Saturday,November 28,2020 17:10 PM
  • Home
  • News
  • How UPDF grew to become regional force

How UPDF grew to become regional force

By Joshua Kato

Added 25th October 2020 08:10 AM

In Sowing the Mustard Seed, President Yoweri Museveni said the ‘colonial army’ was full of flaws and a time bomb waiting to explode

How UPDF grew to become regional force

In Sowing the Mustard Seed, President Yoweri Museveni said the ‘colonial army’ was full of flaws and a time bomb waiting to explode

The independence army was composed of mainly officers and men from the King's African Rifleswho mainly came from northern Uganda. It was called the Uganda Army (UA) at the time of Independence in 1962.

The army retained its name up to 1979 when Idi Amin was overthrown. But by then, it had carried out a coup, meddled in politics and even ruled Parliament.

While commenting about it in his book, Sowing the Mustard Seed , President Yoweri Museveni said the ‘colonial army' was full of flaws and a time bomb waiting to explode largely because of the way it was recruited.

"Most of them were got from the north and east with height and a dark skin being major criteria," Museveni said.

It was, therefore, not surprising that most of the very first top officers of the army came from the north. Among these included Idi Amin, Tito Okello and Severino Okoya.  


The Battle of Mengo Hill resulted in the palace being overrun, with the Kabaka barely escaping into exile. With his opponents arrested, in flight, or co-opted, Milton Obote secured his position with the creation of the General Service Unit, a system of secret police staffed mostly with ethnic people from the Lango region.  

This stage marked the beginning of the tribalisation of the army, by political leaders. Late Maj. Gen. Bernard Rwehururu wrote in his book From the Cross To the Gun : "Matters were not helped by the fact that some of the officers in the army, notably the late Maj. Gen. David Oyite Ojok, then a Major referred to us as ‘fucking cadets'.

It was this sectarianism in the army ranks that finally reached boiling point hence the 1971 coup. Because Obote had recruited from the Langi and Acholi, while Amin had recruited from amongst the West Nilers, there were two distinct groups in the army. One led by Amin and another by Acholi and Langi officers, like Oyite Ojok and Tito Okello.


While leaving for the 1971 Common Wealth conference in Singapore, Obote ordered Langi military officers to arrest Amin and his close supporters. However, word of the plot was leaked to Amin before it could be carried out. This prompted Amin to carry out a pre-emptive coup.

In July 1971, Langi and Acholi soldiers were massacred in the Jinja and Mbarara Barracks and by early 1972, some 5,000 Acholi and Langi soldiers had disappeared. Amin's rule was welcomed by the Baganda, but tens of thousands of Obote supporters fled to Tanzania.

"Much as sections of the foreign press duped and misled many people around the country and on the international scene that the coup was bloodless, the fact is that a lot of blood was shed in an attempt to exterminate the Acholi and Langi," Rwehururu wrote. 


According to various records, the army became better equipped with brand new Mig-17 and Mig-21 fighter planes, T-54 Battle Tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

Amin rolled out the construction of army establishments in places, such as Bombo, Mbarara, Gulu and Masaka. Most of these still exist.  


In late 1972, a small rebel force crossed the border with the intention of capturing the army outpost at Masaka, but stopped short and, instead waited in expectation of a popular uprising to overthrow Amin.

The uprising did not materialise and the Obotealigned force was expelled by the Malire Mechanised Regiment. "It was a poorly organised expedition," Museveni, who took part, observed. Meanwhile, between 1973 and 1977, the Uganda Army made perhaps the largest single purchase of equipment.

This included over 20 Mig-21 jet fighters, T-55 Battle Tanks, heavy artillery pieces from Russia. The acquisitions made the Uganda Army one of the best equipped in the region. Units were also given ‘scary' names, such as Simba, Suicide, Chui battalions. However, when it came to fighting, there was nothing ‘fearful' about them.  

"Because of this equipment Idi Amin started threatening Uganda's neighbours," Stanley Bigirwa, a military observer, says.

It was not long before things went out of order. In 1978, Gen. Mustafa Adrisi, an Amin supporter, was injured in a suspicious automobile accident. Units loyal to him, including the  Malire Mechanised Regiment, mutinied.

Amin sent loyalist units to crush the uprising, causing some of the mutineers to flee to Tanzania. Amin, seeking to deflect blame and rally the populace, accused Tanzania's Julius Nyerere of being the cause of the fighting.  

He sent troops across the border to formally annex 700 miles of Tanzania known as the Kagera Salient on November 1, 1978. In response, Nyerere declared a state of war and mobilised the Tanzania People's Defence Force for a full-scale conflict.

Within several weeks, the Tanzanian army was expanded from 40,000 to over 100,000 with the addition of police, prison guards, militia and others. They were joined by the various anti-Amin forces, who in March 1979 coalesced into the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). The UNLF was composed of the Obote-led Kikosi Maalum and the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), led by political newcomer Yoweri Museveni, as well as several smaller anti-Amin groups.

Libya's Muammar Gaddafi sent 3,000 troops to support the Ugandan defence, but these troops found themselves fighting alone on the front lines, as Ugandan units in the rear commandeered their supply trucks to carry their plunder away.

On April 11, 1979, Kampala fell to the invaders and Amin fled into exile, marking the first time in the post-colonial era that an African nation successfully invaded another.


Between 1978-1979, there was massive recruitment into the army. While advancing with the Tanzanians through Western Uganda, Yoweri Museveni's FRONASA forces recruited over 9,000 fighters on the other hand, Kikosi Maalum of Oyite Ojok also recruited massively.

Some notable recruits at the time went ahead and purposely served in both UNLA, the National Resistance Army (NRA) and Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF). Notable among these included Generals, like Katumba Wamala, Elly Tumwine, Pecos Kuteesa, Jim Muhwezi, David Tinyefunza, John Mugume, Francis Okello.  


With 40 men and armed with 27 guns, Museveni launched the war against the new government of Milton Obote. It was from these 40 that the NRA and later the UPDF were born.

In 1981, Museveni merged his Popular Resistance Army (PRA) with Lule's Uganda Freedom Fighters, forming NRA. As well as the NRA, two rebel groups based in Amin's home West Nile sub-region emerged: the Uganda National Rescue Front and the Former Uganda National Army.

The beginning of the Uganda bush war was marked by an NRA attack on Kabamba Barracks on February 6, 1981. The NRA insurgency was based largely in the anti-Obote strongholds of central and western Buganda and the former kingdoms of Ankole and Bunyoro.

Fighting was particularly intense in the Luwero triangle, where the bitter memory of the counterinsurgency efforts of the UNLF's Langi and Acholi soldiers were followed with 25, fairly advanced T-55s and then later 60 more. Since then, it has grown into a full mechanised division even more advanced tanks have been added to the forces.

The latest is the T-90 MBT, which by far is the best battle tank in east and central Africa.  One can safely say that this is the second best tank owned by an African army because in terms of overall battle performance, the T-90 can only be matched by the M1-Abrams tanks that Egypt has in their inventory. In the region, again Kenya has the second most potent tank — the Vickers MK3, produced in 1983! Rwanda maintains a few tens of T-55tanks, while Tanzania has even more inferior Chinese Type-59 tanks.

In simple comparison, the T-90 is armed with a longer range 125mm gun, compared to the 105mm on the Kenyan Vickers and the 100mm guns on the T-55 in Rwanda. The Tank unit has not only grown in equipment, but also in experience.

They grew their first teeth when they ably battled Sudanese army units in South Sudan in 1997. A tank battalion supported the failed attack on Kinshasha in the late 1990s in support of Rwanda Forces. In Somalia, a tank Battalion under Augustine Kyazze ably took on the Al shabaab in 2007, in the early years of the mission.  

Since then, tanks have continued to be part of the AMISOM operations, with UPDF estimated to have over three Tank Battalions in Somalia. 


In November last year, the clear skies of Gulu and other parts of Northern Uganda were awakened by the deafening noise of L-39/59 jet fighters. The planes were being piloted by 18 fighter pilots who were due for passing out by the Commander in Chief, Gen. Museveni.  

The jets are classified as ‘trainers', although they also carry some arms. It is not common that an African Airforce can have a squadron of training jets. In fact, for many countries, the L-39/59 trainers actually comprise the entire air-force!  

"This only shows how far the UPDF Airforce has modernised," an officers says.

A soldier checking the documents of people who want to join the army recently. The UPDF also considers academic qualifi cation and profession while recruiting 


For the last 15 years, Uganda has been re-developing its air force capabilities. In the 1970s, Uganda had one of the best equipped air-forces in the region with at least 20 new Mig-17 and 21 fighter jets, several transport planes, helicopters, among others.

However, most of this equipment was destroyed during the war that overthrew Idi Amin. While several of the planes were either shot down or crashed, at least seven were flown to Tanzania by the Tanzanian forces that had ‘helped' over throw Idi Amin.  

In the 1980s, Uganda did not have any fixed wing fighter jet. The only efforts at rebuilding an air-force saw the acquisition of several Augusta Bell helicopters. These were mainly used for transport, while some were fitted with rockets and used in military operations against the National Resistance Army (NRA). It was one of these choppers that killed then Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. David Oyite Ojok. 


When the NRA captured power in 1986, efforts to rebuild the fixed wing element were not immediately made. Instead, some helicopters, mainly Mi-17s, were acquired from Russia for transport purposes. In the early and mid-90s, it is one of these choppers, fitted with rocket launchers and machine guns that came to be christened Sura Mbaya because of its ruthlessness whenever it attacked LRA hide outs in northern Uganda.

The Mi17s, while carrying out attack duty were also the main troop carriers. "Helicopters are force multipliers because of the many roles  they play," Col Paddy Ankunda, a former Army Spokesperson, said.    

In the late 1990s, Uganda sought to add specific attack choppers to its arsenal, when two Mi-24s were acquired from former USSR. However, the deal was botched into the infamous ‘rotten chopper scandal'.

Later, however, some two or three Mi-24s were acquired in the late 1990s and another three acquired in 2003. In August 2012, three choppers crashed en-route to Somalia to be deployed under AMISOM forces.

But since then, more Mi-24s and Mi-17s have been acquired, including a donation of five Bell-AH utility choppers from the US government. These are supplemented by a half squadron of Bell Jet rangers-like the one that crashed recently.  

In the region, however, Kenya has more helicopters than all her peers. The Kenyan air-force has got a far larger variety of choppers, including attacker choppers-the latest being the MD530, light attack choppers. Others include Z9 attackers, Bell-Ah-1 cobra attackers. Rwanda has a few MI-17s for transport and MI-24/35 for attack, Tanzania too has some helicopters, but the numbers are far lower than Kenya's and Uganda's stock.


The real rebuilding of the fixed wing attack element in the airforce kicked off in 1999. Uganda acquired at least seven Mig-21s. The jets were up graded in Israel, before they were delivered to Uganda. In 2000, these jets formed the lead role of Uganda's fixed wing attack capabilities. 

In addition to the Migs, there is also a squadron of L-39/59s and several Mig-23s. The biggest acquisition then came in 2010, when a squadron of ‘fourth' generation fighter jets-the SU-30MK2 were acquired from Russia. Though controversially acquired at a $740m in addition to other weapons, the SUs scrambled Uganda into the top skies of the best air force in Africa.

"These are strategic military assets that will help keep our country peaceful," Museveni said while commissioning them a few years ago. The SUs are one of the most potent air aggressor platforms  in the world.

The other countries owning them being Algeria, which is rated by various sources as the second best air-force after Egypt in Africa. Angola has also ordered for the same jets. A strong air-force should have a good reach, not just across the country, but also beyond. With the Su-30s in the inventory, UPDF has got this reach.

The SUs have a range of 3,000kms without refuelling. This means that they can fly to Somalia or any other country in this region, carry out their mission and return without landing. Regionally, compared to the Northrop F-5 in the Kenyan inventory,  the SUs are a much superior jet, rated as a fourth Generation multi-role jet fighter, constructed by the Russians in the flame of the US Air-forces F-18s.

The SUs can carry at least 12 AA missiles, has rockets and at least over 8,000kgs of bombs. A military blog, Africa military blog ranks the Ugandan air force as the seventh best in Africa, after Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, South Africa, Angola and Sudan. The others ranked in the top 10 are Nigeria and Ethiopia.  

As evidenced at Gulu Airbase last November, the Ugandan army did not just acquire the planes, but has also been training officers and men to fly them. Since 2011 when training of pilots was enhanced, over 60 pilots have been passed out.

Where KDF betters the Ugandans is the transport section of the air-force, especially the fixed wing platforms. Recently, Kenya acquired several C-27sJ and M28 light transport planes. On the other hand, UPDF relies on a C-130, several Y-12 Harbins and a few Cessna caravans for transport. 


According to the Constitution, the UPDF is marking 25 years of age this year. But then, that is only offi cially because it is when the name UPDF was created under the Constitution.

On several occasions, the Commander in Chief, Gen. Yoweri Museveni has said UPDF was born in the 1970s when he and a group of young people started their resistance against Idi Amin's regime.

Museveni, believes that the military formations that he led under FRONASA in the 1970s and then the NRA in the early 1980s bore the base on which the UPDF sits. Indeed, many of the men who survived the 1970s formed the vanguard of the fi rst offi cer corps that commanded the NRA and later the UPDF.

These included Sam Magara, Shaban Kanshanku, Sam Katabalwa, Fred Sseguya — died during the NRA struggle in the 1980s and Generals Matayo Kyaligonza, Elly Tumwine, Salim Saleh, Ivan Koreta, David Tinyefunza, Fred Rwigyema, Julius Kihandi. Others are Patrick Lumumba, Stanley Muhangi and Julius Aine who died in the early years after NRA captured power.  

The NRA, however, did not become a recognised national force until after 1986. NRA captured power on January 26, 1986. This was after five years of a protracted struggle, against Milton Obote and later the military junta troops. By the time they entered Kampala, according to various reports, the NRA had grown to about 20,000 men and women.

By the early 1990s, the number had grown to about 100,000. However, at least 60,000 of them were laid off in the early 1990s, under an International Monetary Fund-supported restructuring programme, retaining about 40,000 soldiers. Today, the force is estimated to have 60,000 soldiers, deployed under six infantry divisions.

There is also a reserve force of about 100,000 soldiers. Respected Global Fire Power group, that ranks the best armies around the world put Uganda as the 13 best national army in Africa in 2019, and that is only behind bigger North African countries, such as Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria. Kenya is ranked 12, but this is only on account of her big military budget.

Tanzania is ranked 24th, South Sudan 26th, while Rwanda and Burundi are out of the top 35. But how has the ragtag gumboots army grown into one of the best militaries in Africa? 

Then commander of UPDF contingent in AMISOM Brig. Kayanja Muhanga addressing soldiers as he was directing operations in Lower Shabelle Region of Somalia in July 2017


Various military sites, including the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) say UPDF has the largest infantry force among the fi ve East African countries. With an estimated 60,000 soldiers in six divisions, it betters Rwanda with 33,000 soldiers, Tanzania with 27,000 and Kenya with 24,500.

In the east and central African regions, no infantry has seen as much war as the UPDF. "This army has fought and defeated over 20 internal insurrections since 1986," President Museveni said while passing out cadets.

These include large and sophisticated groups, such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), Alice Lakwenas Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) and Hitler Eregu's forces. However, smaller groups, such as Force Obote Back Again (FOBA), Herbert Itongwa's National Democratic Army (NDA), the Rwenzururu Movement, among others, have been defeated too.  

Across the borders, no infantry has taken part in as many operations as the UPDF. In the early 1990s, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front crossed to Rwanda, it is an open secret that then NRA elements supported the move. UPDF infantry units have fought in Sudan, DR Congo, Central African Republic and Somalia.

Perhaps the second most experienced infantry in the region is the Rwanda Defence Forces (RDF), owing to their sojourns in DRC. Burundi and Kenya's fi erce battles against al shabaab in Somalia also give them some experience. "In many of these engagements, we learnt a lot of lessons.

The earlier battles against HSM, UPA and LRA in DRC, defi ne the later disposition of the UPDF," a senior offi cer says. Those battles created operational challenges, such as infl ation numbers and those killed in action remaining on the payroll and yes-this led to the infamous debacle of ghost soldiers. 

Related articles

More From The Author

More From The Author