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The plane that shook Luwero and changed the course of war

By Joshua Kato

Added 15th January 2019 05:27 AM

On January 26, 2019, the NRM will be celebrating 33 years since they came into power in 1986. New Vision’s Joshua Kato brings you stories of the events of the liberators’ final assault on the UNLA, leading to the takeover of Kampala.

 The plane that shook Luwero and changed the course of war

On January 26, 2019, the NRM will be celebrating 33 years since they came into power in 1986. New Vision’s Joshua Kato brings you stories of the events of the liberators’ final assault on the UNLA, leading to the takeover of Kampala.

 On a darker night at the end of July 1985, a giant plane flew over Ngoma, in present day Nakaseke District. It had on board some lethal cargo that it intended to drop for the National Resistance Army (NRA). 
 
Ngoma is a largely cattle keeping area, with low grasses and a few scattered shrubs. At the time, most of the area was controlled by the NRA fighters, save for a UNLA detachment at Ngoma trading centre. 
 
The NRA, then into the fourth year of an armed struggle against the government of Milton Obote had somehow shrugged off the last major government offensive - between January and June 1985, ending in the battle of Kembogo on June 21, in which over 200 UNLA soldiers were killed. 
 
"It was just like thunder on a rainless night," says Clement Buremba, who was around Kinyogoga village when the giant plane flew past, from the direction of Kafu-Masindi.  He remembers seeing the plane's lights at night, flashing onto the ground as if they were searching for something, but he did not know what its intentions were. 
 
"Everybody was terrified because we had never heard such noise coming from the sky," he says. Most of the residents thought that it was a government plane that had come to scare the rebels, he adds.
 
Meanwhile, at a UNLA detachment at Ngoma and at Katuugo, which was about 27 miles from Ngoma on the Gulu Road, the government soldiers took off in different directions when they heard the noise from the plane. 
 
Whose plane?
The plane belonged to the Libyan Air-force.  The IL-76 is one of the largest cargo planes in the world. It can carry at least 40 tonnes to a range of up to 5,000km. The distance between Libya and Uganda is about 3,200km.
 
Constructed in Russia, the planes first flew in March 1971. Because of their multi-role operations, they were acquired by many countries, including Libya for their military transport inventory. 
 
Late Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi had promised weapons to the liberation groups in Uganda. Indeed, some groups had earlier got weapons, save for the NRA. So during his diplomatic trip to Africa and Europe, between March 1985 and July 1985, Yoweri Museveni visited Libya to conclude the weapons deal.
 
When the plan was finalised, the plane was loaded and prepared to deliver the cargo. But since the NRA did not control any airport, the cargo had to be parachuted into their areas. One of the reasons they selected Ngoma was because it was largely flat (lukoola) with very few trees to interrupt the dropping cargo. 
 
They identified a spot around Ruharo`s farm and I contacted Salim Saleh to light a fire as a marker for the pilots. 
 
Museveni personally met the pilots of the plane and gave them the exact location of the drop off point. He also asked them to fly in with one of his men, Akanga Byaruhanga, who he had travelled with on this mission. 
 
With (the late Akanga) Byaruhanga  in the plane, it flew over part of Libya-Kufra in Southern Libya, then into Sudan and over the River Nile. From southern Sudan, they entered Uganda around Arua and followed the Nile up to Lake Albert just after Nebbi, before turning west into Masindi district, crossing into Ngoma over River Kafu, around Bulyamusenyi.
 
The plane spent over 20 minutes flying very low around the Ngoma area, as they sought the marked drop off location. 
 
According to Buremba, it was flying so low that if there was any serious air defence system, it would have been shot down.  However, at the time, there was no air-force defence of any kind in Uganda. 
 
Lt. Mohammed Ssekamatte, 51, now a retired bush war fighter, now working with the United Nations in Somalia, was a mortar-man with the NRA Mobile unit at the time.
After recruitment and training at Lwamata, Ssekamatte was selected to fire ‘big guns', especially mortars and Anti -Aircraft guns.  He was attached to the Mobile Unit, then commanded by Salim Saleh.  
 
During the days before the planes arrived, he and his unit had moved away from Ngoma, but they were ordered to move back. "We had moved away from Ngoma towards Kampala to areas near Bombo when we were told by our commanders that we had to move back to Ngoma to wait for the arms," he says. 
 
Most of the UNLA units had been forced out of the Ngoma, especially after the bloody June battle in Kembogo to the west of Ngoma. "Those who were in places like Biduku took off that very night when they heard the noise of the plane," Ssekamatte says. 
 
The drop
Unfortunately, the group delayed to set up a fire, which would help the crew locate the drop off point. However, they followed the coordinates off their aviation equipment and successfully dropped the cargo. 
 
"They were heavy pallets fixed with very strong white parachutes with big ropes," Ssekamatte remembers. Such was the weight of each pallet that it swept away trees as it landed. 
 
Ssekamatte says they spent the next day collecting the guns. "Most of the rifles were Uzi and AK-47 guns, but there were also mortars and heavy machine guns, plus anti-aircraft guns," he says.
 
How the cargo changed course of war
Between early 1983 and December, the NRA through attacks on Kiboga, Luwero by among others Stanley Muhangi, Fred Rwigyema, Joram Mugume and Salim Saleh collected at least 200 more rifles.
 
This raised the number of guns that they had to around 600. With these guns, they decided to go for the big haul. 
 
They had attacked Masindi Barracks in February 1984, harvesting 770 rifles. One unique feature of this attack on Masindi is that only half of the attacking 700 soldiers were armed. This meant that the attacked yielded two guns per person. At this time, the number of rifles rose to around 1,400.      
    
When they attacked Kabamba again, on January 1, 1985, the impact of that attack on the entire war effort, in relation to the weapons that they got from there, was enormous. The number of guns rose about 2,000 rifles, against over 5,000 men.
 
However, according to President Yoweri Museveni, this was a very plausible development because for the first time, the NRA started having fully armed battalions. A typical NRA Battalion had around 1,000 fighters. 
 
  And now when they finally got the 800 rifles and 800,000 bullets from the Libyan government, in addition to several pieces of SAM -shoulder fired missiles.  
 
With the weapons from Libya, the NRA High Command took the decision to create more formations and then start the final push to capture Kampala. 
 
In a media statement in May 1985, Senior Officer and now General, Elly Tumwine, who was then the NRA Army Commander wrote, "The growth and expansion of NRM`s strength is now public knowledge inside and outside Uganda.
 
The extent of our operations in Masindi, Kiboga, Hoima, Semuto, Kapeeka….and recently in Kabamba explain our capacity. Arms are now captured in thousands in single attacks," Tumwine wrote.  
 
The weapons helped in the final assault on Kampala, which took place in the subsequent months, until the government fell.
  
In today's New Vision, read about what happened in August 1985.

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