In this third and final part of his conversation with The Observer, Col FRED BOGERE speaks about himself and recounts his journey into the bush war.
Now retired, the mild-mannered officer, who firmly rejects the idea of getting back into politics, will go down in Uganda’s history as the only officer (of the ten army representatives in parliament) who stood up against President Museveni’s scrapping of presidential term limits, writes Baker Batte Lule.
Col Fred Bogere was born in 1960 to the late Eriazayi Kyasanku and Erios Nansasi of Kizito, Luweero district. In failing health, Nansasi lives with Bogere in Mbuya.
Bogere went to Luweero Boys Primary School, Old Kampala SS for O-level, and then briefly Kampala High School (present-day Aga Khan SS) for A-level. Bogere joined Kampala High School shortly after the disputed 1980 elections. He campaigned for the Democratic Party.
Yoweri Museveni had warned throughout the campaigns that he would go to the bush if the Uganda Peoples Congress led by Dr Apollo Milton Obote cheated, never mind that his Uganda Patriotic Movement stood very little chance of winning. After UPC was announced winner, Museveni declared armed resistance.
State security began hunting for anyone suspected of having rebel connections. That’s how Bogere became a victim.
“Although I didn’t support Museveni in the elections, I identified myself with efforts of taking on the government using arms,” Bogere says.
Word quickly spread; before he knew it, soldiers came knocking at Kampala High.
“When they came to pick me, they went to the office of the head teacher but a teacher friend identified them as coming from security. He then came to class and advised me to leave immediately. I jumped over the fence and went through the Coffee Football club training grounds, present-day Kisekka market, crossed to Bat Valley, then disappeared never to come back to the school,” Bogere says.
This was the beginning of a journey into the military, which ended rather unceremoniously in October 2016.
He linked up with a rebel collaborator, Sam Mbajjwe, in Ndeeba. Mbajwe was able to get him to people like Sam Male who used to work with the then Libyan Arab Bank, now called Tropical Bank; Dr Jack Luyombya, Prof Richard Kanyerezi and Sam Njuba, among others.
These men were coordinating the rebellion then spearheaded by former president, Professor Yusuf Kironde Lule and Yoweri Museveni.
Bogere says Njuba knew people inside the immigration department who provided one-way travel documents for dissidents. And that is how Bogere made it to Nairobi where he met Kirunda Kivejinja, the late Edward Mugalu, Matthew Rukikaire and other Ugandans.
Prof Lule visits
In Nairobi, Ugandan exiles stayed in two camps, one of which was in the Hurlingham suburb. It was here that Bogere stayed. Months later, Prof Lule visited from the United Kingdom and met them at the Intercontinental hotel Nairobi.
“He tried focusing us on seeing that we were the future of Uganda and needed us to volunteer and liberate our country,” Bogere says. After getting assurances that they were ready, Lule told them to get ready to travel to a country he didn’t disclose, for training.
“Njuba came back to Uganda to work out some documents for us to travel,” Bogere says.
They were eventually airlifted to Libya through Greece to start a year-long military training. Others came from elsewhere: Col (rtd) Amanya Mushega travelled from Lusaka, Zambia; Gen Kale Kayihura (now police chief) came in from the UK; Christopher Karuhanga, Stuart Kazungu, Andrew Mucwa all took part in this training.
Then it was back to Nairobi before sneaking back into Uganda to join their colleagues in the jungles of Luweero. They tried two times before they succeeded on Lake Victoria.
“The first time we were arrested at a place called Sigulu within Kenya because there was a law by then which prohibited gatherings of groups of more than seven. We happened to have been 25 of us; very young men with jackets and very funny boots. We were rounded up,” Bogere says.
It was after the intervention of Njuba, who had a very good relationship with the then Kenyan attorney general Charles Njonjo, that they were let free.
Word, however, reached authorities in Uganda that their Kenyan counterparts had arrested guerrillas who were trying to sneak into the country.
“We took a decision that we go back and wait for the situation to first cool down a bit. We stayed in Nairobi for some time as we worked out another route,” Bogere says. The second attempt would have been fatal.
Bogere says they crossed Lake Victoria but when they reached the agreed place, those who were supposed to pick them never showed up. As morning dawned, they realised that they had landed near Luzira prison and immediately tailed it back to the Kenyan side.
On the third attempt, they landed at Kwata in Mukono district at the farm of the late Edward Mugalu. From there, it was on to a rebel camp in Namugongo under the command of now Maj Gen Matayo Kyaligonza and Col Sserwanga Lwanga (deceased).
The Namugongo group specialized in urban guerrilla warfare. Bogere was once asked to persuade some young people to join the struggle. He came to Kampala but was unsuccessful. Many Baganda, Bogere says, set several conditions before joining.
“The chairman of the High Command, I think, got a lot of criticism for having so many people including commanders coming from western Uganda. People would meet you but they were not accepting; they wanted assurances that they would start at the rank of a captain,” Bogere says.
“By then, not like now, we were very straight. We would say this we cannot do.”
Bogere adds that those who joined were not as educated as the fighters from western Uganda. Also, none of the westerners who had trained in Libya could cope with the harsh conditions of the bush. Many became malnourished and died.
Bogere eventually joined the rebels’ fourth battalion in Ngoma, Luweero commanded by now Maj Gen Steven Kashaka and deputised by John Kyatuka.
This battalion was under the Mobile Brigade whose overall commander was Museveni’s younger brother, Caleb Akandanwaho aka Salim Saleh.
Bogere was placed under present-day Brig Elly Kayanja’s unit as an intelligence officer. The overall rebel intelligence machinery reported to Gen (rtd) David ‘Sejusa’ Tinyefuza and his 2-i-C Maj Gen Jim Muhwezi.
The current director of Internal Security Organisation, Col (rtd) Frank Kaka Bagyenda was the brigade’s intelligence officer.
“He is a very good and effective intelligence operative, by the way,” Bogere says of Kaka.
Of the so many battles that they fought, Bogere remembers one at Kyejinja near Kapeeka. Government forces pinned down the rebels in a very serious battle lasting more than 18 hours.
“In the process, Kayanja was hit. He sent for me and when I came, he told me to shoot him because he was going to be captured by the enemy,” he said.
“[But] I said there was no way I was going to kill him, I mobilised some men and we carried him away under the cover of fire and somehow he survived,” Bogere remembers.
“As you see him today, Kayanja was also very heavy then and in too much pain; so, he sympathised with us thinking that we can’t carry him. When I checked him, I realised that they had only shot one leg. I said no, this one we can carry.
I was looking forward to handing him over to Dr Ronald Bata who was once our minister of health. We had captured him from Nakaseke hospital. I anticipated that in the worst case scenario, they would just cut off one of his legs,” Bogere says.
The other battle Bogere remembers vividly was the February 1984 Wagaba operation named after an officer who died in that exchange.
Before this operation, fighters led by Maj Gen Fred Rwigyema (deceased) had met stiff resistance as they tried to open what they called the western axis. They had attacked Hoima but the enemy reinforced, counter-attacked and overwhelmed them. The NRA lost a lot of guns and ammunition.
Hope of winning the war faded as the rebels were forced into retreat deeper inside Bunyoro sub-region.
“We had lost a lot of hope. The government had managed to push us very far away from Kampala to regions we were not used to. The guerrillas mainly from Buganda were used to eating food they used to feed on before the war, the people were naturally not friendly; the government had sensitised them to be very aggressive towards us.
We were on the verge of losing the struggle and the leadership was working round the clock so that we hit our enemy very hard to have a comeback,” Bogere says.
So, the Wagaba operation on the army in Masindi was crucial.
Kaka sent out spies to look at the barracks for days before signaling that it was time to attack. The operation was led by the Mobile Brigade under Saleh himself. On the day of the attack, Bogere says, they attacked in the morning hours before the soldiers woke up.
It was successful; they captured a large cache of arms. Reinforcements were called in to help carry the loot as Saleh also mobilised locals to help.
“That was really our revival. Even in terms of feeding, we were rehabilitated in the sense that we ran into food stores and got rice and tinned beef. All these for a person who has spent some time without eating beef did wonders. We were rehabilitated straight away,” Bogere says.
Word was sent out to Museveni to order an assault on Kampala.
“Of course he knew we didn’t have the capacity and politically, he knew he hadn’t done enough work to take over the mantle of the state,” Bogere says. “We gave him the benefit of doubt because you know we trusted him so much. Whatever he said, we would take it without question. By then there was a lot of honesty on his part and on all of us,” Bogere says.
In 1985, Obote was toppled in a coup led by Acholi generals Tito Okello Lutwa and Bazilio Olara Okello. Peace talks were called in Nairobi. The talks ultimately failed.
The western axis under fourth battalion with Steven Kashaka as commander and second battalion led by Pecos Kutesa was directed to cut off Kampala at Katonga. “The third battalion led by Mzee Barihona; the fifth battalion led by Col Peter Kerim and seventh battalion led by Col Samson Mande besieged Masaka, especially the barracks and town,” Bogere says.
Mobile Brigade’s headquarters shifted to Masaka. Having been adequately reinforced by arms from Libya, it was then decided that there was need to mobilise resources for the final push.
Bogere was amongst the officers who were called to Masaka to join in mobilising resources and the population. Political work was led by Moses Kigongo (NRM vice chairman) alongside Gerald Ssendaula (former Finance minister), Captain Abbey Mukwaya and Gertrude Njuba.
Later, Saleh sent for Bogere. “We moved into the stores of Masaka Union which had a lot of coffee. I mobilised transporters like the late Kassim Nyanzi, Mzee Kakooza who had a number of trucks and loaded the coffee and led it to Burundi through Tanzania where we would find groups led by the late Dr Samson Kisekka with buyers.” Bogere says people were not bothered by them taking their coffee because many were fed up with the Obote and Okello regimes.
Also, Ssendaula and others who were known businessmen and part of the union, assured the people that their coffee would be paid when the NRA takes power.
“I was later called back at the tactical headquarters of the mobile brigade. Saleh sent me to go and talk to commander, Fred Mugisha, to advance and start hitting the city,” Bogere says.
When the vanguard group reached the city limits at Busega, tactical headquarters camped at Trinity College Nabbingo. The government army, Bogere says, was retreating at a very high speed. They were taken unawares.
“My former unit, the fourth battalion, had been merged with another battalion to make up fifth battalion which took the direction of Entebbe airport when they reached Kibuye. They moved on well up to around Kisubi and that’s when the enemy forces started hitting back,” Bogere recalls.
Fifth battalion was hit so hard that Saleh sent Bogere with reinforcements to help outflank the enemy. He remembers taking about five snipers to good locations from where they started shooting the enemy. But they were forced to retreat to Katende and join colleagues on Masaka road to reorganise.
“We lost about 16 commanders and men. It was unheard of that we could lose such a number of soldiers at a go. The way we were fighting was very tactical. In the worst case scenario, we would lose about three soldiers and sustain injuries. But we were strong; we were already in the city and there was no way we were going to go back to the bush to the conditions we had lived in,” Bogere says with a smile.
He remembers Bruce Muwanga’s third battalion reinforcing them. Under cover of darkness they started pounding government forces and by morning they had withdrawn beyond Zzana.
“Saleh had ordered that we start on them very early; we beat them terribly and that’s how that force captured the airport,” Bogere recalls.
Saleh then shifted his tactical headquarters from Nabbingo to the current-day Bulange in Mengo.
The other units that had descended on Kampala had moved on well and captured Radio Uganda on January 24 1986. The following day, Bogere says, they had taken over government although the announcement was made later on January 26.
“I was near MHC Saleh and I heard him talking to the CHC that they had taken over government. But CHC said he didn’t like that day because it was the same day Idi Amin had overthrown Obote. For us we were eager; we wanted to know whether we had taken over government or not.”
This is an abridged account of Bogere’s bush war memories. But although he still feels so passionate about Uganda’s political future, Bogere says unfortunately he will play no role in shaping it. On top of being disenchanted by politics, which has been reduced to a transactional affair, his health also conspired to send him into early retirement.
“My blood veins are too narrow and because of that, my heart is overworked. Doctors I have talked to say, there seems not to be a cure to that problem,” Bogere says, adding that he was warned 14 years ago that this problem might mature into sight loss.
“I was warned to cut down on any conditions that would exert more pressure on my heart because my heart is permanently overworked. Otherwise, I would have been very active by now because I have every reason to be active. But even if I wasn’t to be directly participating at least, I should have been among those mobilising the country but that puts pressure on me.”