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Museveni and Saleh in the early years of the Bush War that brought the NRA/NRM to power
Museveni and Saleh in the early years of the Bush War that brought the NRA/NRM to power in the 80s. Courtesy photo

Kembogo: The Battle That Broke UNLA’s Back

Gen Saleh’s decision to stand and fight and choice of ground took them completely by surprise. Lt Cols Kiyengo and Erick Odwar seemed to anticipate that the Mobile Brigade would attempt to cross River Mayanja and return to Ngoma
posted onFebruary 5, 2019
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By Dennis Katungi

In March 1985, a column of NRA’s 11th Battalion, supportive civilians and the sick, started an arduous trek from the Luwero to Mt Rwenzori. They were led by Fred Rwigyema who had been appointed the NRA’s Deputy Army Commander. The Chairman of the High Command’s (CHC) intent in sending this column to the West was twofold. First, he wanted to remove the non-effective personnel from the central sector (where he anticipated that the decisive battles would be fought). This removal of civilians and the infirm from the central war theatre would free the fighting units of the Mobile Brigade and allow them to focus on confronting UNLA’s Special Brigade. This was well thought out because protective duties (for the civilian population in the triangle) were sapping the combat power of the Mobile Brigade.

Secondly, the CHC intended to open a second front in the West of Uganda. The second frontline had been in the offing since 1983 when the NRA retreated into Singo. Museveni had come under a lot of pressure from colleagues in the High Command about opening a second war front. The CHC argued that it was foolhardy to commit the few arms they then had in opening a second front when they had not yet fully developed the theatre in which they were already engaged. In the face of bitter sentiments from some of his colleagues, the CHC was unyielding. This was a hard time for the NRA, they had been forced to evacuate traditional bases in the Luwero Triangle by a ferocious UNLA ‘encircle and suppress’ campaign. The battle at Bukalabi had transpired a few months earlier and ‘Safari 50’ (an action which had been intended to capture arms, had turned out to be unyielding. Life was hard, food insufficient and morale was low.

It was remarkable that Museveni found the moral courage to continue making perceptive albeit unpopular decisions in this situation. They could not have known at the time, but Museveni’s decision to delay opening a second front was the smartest. Spreading the rebel Army thin in this weakened state might have spelt disaster, instead of concentrating to have an impact on one front they would have effectively dispersed to become inconsequential everywhere.  Always a meticulous Commander, the CHC refused to stake the fate of his troops on anything but cold hard war planning. There would be no second front until the enemy in the Luwero Triangle had been sufficiently destabilized and NRA’s strength had been correspondingly enhanced.

After the successful third battle of Kabamba, the CHC felt the time had come to open the second front in the West and assigned Member of High Command (MHC) Fred Rwigyema this important task. On March 12th 1985, after briefing Rwigyema, Salim Saleh & Moses Kigongo on their assignments, Yoweri Museveni exited Uganda. His mission abroad was to try and procure additional arms for the NRA.  Additionally, he wanted to engage the final thrust of international diplomatic initiative for the NRA’s impending seizure of power. Not even the CHC could have fathomed how quickly this campaign would evolve and how rapidly the enemy would crumble. 

In leading the NRA’s effort to open a second front, Rwigyema was (unwittingly) re-enacting Che Guevara’s famous - second front in the Escambray Mountains in 1958. The Mountains are located in the centre of Cuba, closer to Havana than the Sierra Maestra where Fidel Castrol’s guerrillas were firmly entrenched.  Just like Che’s offensive in the central province of Las Villas, demonstrated to the dictatorship of Batista the growing power of Castro’s 26th of July Movement, the arrival of NRA in the Rwenzori Mountains alarmed Milton Obote’s regime. Rwigyema’s departure from the Triangle triggered a series of events that would lead to the most decisive battle of the entire war.

Obote’s propagandists were not averse to seizing opportunities; they pitched Rwigyema’s trek westwards as a retreat.  They claimed that NRA was fleeing to Zaire after being defeated in the triangle.  However, UNLA’s commanders in Luwero were acutely aware of reality; they knew that their nemesis, Salim Saleh and his much-feared Mobile Brigade were dug in & alert in the triangle. John Ogole, Obote’s principal counter-insurgency commander, after the death of Oyite Ojok resolved that he would annihilate the Mobile Brigade once and for all.

Col. Ogole assembled the best commanders on the UNLA side for the task in hand. These were Lt Col Kiyengo, Lt Col Kirama, Lt Col Eric Odwar and Lt Col Otim. Ogole organized his Special Brigade into four reinforced battalions under the command of the officers mentioned. They were to track, block, close-in and destroy the Mobile Brigade. By this, he hoped to annihilate the most versatile fighting units of the NRA by application of superior firepower. A clash between the cream of the UNLA and the finest of the NRA was in the offing. This was a titanic encounter.

Ogole’s troops camped at Katikamu --- 2 km from Wobulenzi on the Kampala-Gulu Highway. They started advancing on the 18th June 1985. The advance started at Rwamata on Kiboga road. A special battalion started tracking NRA’s mobile brigade.  Saleh’s troops comprised 1st, 3rd, and 5th Battalions. They crossed river Mayanja and entered Singo. Saleh’s intent had originally been to employ counter-tracking measures to elude the enemy, but the battalions of Special Brigade were dogged and relentless in their pursuit. Once Mobile Brigade entered Singo they were pursued by a fresh battalion out of Bukomero. Saleh’s troops' counter-tracking measures failed to deceive the enemy. Two days were spent in Singo on evasive manoeuvres. 

On the 20th of June 1985, a confident Ogole dispatched a radio message to his battalions in which he correctly proclaimed: ‘If Salim Saleh’s Mobile Brigade is crushed, that will be the end of the war’.  NRA’s signals corps eavesdropped on this snippet and passed it on to Saleh. Whereas he appeared incensed; he kept his usual cool disposition.  That evening, he ordered his Aide de Camp JO11 James Kazini (RIP) to call the three commanders of the battalions.  Patrick Lumumba, Stephen Kashaka, and Fred Mugisha, Pecos Kutesa’s Deputy. Vital officers commanding other units within the Brigade came along. At around 9.00 pm on the night of the 20th of June, Mobile Brigade’s Commanders had assembled at Salim Saleh’s rudimentary tactical Hqrs. In the dark of the night, Junior Officer Rwabwisho, the rear guard commander (RIP), was asked to give a situation report (sit-rep). Thereafter, Saleh, speaking tersely told the gathering that they were done with running; ‘if the enemy wants a fight, let’s give it to them’.

He then ordered that support weapons (machine guns & rocket-propelled grenades) be concentrated in a firebase manned by the best men in the 3rd Battalion.  They formed a large L-shaped ambush that would intersect their tracks, i.e. facing the anticipated advance of the enemy the following day.  5th Battalion would establish the other part of the L-shaped ambush and be at right angles to 3rd Battalion. 1st Battalion would form a circular defensive position about 100 meters behind 3rd Battalion’s lines; this is where Saleh and his headquarters would position themselves. Before they dispersed for the task, Saleh ordered them to instruct their men to let the enemy advance to ‘point blank range’ before opening fire. ‘Let them get to about 10 meters before you fire’.

They could hear the enemy engaged in frenetic activity as they prepared. Before them, was a battle-hardened enemy; behind them was the unforgiving river Mayanja and across the river lying in an ambush was another of UNLA’s battalions.  The area where NRA chose to stand and fight is called Kembogo. It is located east of Bukomero and north of Kapeeka. The area is characterized by long savannah grass interspersed with shrubs. The long elephant grass provides good cover from view, but no cover from fire.  On this occasion, Saleh’s troops had carried enough ammunition.

The enemy force was led by Lt Cols Eric Odwar & Kiyengo. Their purpose was to hurl Mobile Brigade into the waiting ambush of the enemy battalion that was concealed ahead of them. As part of the efforts to break contact with this pursuit, Mobile Brigade fought a number of rearguard actions against the enemy on the 19th and 20th of June. JO11 Rwabisho was in command of these rearguard actions. The enemy started to advance at 10.00 am on the 21st of June 1985, in three columns. The leading enemy component was of company strength. They were boisterous and noisy. It would appear they expected a continuous NRA retreat. The soldiers of the Mobile Brigade maintained battle discipline and let the enemy approach.  Then all hell broke loose!

Machine gun fire and RPGs started to cut down swathes of the advancing enemy infantry. Moments after the firing started, 50 enemy soldiers lay dead. The UNLA’s advance came to a bloody halt, they were dazed and bewildered. It took about an hour for the UNLA commanders to get a grip of their forces and to order them to counter-attack what were now clearly visible NRA lines.  In the meantime, NRA forces moved forward and recovered 44 rifles as well as 5 machine guns (all fully loaded with ammunition).

UNLA launched its counter-attack, it advanced on the NRA lines under heavy and accurate mortar rounds.  UNLA poured copious amounts of machine gun fire in the direction of the NRA. However, this fire was not accurate because Mobile Brigade had carefully concealed its positions in the tall elephant grass.  Warrant Officer Class 11 Sekanjako of the 3rd Battalion’s C Coy recalled that they had prepared shell scrapes in the tall grass and thus had some protection from UNLA’s fire.  This inferno lasted about 2 hours, mortar rounds were landing around Saleh’s headquarters.  Kazini recalled that Saleh was incensed his staff had not dug trenches around HQ but in his customary nonchalance he soon lost interest in this line of questioning and continued focusing on the battle.

Saleh’s troops remained unfazed by this withering fire, allowing the enemy to advance to point-blank range before opening up again with their own devastating fire. More enemy soldiers were cut down.  Elements from 1st Battalion started reinforcing 3rd Battalion’s line and together they repulsed the UNLA’s counter-attack.

Then Saleh’s Hqrs noticed that an enemy column was surreptitiously advancing on their right flank. They aimed to outflank NRA’s lines, going around 3rd Battalion to attack the headquarters. Saleh ordered Kazini to go tell 5th Battalion to deploy urgently to meet the threat.  Kazini raced and told one of 5th Battalion’s Company Commanders ‘China’ Mafundo to deploy. China hurried off with his Company; Kazini went along for the fire-fight. A ferocious battle ensued to the rear of the NRA’s lines a stone’s throw away from Saleh’s Quarters. The belligerents were only meters from each other, firing at point blank range.  Kazini remembered that at this point, UNLA soldiers appeared resigned to their fate. ‘We were shooting them as if they were under a spell’.  One of Mobile Brigade’s officers, JO11 Kanyeihamba, was killed in this action.

The horrendous losses on the UNLA side broke UNLA’s fighting spirit and by 4.00 pm, the enemy’s morale had been crushed. It was at this point that the valiant Patrick Lumumba, CO, 3rd Battalion ordered a charge of the enemy. Sam Kavuma (now Maj. Gen) in UPDF was then a Platoon Sergeant in 3rd Battalion. He remembers Lumumba rousing them to charge the enemy. ‘At his signal, we all got up and rushed them, Kavuma recalls. It developed into a bloody pursuit, ‘our men were all intent on physically laying hands on the enemy’ continued Kavuma.  Word was that the Special Brigade had recently been supplied with new boots; it became the personal mission of every soldier in Mobile Brigade to get a pair. With this sort of aggression, the enemy was pursued as far as Lwamata. Many more enemy soldiers perished.

With the enemy in full retreat, Saleh asked to see Kanyeihamba’s body and it was brought to him. Learning over, he uttered the words: ‘Kanyeihamba, you have not died in vain’. JO11 China had lost a finger in the fighting around the headquarters and Saleh commiserated with him as well.  By the close of business that day, NRA had lost 23 fighters, while UNLA had lost 300 men. It was an awesome victory for NRA; indeed, it was the definitive battle of the resistance war. After Kembogo things were never the same again, for the UNLA, it was a ‘catastrophe’ as Eric Odwar reportedly told an anxious Col. Ogole, in a radio message on the night of 21st June 1985. Both Kiyengo and Odwar were off air for many hours that night and their worried Brigade Commander began to imagine the worst; finally, Odwar sent a terse message to HQ to the effect that: {special brigade had met with a catastrophe and he would relate the details when they met}.

The psychological effects of the defeat at Kembogo for the UNLA were as decisive as the battlefield losses they incurred.  Embittered, UNLA soldiers left the battlefield at Kembogo with mutiny on their mind. They were no longer willing to pursue the NRA and the immense losses suffered in that battle helped to accentuate the latent ethnic differences between the UNLA’s two dominant tribes – the Langi and Acholi.  The Acholi were the dominant majority ethnic group in UNLA, but the choicest positions in the army were reserved for the Langi (Obote’s tribesmen).  The appointment of Brig. Smith Opon Acak, a Langi as Chief of Staff, to replace Maj Gen Oyite Ojok (killed in a Helicopter crash) while supervising operations against NRA in December 1983) only served to add fuel to the flames of this ethnic rivalry. Acak’s elevation came before UNLA’s defeat at Kembogo.  This was done against the recommendation of Lt. Gen Tito Okello (an Acholi) who was the Army Commander of UNLA.

On 7th July 1985, these differences led to a shoot-out at Mbuya barracks in Kampala between soldiers of both ethnicities. Twenty days later, Milton Obote was toppled from power by Acholi officers and men of the UNLA, led by Lt. Gen Tito Okello and the commander of the UNLA’s 10th Brigade, Brigadier Bazilio Olara Okello. However, the actual campaign to overthrow Obote was orchestrated and commanded by a young lean Lt. Walter Ochora (RIP). The ebullient Walter Ochora later on joined NRA, was promoted to Colonel and on retirement from the Army, became Resident District Commissioner (RDC) Gulu.

It remains curious why the UNLA took such a risk with a powerful and potent guerrilla movement at Kembogo. It is probable that Col Ogole and his commanders felt that the NRA would not stand and fight. This was a remarkable miscalculation on the part of the Special Brigade’s leadership.  Not only had the NRA inflicted horrendous casualties on the UNLA over the past four years, but starting with 1984, it had proved adept in attacking and overwhelming large garrisons.  Yoweri Museveni writing in 1985 described the reversals suffered by the UNLA up to that point in time: ‘we defeated 16 major offensives of UNLA, destroyed or disorganized 250 [companies] and destroyed or disorganized 300 vehicles of all types. We killed more than 4,000 enemy soldiers. Therefore, it is incredible that Special Brigade could underestimate such a formidable force.’

Saleh’s decision to stand and fight and choice of ground took them completely by surprise. Lt Cols Kiyengo and Erick Odwar seemed to anticipate that the Mobile Brigade would attempt to cross River Mayanja and return to Ngoma. This seemed like a plausible and probable course of action in the judgment of UNLA. Also, by crossing the river and seeking to use this natural obstacle for delaying actions, Mobile Brigade thought they might shake off the enemy’s pursuit. The terrain in Kembogo area was too open; it did not offer the traditional protection (forest, mashes) that NRA normally exploited. Maj Gen Kazini (RIP) reasoned that ‘other senior NRA commanders would most probably have avoided a battle in that terrain; they would have attempted to cross River Mayanja and re-enter Ngoma, it was the natural thing to do. It was only Saleh who could have thought of fighting in such a place’. Indeed it was Saleh’s aggressive temperament that galvanized his Commanders and men to make such an outstanding military formation. Mobile Brigade had evolved into the sort of military unit that was capable of accomplishing major military upsets.  After Kembogo, the Brigade indelibly imposed a ‘defeat syndrome’ on the UNLA.

Although Kembogo is a prima facie example of a decisive battle of annihilation, it is worth noting that it was procured through the manoeuvre. Mobile Brigade essentially lured the enemy into a trap.  Saleh’s decision to stand and fight was the critical event that ensured that a battle of a decision was fought at Kembogo. It featured intense firepower, was fought at close range but NRA’s lines were sturdy and held ground.  Mobile Brigade’s pursuit of the enemy from 4.00 pm till dusk restored manoeuvre to the battlefield.  In pursuing the enemy at the end of the Kembogo battle, the commanders of Mobile Brigade demonstrated their grasp of manoeuvre warfare.

There is no doubt Kembogo was a turning point in the resistance war. For the NRA, it was the watershed that marked the transition of the struggle from mobile warfare to conventional warfare.  After Kembogo, things were never the same again for the NRA and the UNLA. In the words of the late Maj Gen Kazini: ‘we stopped being guerrillas, we became or felt like a regular conventional force’.

The UNLA never recovered the initiative and started backpedalling after the 21st June 1985. In the duel between the UNLA and NRA’s elite formations, Mobile Brigade had prevailed.

Edited extract from: Battles of the Uganda Resistance: A Tradition of Maneuver – by Major General Muhoozi Kainerugaba

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