In 1985, just a year before Yoweri Museveni’s guerillas stormed Kampala to take power, a major and decisive battle occurred in Rubona in the current Bunyangabu District, Western Uganda.
The Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) forces had amassed troops, heavy weapons and specialized forces at Rubona to engage the NRA rebels.
“All the UNLA crack units, the special Korea-trained commando unit and the new special weapons including their biggest support weapons were dug in at Rubona,” recalled Samson Mande in an exclusive interview with ChimpReports on Monday.
At the time, President Museveni was in Sweden where he was mobilizing political and diplomatic support for the last offensive against UNLA.
The NRA had gained battlefield experience and large numbers of fighters to overwhelm Obote’s government.
However, the highly trained government force at Rubona remained a big thorn in NRA’s quest for power.
Mande, the late Fred Rwigema and the current Rwandan leader, Maj Gen Paul Kagame, would later play a significant role in the Rubona battle which eventually broke UNLA’s back and triggered a coup that removed President Obote from power.
“The battle of Rubona took place in 1985 slightly before the 1985 coup,” recalled Mande.
“In fact it was the sparking point for the coup even though other underlying causes were brewing for some time,” he added.
Kagame, who participated in the war, would later lead Rwandan soldiers to fight the regime of Juvenal Habyarimana.
For the last few years, Rwanda’s relations with Uganda have been strained.
President Kagame recently advised Rwandans to stop visiting Uganda, saying they will be harassed.
Rwanda recently accused Ugandan government officials of helping dissidents seeing the overthrow of president Kagame, accusations Kampala dismissed as untrue.
ChimpReports understands that at the heart of the bad blood is that Rwandan generals believe Ugandan leaders disrespect their counterparts in Rwanda since Kampala helped Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) take power in 1994.
The Rwandans, through different blogs, say they fought in the NRA war that ushered President Museveni to power hence calling for mutual respect.
On the hand, Kampala accuses Rwandan security services of espionage and engaging in acts that threaten Uganda’s national security.
ChimpReports reached out to Col Mande, a battle-hardened soldier, who fought side by side with Kagame in the NRA war and served with him in the Ugandan armed forces.
Mande later had disagreements with President Museveni before fleeing through Rwanda to exile in Sweden where he lives today.
He was accused of forming People’s Redemption Army (PRA), a rebel movement to fight Museveni’s government.
He denied any involvement in subversive activities and receiving support from Kagame’s government to challenge Museveni’s hold onto power.
In the interview, we asked Mande to speak out on Kagame’s role in the Rubona battle.
“President Paul Kagame offered his life to liberate Uganda. He was a good combatant,” recalled Mande.
“I had the privilege of training, commanding and mentoring him for some time. We endured the pain of liberating Uganda together.”
Mande said together with Kagame, they convinced the late Fred Rwigema and Chefe Ali to allow the raid on Rubona.
Rwigema was the NRA’s overall commander then and the late Brig Chefe Ali, was the commanding officer of a special battalion called the 11th Battalion.
“Paul Kagame who was my intelligence officer wrote an intelligence report that convinced me to plan the attack. I commissioned him and Captain Smarts Kiggundu to do the recce (reconnaissance) on UNLA defence at Rubona,” said Mande.
“I did with them the final recce as I was directed by President Museveni who then was based in Sweden here.”
Despite these reconnaissance missions, Rwigema and Chefe Ali were not convinced. As experienced military strategists, they still wanted more data and better preparations.
“It took us the intervention of President Museveni because the late Gen Fred Rwigyema and Brig Chefe Ali did not believe that we could attack and defeat the UNLA at Rubona in their defence. All the UNLA crack units, the special Korea trained commando unit and the new special weapons including their biggest support weapons were dug in at Rubona,” he recalled.
“The late Rwigema and Chefe Ali said it was suicidal for us to attack Rubona. I and Paul Kagame said it was suicidal for us to lose the initiative and allow the UNLA to start their offensive from the Rubona tactical headquarters,” said Mande.
“When Museveni listened to our arguments he directed that I take the command of the attack and the late Rwigema and Chefe Ali monitor closely in case I needed their assistance. I maintained direct contact with him through our signal department.”
“It was the battle in which he (Kagame) almost lost his life,” said Mande.
“He (Kagame) jumped into the trench of a UNLA machine gunner that almost failed us to take Rubona and he grabbed him by hand,” recalled Mande.
Rubona was eventually successful, according to accounts by Mande and President Museveni.
Mande said they achieved the element of surprise in the dawn attack.
“We got 12 casualties and no death on our side. The UNLA suffered heavy losses. I stopped counting at the 200th dead body. We captured all the weapons except the rifles which some of them run away with,” he added.
A few days after the Rubona Raid, the entire regiment in Fort Portal surrendered to NRA.
This weakened the UNLA. Moments later, the UNLA overthrew the government of Milton Obote.
Mande says NRA provided tips to commanders on overthrowing Obote.
“As Paul Kagame and I were leading the advance to capture Kasese, my signaler intercepted a message from the UNLA that they were advancing to overthrow the UPC government,” said Mande.
“Some commanders of the UNLA tipped us about the looming coup and we tipped them on how we thought they could do it successfully. Some went to Kampala and Kitgum to deliver our message.”
The coup forced Obote into exile.
Mande also spoke about the killing of UNLA’s Col Oboth.
“When he (Oboth) took over command of the UNLA in the Rwenzori sector, he started by despising the troops he found in Fort Portal that they were cowards. He vowed to flush us (the NRA) out of our bases in Rwenzori and send us into DRC to exile,” recalled Mande.
He said Oboth together with 20 other UNLA officers and men died in an ambush at a place called Nyakigumba near Rubona.
“It was just a few days after we had overrun their tactical headquarter that he had been deployed with a new group of officers to take over operations and lead a counter attack against us. I laid the night ambush that halted their plan. It’s regrettable but I couldn’t help it. We were at war,” said Mande.
Asked to shed light on the role played by Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa in Rwanda’s liberation, Mande responded: “Kayumba was one of our young cadres and a good junior combatant. For us anyone who offered support or came to help in the struggle was very welcome. We knew only one tribe: the NRA tribe and we treated each other as brothers and sisters.”
Kampala recently accused Kigali of slapping a trade embargo on Ugandan goods.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa said, “Goods from Rwanda and Rwanda registered trucks are not being allowed to cross over from Rwanda into Uganda by the Rwanda authorities.”
In response, Rwanda said, “It is not possible to have free trade including free movement of goods if traders are killed, tortured, extorted and their property are illegally seized. These are the fundamental issues that need to be addressed.”
Asked to comment the souring relations between Uganda and Rwanda, Mande observed: “I think there is a hidden territorial dispute in the heads of the heads of state and some people of Rwanda and Uganda.”
Mande, now an exiled opposition figure, pointed at the widely-held theory that the Ugandan elite believes Rwandan leaders should be subordinate to their Ugandan counterparts “and that the people of Rwanda should look at Uganda as their big brother. Naturally the leaders and people of Rwanda had to prove this thinking wrong.”
On its part, Ugandan leaders accuse Rwanda of engaging in acts that threaten national security, turning Uganda into a hunting ground for Rwandan dissidents and espionage. Kigali denies the charges.
Nevertheless, Mande said, “We should teach our people and our leaders that Rwanda and Uganda shall permanently remain friendly brothers, sisters, neighbors and countries. That’s what we need.”