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January 03, 2008
When freedom fighters become fascists

Former IGG and FDC Deputy Secretary General AUGUSTINE RUZINDANA went into exile in Tanzania to fight former president Idi Amin in 1972. Under My Life in Exile series this week, Ruzindana tells MICHAEL MUBANGIZI why he thinks people in power with whom he fought Idi Amin are repeating the same mistakes that forced them into exile and guerilla campaigns.

It wasn’t my childhood dream to join politics. There were no politicians during the colonial times when I was a child. There were teachers, priests, chiefs and traders.

Politicians came at a time of independence and even then from a remote village - Ruhaama - you never meet them. I think the first people I saw were campaigning for the 1961 elections and these are not people I would say I admired.

There were only two primary schools in my area. I was among the first people there to go to school. So my dream was partly to continue in school. I did not have any special thing I wanted to become.
I went to Kitabi Seminary in Bushenyi district (from 1961-64) because it was one of the few openings available. But again it was circumstantial; I can’t say I was dreaming to become a priest.

Besides coming from a Christian family, priests were also looking for people who were doing well academically in schools. So, two or three of us were selected to go to the seminary.

Political activism

During our time (1960s-70s), one became a leader by virtue of going to a secondary school.
My political activism developed in secondary school. By the time we went to the university (Nairobi University, 1967-70), we were already politically active.

There was a crisis in Uganda in 1966-7 when I was about to complete my secondary education. Kingdoms were being abolished, the expected elections never took place and the tenure of parliament was extended. Because of this turbulent period, one had to develop interest in politics to know what was happening.

I remember I started reading a magazine called Transition that generally discussed politics. Its editors [including Abu Mayanja-RIP] were later jailed.

There were liberation wars going on in Vietnam and African countries like Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. The literature we read that time was mainly liberation literature regarding armed struggles.

We also became interested in politics because of the troubled times in Uganda, the changes that were taking place in the region, like in Kenya where people like Tom Mboya were assassinated and Kenya’s KANU splitting.

For me I have been more of a political activist than a politician.
Politicians get involved in electoral competitions but political activists neither go into electoral politics nor become members of political parties.

Even as students we formed groups of like minded people. I was active in the student community but I never joined any political party. Political parties in Uganda weren’t active even before they were banned.

The first political organisation I joined was, I think, Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) which wasn’t a political party but a sort of liberation organisation.

Fighting Amin

After Idi Amin overthrew Milton Obote in 1971, a few of us like Eriya Kategaya, Martin Rwaheru, Mwesigwa Black agreed that he (Amin) must be opposed.

So I did not go out of the country, running away from Amin; I went out to fight Amin. I was in the first group that left for training. I left here in 1972. The late Martin Mwesiga had trained alone in 1971. I went for [more] training early 1973, which included the use of mortars and other artillery arms.

Everybody knows why Amin had to be opposed but those who did not know what his coming to power meant celebrated. Some of us easily evaluated that his coming to power was a disaster.

But this wasn’t clear to everybody just like now when again some of us said, “Look, the direction President Museveni is taking of becoming a life president is disastrous for the country.” Again not very many people see it as disastrous. When I saw Amin was becoming a disaster, I did something about it.

We were trained by FRELIMO (Mozambican revolutionary group led by Samora Machel) from early February to June 1972. From Uganda, I went to Tanzania by bus, passing through Nairobi. I wasn’t married which made it easier for me.
The first point of getting together was at [James] Wapakhabulo’s house in Arusha, Tanzania.

We met there as a group and subsequently went for training in Nachingwea. We did not live in that house, we just assembled there.
Wapakhabulo was part of the whole project and he facilitated it.
The training involved normal military training drills, weapons training. Subsequently we organised other people to be trained. These included people like Eriya Kategaya who I think trained in 1973. Museveni never went for training in our time.

Subsequently, we started mobilising to acquire arms and organise a fighting force. When you organise a group to fight you must thereafter organise what they fight with – arms, and all sorts of organisational activities. They need to eat, sleep…
They also had to be taught and politicised.

There were many supporters at that time all over East Africa. They contributed in various ways - accommodating people, transporting them. But most people were volunteers who weren’t paid.

1972 invasion

Shortly after the training, we were engaged in the 1972 invasion where some of our people, like Mwesigwa Black, died.
Not everybody participated because it depended on where one was but I did.

The invasion wasn’t organised by us, it was an Obote operation. We became part of it because we had a camp in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, which was an assembly place. Our people who happened to be in Bukoba participated.

There were two military axes. There was the Kyotera-Masaka-Kampala, and the western axis; Mbarara-Fort-portal. FRONASA was given the western axis whereas Obote’s Kikosi Maalum was given Kyotera-Masaka. It was commanded by Maj. Gen. Oyite Ojok and Gen. Tito Okello.

The group I was in went through Mbarara to Mutukula. It comprised about 300 people but the other group was much larger.
The invasion failed because it was ill-planned.

They did not have the necessary equipment, personnel and so on to fight up to Kampala. The Obote group also assumed that Amin was [very] unpopular. We in FRONASA did not share that view.

[Asked about claims that Museveni caused its failure because he failed to give them guns and fighters he had promised when they reach Mbarara].

Museveni and FRONASA people had not been involved in the planning of this invasion. Unfortunately, many people lost their lives -those who came and those who were inside the country but deemed to be against the regime.

Those killed included Mwesigwa Black and Martin Rwaheru. We had to announce the organisation to which those people (the dead) belonged. Museveni announced and I also announced in a press conference in Dar-es-Salaam.

We said that the people who were executed were our people in FRONASA. That FRONASA had a number of cadres trained militarily with the objective of overthrowing Amin.

It was all a disaster but something good came out of it. There was no repetition of these mistakes in the April 1979 invasion which finally saw the overthrow of Amin.

The formalisation of FRONASA was gradual but the declaration of its formation was after the September 1972 invasion when a number of our people were killed.

The name FRONASA arose from its activities - a united front brings together people of various backgrounds to fight or struggle for a specific objective. That is why the word front was used. The salvation bit was because Uganda was in crisis and needed to be saved.

I can’t say how many people were in the formation of FRONASA but they included Eriya Kategaya, Sam Kwesiga, Akena P’Ojok, the late Bintu Byakatonda, James Wapakhabulo.

Others were Mwesigwa Black and Martin Mwesiga, Zubairi Bakari and Maumbe Mukwana. Some people, like Akena P’Ojok, were originally in UPC but [took part] in the formation of FRONASA.

Diplomatic work

After the invasion, there were diplomatic activities aimed at resolving the problems between Tanzania and Uganda caused by the invasion.

Two agreements, Addis-Ababa Accord and Mogadishu Agreement, were signed between Uganda and Tanzania. These required the Tanzania government then led by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere to stop assisting Ugandans to fight Amin.

After the Mogadishu Accord, one day a group of us was picked and taken to a police station in Dar-es-Salaam in June, 1973. All of us were kept there for several weeks. Subsequently we all looked for work in 1974.

I first worked with Tanzania’s Ministry of Trade and TANESCO, which is the equivalent of UEB (Umeme Ltd.). Museveni went to teach at Moshi Co-operative College; Kategaya went to Lusaka, Wafula Oguttu was also in Dar-es-Salaam, Nabudere was also into teaching at Dar-es-Salaam University.

We continued in different ways. We formed discussion groups. Others formed new organisations such as the Uganda National Movement (UNM) headed by Prince John Barigye. Museveni started another training programme in 1976 with the help of FRELIMO, which was then (and now) in government in Mozambique.

Invading Tanzania

In 1978, when Amin attacked the Kagera salient, we quickly organised a meeting at Prof. Dani Nabudere’s house at Dar-es-Salaam University before the Moshi Conference. It was chaired by Omwony Ojwok and attended by Prof. Edward Rugumayo, Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, among others, in co-operation with Obote forces.

Then quickly there were organisations leading to the Moshi Conference. I was in Moshi but I never attended as a delegate. Not everybody was a delegate in the conference.

The Moshi Conference led to the formation of Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), which formed government after Amin’s ouster.
The Moshi Conference virtually brought together everybody, so that time there was no group opposing the new regime.

But it failed to provide a formula for stable government. It was an ad hoc thing that brought together people for a specific purpose not groups that naturally belonged together. Its disintegration led to the 1981-86 war.

[Asked if they ever worked with Obote who was in exile in Tanzania]
At the beginning we tried to coordinate with him - I attended one or two meetings at his house in Musasani, Dares-Salaam, but it failed and we went on our own.

We didn’t agree on strategy and tactics. We also did not agree to be part of his group (Kikosi Maalum). It was purely UPC and many of us weren’t.

Leaving exile

We came back immediately Amin fell, I think in April 1979. That time people called us wakombozi - liberators. Again I came back by bus. I don’t think I came with anybody. There was no such a thing as organising the return of people. That was the end of exile, full stop.

We first lived in hotels because there was no accommodation. We were many - in thousands. Others occupied houses that had been evacuated by members of the previous regime. I stayed in Imperial Hotel (now Grand Imperial) from 1979 to the end of 1980.


I won’t go into life after the exile but it gave us an experience which many people don’t have. We all read widely because there were debates, discussions among us. So it gave us a special historical experience, analytical tools that many people don’t have.

It also exposed us to various experiences. There are some of us who were lucky to get jobs but there are many who did not have jobs so they went through hardships to survive. We were also arrested many times.

We went in exile for a specific mission different from someone who was being run after or who went out for economic reasons.
As of now the conditions of struggle are different. There are difficulties, we have an autocratic regime which makes political organisation difficult, but it is possible to organise a political party and we have organised one.

Although it is persecuted, the conditions now don’t demand the same reaction (going to exile). Every period has its own forms of struggle. We now have the press - radio, newspapers, a much bigger educated and business class, and a civil society although it is weak. These things did not exist then. Although the media is under threat, there was none then.

The current regime, especially the President, expects that there won’t be a strong opposition. Unfortunately, because of his management, there is bound to be an opposition and a very strong one, which he doesn’t want.

I don’t think it is ever right for any one to regret a particular historical experience because quite often it is inevitable.

Last word

People made a lot of sacrifices and many of them died for what they believed was a good cause for the country.
Unfortunately, it has turned out different from what they expected. Nobody expected that their sacrifices would end up with a corrupt, repressive regime.

That is the disappointing thing - that people who had been fighting fascism, repressive regimes end up becoming repressive, corrupt; in some aspects more repressive than some of those they were fighting. It is a sad thing.



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