battalion.

March to Kampala

The successful attack on Kabamba gave the NRA more guns and rejuvenated the fighting spirit. With more arms, the rebels opened a second front, commonly known as the Western Axis with Rwigyema as the overall commander and Moses Kigongo as overall political head.

Jim Muhwezi was the intelligence chief and Col. Amanya Mushega the political commissar. The Western Axis comprised the 11th Battalion of Chefe Ali and 15th Battalion commanded by Samson Mande (now a renegade colonel).

When this Western Axis planned to attack Rubona Prison where UNLA had camped, Chihandae’s 9th Battalion was summoned to re-enforce them. It was Chihandae who captured Kamwenge and Bihanga Prisons and later addressed a rally in Ibanda.

Eventually the 9th, 11th and 15th battalions simultaneously attacked and overrun Mbarara Barracks. The rebels were however surrounded by the UNLA soldiers who had duped them that they had deserted the barracks and inflicted serious casualities.

After this surprise attack, Chihandae’s 9th battalion and Chefe Ali’s 11th battalion were ordered to besiege Mbarara Barracks forcing it to surrender in late 1985. Chihandae’s battalion was then divided into two, 400 of his fighters were sent to Katonga to re-enforce Kashilingi and Pecos Kutesa who were advancing towards Kampala.

The remaining 9th battalion fighters were deployed in Kabale to guard against a possible attack by the UNLA from Rwanda. Chihandae forces in Kabale were the ones that received Prince Ronald Muwenda Mutebi who visited the NRA bases in the company of John Nagenda.

After the take over, Chihandae was appointed to deputize Brig. Matayo Kyaligonza as Commanding Officer of the 150 Brigade. When the army ranks were introduced around 1988, Chihandae became a colonel together with Pecos Kutesa (now Brigadier) and Joram Mugume (now Maj. General). He has never been promoted since then.

He worked with Kyaligonza for only a few months before he was appointed the Chief of Personnel and Administration. But because of an internal rift, he was retired together with Salim Saleh and Col. Ahmed Kashilingi in November 1989.

It is alleged that Elly Tumwine, the first NRA army commander after capturing power, did not like Chihandae to the extent that he would not return his salute. Chihandae’s downfall is attributed to this rivalry which had ethnic undertones. He is a Mwiru while Tuwmine is a Muhima.

Not only was he retired from the army unceremoniously through a radio announcement but was later to be arrested after his neighbour Col. Kashilingi who had been arrested escaped from his captors and fled to DR Congo.

Chihandae was arrested and kept in a dungeon in Lubiri Barracks for about a year. His crime was that he had talked to Kashilingi and could have advised him to escape. He was found innocent in the General Court Martial and set free. When he returned home, he found his residence on Acacia Road in Kololo looted by soldiers who had been sent to look for guns he allegedly stashed away with the intention of shooting down Museveni’s helicopter.

Even after his release, the army closely watched his movements. He was stopped from attending the burial of his son who died shortly after his release. With no income and property, he began selling tomatoes and charcoal. It is after the media published a story of a bush-war hero who was vending charcoal that Museveni appointed him minister councilor at Cairo embassy.

Veterans wonder why the man who provided 16 of the 27 guns they used to launch the rebellion was not even appointed on the historical high command.

Next Thursday, we analyze Gen. Paul Kagame role in this war.
© 2016 Observer Media Ltd