Yoweri Museveni returned six months later after Rwigyema had captured Fort Portal and Kasese. It was the second time the chairman was leaving the frontline for the same period of six months, the first time being in June 1981. While the war raged on for five years, some fighters say their leader was in the bush for only four years. Museveni justifies his long absence by saying that he needed to do diplomatic work, including looking for guns. Some veterans claim that on both occasions, Museveni returned after his brother, Salim Saleh informed him that the fighters had registered tremendous progress. Veterans claim that had Museveni been informed by Saleh that things were bad, probably he would never have returned.
The overall military commander for the NRA’s Western Axis was Fred Rwigyema. The overall political leader was the NRM Vice Chairman, Moses Kigongo.
Jim Muhwezi was the overall intelligence chief, while Chefe Ali who commanded the NRA 11th Battalion, was the military man together with Col. Samson Mande who at the take over of Kampala was Commanding Officer of the 15th Battalion.
Other military and political leaders in this group were Col. Nuwe Amanya Mushega and Col. Tom Butime.
The 5th Battalion, which Brig. Steven Kashaka commanded with Col. Ahmed Kashilingi, escorted Rwigyema and his forces to take them through what was considered dangerous areas like Bukomero, according to veterans. This is when David Musisi, one of the fearless fighters, was killed while the battalion was returning to Luwero after providing back-up for the Rwenzori-bound group.
The Rwigyema group also took away all non-fighters, including those in the sick bay. President Museveni writes very briefly about this Western Axis in his book and some veterans say it is because neither he nor his brother, Salim Saleh, played a key role. Some veterans claim that the President deliberately excluded this part of the “struggle” from his book because he didn’t want to give credit to other people. The trek to the west was long and difficult. The NRA forces would walk during the night and rest in the jungles during the day until they reached their destination in Fort Portal and Kasese. The journey took a whole month. The commanders told their fighters not to touch people’s food and other items on the way, even if they were dying of hunger.
Apart from fearing to bump into patrolling UNLA soldiers, the Western Axis forces walked at night to hide their poor state. They were very dirty, tired and emaciated. When they reached Hoima, in areas with no forest cover, the rebels spent a night in a cassava plantation, and the order was not to touch people’s food. However, because of biting hunger, some fighters, including one commander, stole the cassava.
The owner of the plantation had apparently warned them that his cassava was protected and whoever eats it would fall sick. The following day, the owner who had allowed the rebels stay in his plantation, complained that some of his cassava had been stolen.A parade was quickly organised to identify the culprits. The culprits were asked to come out, lest they are discovered and killed, but none did so. The following day, some fighters including a commander, developed stomach problems and they reported themselves. The owner was called and he reportedly administered witchcraft rituals to set the culprits free.
Another major incident that happened during the NRA operation in Rwenzori areas was the summary execution of fighters who stole goats and sheep from local people. The fighters had violated the standing order, not to steal from the people. So, when the owners of the animals reported them to their commanders, the political head of the Western Axis, Moses Kigongo, presided over a meeting of senior leaders that constituted itself into a court and sentenced two fighters to death. The execution earned the rebels the support and trust of the Batooro and Bakonzo in the area, but the peasants feared to report other cases after witnessing the execution. The rebel commanders had decreed that anybody who stole people’s items using a gun would be executed and they were serious. Some veterans say the rebels never wasted their bullets on such executions but would use a hoe to hit the head of the accused.
The forces that went to Rwenzori, according to veterans, walked with minimum interference. President Apollo Milton Obote was happy that they were walking away from Luwero. He bragged that the rebels were running in disarray towards Congo. He also bragged that their commander, Yoweri Museveni, had run away to Europe. Obote must have awoken from his slumber when the Rwigyema forces overran Rubona Prison where the UNLA soldiers had camped. Museveni says his rebels killed about four dozens of the government soldiers. When he returned from visiting his family in Sweden, Museveni addressed rallies in Fort Portal.
Those who belonged to the Western Axis think their success shaped the determination with which NRA marched to capture Kampala. Kasese and Fort Portal were the first areas to be liberated and became the headquarters of the NRA/M as the rebels pushed on towards Kampala. Open recruitment of more fighters and training, the rebels captured more areas. About 9,000 rebels were trained in Buhweju and Semliki area.
It was the Western Axis that would later attack Mbarara, although Museveni says that they had failed to capture the town until Salim Saleh re-enforced them. The group later captured other areas, including Kabale.
Now exiled in Europe, Samson Mande commanded the operation in which money was grabbed from the Uganda Commercial Bank branch in Kabale. It has been alleged that some officers used part of the money to buy property. Indeed some veterans have said that the practice of grabbing public resources by some NRM officials manifested itself in this action, but the revolutionary spirit was too strong to be derailed by such reports. After consolidating control of Mbarara and Kabale, the Western Axis began matching towards Masaka. Here, they joined other forces that had moved out of Luwero through Mpigi, Kibibi and Masaka.
Some veterans believe that if the Western Axis had flopped, probably the whole armed struggle would have collapsed, especially as Museveni was away in Europe.
Next week, we look at the contribution the first Commanding Officers (COs) of the NRA battalions; Samson Mande, Steven Kashaka, Pecos Kuteesa, Julius Kihande, Ahmed Kashilingi, Matayo Kyaligonza and Chefe Ali.
Written by Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda