As we mark 39 years of Tarehe Sita that marked the beginning of a protracted people’s war that built for Uganda a national people’s army, National Resistance Army (NRA) now Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), we should remember that the country’s dream for almost a half a millennium, was realized in our times.
In the pre-colonial nation-states of Uganda be centralized like the kingdoms of Buganda, Bunyoro, Nkire, Sheema, Igara, Buhweju, Mpororo, Tooro, and principalities of Busoga, or decentralized like Teso, Acholi and Lango, there was no standing army. Today, we are proud of UPDF.
The society was a nation of arms in that if the need arose for defence or an attack, able-bodied men, and sometimes women were mobilized for the noble cause. That was the spirit of a people’s army.
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However, according to Ssemakula Kiwanuka (The History of Buganda From State Formation to 1900), when Kabaka Muteesa l of Buganda saw Egyptian brass band men, he started Ekitongole Ekigoowa (Department of Bras Band). Despite warnings that no Kabaka had ever raised a standing army fearing that it would stand against them, the army which was mainly of lumpens (abayaga) was never popular. It used to attack villages and kill people and rob them.
It was infested with religious sectarianism and overthrew Mwanga ll twice by a combined force of Muslims and Christians and later Protestants and he managed to regain the throne until the last in 1897 when he fled to Bunyoro and was later captured in Lango.
Then came Omukama Kabaleega of Bunyoro who also raised Abarusura as a standing army, who were ruthless. Although they managed to reclaim some of the areas, Bunyoro had lost to Buganda, Nkole, Tooro and even on the Western side of Lake Albert now in DR Congo. It was never a pro people’s army and one of the reasons for Rwenzuuruuru Movement was a reaction to the ruthlessness of Abarusura.
Then came colonial armies; The Nubians from Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt under Samuel Baker, Charles Godorn and Emin Pasha with a fort at Fatiko near Gulu. They were later inherited by Capt. Fredrick Lugard under imperial East Africa Company who also came with some Indians, some Somalis and some Swahilis.
This later became King’s African Rifles that covered British East Africa and saw service during first and second world wars. It was never a people’s army. It was used by the colonialists to conquer and subdue our nation-states and whenever there was a struggle by Africans for reforms like during 1945 and 1949 riots when Africans wanted to get their cotton, and fighting Asians monopoly of export trade, it was used to suppress them with all the brutality.
As the struggle for independence intensified, the colonial army changed names from K.A.R. to East Africa Rifles, then Tanganyika Rifles, Uganda Rifles and Kenya Rifles. This was the army that mutinied in 1964 and although on the mainland it was suppressed or persuaded to abandon mutiny, in Zanzibar, it was a successful coup and revolution against the Sultanate.
While Tanzania under Mwalimu Julius Nyerere with the help of the British and Nigeria, used the opportunity to recruit and train a national people’s army under Tanzania People’s Defence Forces, Uganda under Dr Milton Obote enjoyed keeping the status quo as our army was not regionally balanced and was full up of illiterates and semi-literates.
For example, by 1971, the Uganda Army was 6,000 strong in terms of officers. Out of which, 5,000 were hailing from the North. In Kabamba School of infantry then, there were 1,800 recruits of which 1,500 were hailing from the North.
This colonial or neo-colonial army supported Obote in abrogating 1962 Independence constitution during 1966 crisis, supported Amin in 1971 coup and kept him in power until it was defeated by the people’s army from Tanzania and Ugandan exiles.
There was hope that the Uganda National Liberation Front/Army (UNLF/UNLA) was going to raise for Uganda a national people’s army. Efforts were done by those on Western Axis under Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) led by Yoweri Museveni for massive recruitment of able-bodied men and women.
However, those in Central Axis under the then Col. Tito Okello and the then Lt. Col. Oyite Ojok, did not recruit from Mutukula to Karuma, because those were wrong tribes. Instead, they brought in the militia from the North that caused genocide not only in Luwero Triangle but also in West Nile.
So, NRA now UPDF fulfilled the remote dream when it was recruited from peasants of Luwero Triangle not lumpens of Kampala, officered by graduates, and after capturing state power, integrated all the fighting groups including UNLA then under Maj.Gen. Zeddy Maruru, Uganda National Rescue Front under Gen.Moses Ali, Former Uganda National Army under Maj. Gen. Isaac Lumago, Uganda Freedom Movement under Dr. Lutakome Kayiira, Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU) under Dr. Lwanga and many others.
In a nutshell, UPDF is contributing tremendously to the sustainable development of our country, the Engineering Brigade, Operation Wealth Creation are all doing well. UPDF, is now a people’s army.
The Writer is a Communication Assistant at Government Citizen Interaction Centre (GCIC), Ministry of ICT and National Guidance.