Ugandan Bush War

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Ugandan Bush War

Milton Obote (left) and Yoweri Museveni, leaders of the UNLF government forces and National Resistance Army respectively for most of the war.
DateAutumn 1980 – 25 January 1986
Result National Resistance Army victory
Uganda Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF)

Uganda National Resistance Army

Uganda West Nile rebels:

Uganda Uganda Freedom Movement (from 1980)[4]
Uganda Uganda Liberation Movement[5]
Supported by:
Mozambique Mozambique (alleged)[5]
Commanders and leaders
Milton Obote
Tito Okello
David Oyite-Ojok
Smith Opon Acak
Bazilio Olara-Okello

National Resistance Army:
Yoweri Museveni
Salim Saleh
Steven Kashaka
Joram Mugume
Pecos Kuteesa
Fred Rwigyema
Yusuf Lule

West Nile rebels:
Bernard Lumago[2]
Moses Ali[2]
Juma Oris
Felix Onama[3]

Uganda Freedom Movement:
Balaki Kirya[6]
Andrew Kayira (POW)[6]
Units involved

Uganda National Liberation Army
Pro-government militias

  • People's Militia[5]
  • Tribal militias
Numerous rebel militias
Uganda Army:
c. 7,100 (1980)[2]
Casualties and losses

The Ugandan Bush War, also known as the Luwero War, the Ugandan Civil War or the Resistance War, was a civil war fought in Uganda between the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) and a number of rebel groups, most importantly the National Resistance Army (NRA), from 1980 to 1986.

The unpopular President Milton Obote was overthrown in a coup d'état in 1971 by General Idi Amin, who established a military dictatorship. Amin was overthrown in 1979 following the Uganda-Tanzania War, but his loyalists subsequently launched an insurgency in the West Nile sub-region. Subsequent elections saw Obote return to power in an UNLA-ruled government. Several opposition groups claimed the elections were rigged, and united as the NRA under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni to start an armed uprising against Obote's government on 6 February 1981. Obote was overthrown and replaced as President by his general Tito Okello in 1985 during the closing months of the conflict.

The war ended in victory for the NRA with hostilities officially ceasing on 25 January 1986, the establishment of a new government with Museveni as President, the UNLA and its political wing were dissolved, and sending Obote and Okello into exile.


In 1971, the President of Uganda Milton Obote was overthrown in a coup d'état by General Idi Amin of the Uganda Army (which had no distinct name at the time, UPDF-Uganda Peoples Defence Forces is its current name). Obote had been President since Uganda's independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, and his regime saw a general decline in living standards in the country, with widespread corruption, terrorism, and persecution of ethnic groups. Obote's increasing unpopularity led him to believe rivals were beginning to plot against him, particularly Amin and arranged a purge to occur while he was outside of the country. Amin was warned of the planned purge and acted first, seizing the presidency and forcing Obote into exile in Tanzania. Despite initial popularity, Amin quickly turned to despotism and established a military dictatorship which accelerated the decline of Obote's regime, destroying the country's economy and political system.

Increasing opposition to his regime, paranoia over Milton Obote returning to overthrow him, and friction with Tanzanian president Julius Nyrere led Amin to launch the Uganda–Tanzania War, declaring war on Tanzania and annexing part of the Kagera Region. Amin's forces and his Libyan allies were defeated by Tanzanian troops and the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF), a political coalition formed by exiled anti-Amin Ugandans under the leadership of Obote, whose armed wing was known as Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA).[7][8] Amin was overthrown during the fall of Kampala and then fled the country, and UNLF was installed by Tanzania to replace him. The unstable UNLF government ruled the country provisionally from April 1979 until December 1980. Meanwhile, the ousted Amin loyalists who had fled into Zaire and Sudan reorganised, and prepared to renew war in order to regain control of Uganda.[2]

Bush War[edit]

The first group to initiate hostilities were the Amin loyalists who launched a rebellion against the UNLF government in autumn 1980. Their 7,100-strong force never adopted an official name, but is generally called "Uganda Army" as it consisted for the most part of old troops of Amin's Uganda Army (it was also known as "West Front" or "Western Nile Front"). Though badly armed, the Uganda Army launched a devastating raid from Sudan into Uganda's West Nile sub-region in October 1980, capturing several towns and inflicting numerous casualties on local UNLA garrisons. As the rebels knew that they could not hold the captured territory against a full UNLA counter-offensive, they retreated back into Sudan after a few days. The Uganda Army launched its next offensive just before the Ugandan national elections in December 1980, and this time it held the areas it captured in West Nile, and gradually expanded its holdings.[2]

The rebellion was then crippled by internal divisions, however, as parts of the Uganda Army remained loyal to Idi Amin, whereas others wanted to distance themselves from the unpopular old dictator. The latter part of the insurgent army split off, forming the "Uganda National Rescue Front" (UNRF) under Moses Ali, whereas the remaining Amin loyalists became known as "Former Uganda National Army" (FUNA).[4][9]

As the rebellion in West Nile was expanding and fracturing, the UNLF government experienced its own divisions. The elections of December 1980 were officially won by Milton Obote's Uganda Peoples Congress, effectively making him President of Uganda again. The results were strongly disputed by other candidates, however, resulting in increasing strife. Yoweri Museveni, a former UNLA commander during the Uganda-Tanzania War and leader of the rival Uganda Patriotic Movement party, claimed electoral fraud and declared an armed rebellion against Obote's government. Museveni and his supporters assembled in the south-west of Uganda and formed the Popular Resistance Army (PRA), which later merged with former president Yusuf Lule's group, the Uganda Freedom Fighters, to create the National Resistance Army and its political wing, the National Resistance Movement.[10] Many Rwandan exiles in Uganda including Paul Kagame (who later formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front) allied with Museveni's NRA against Obote. Kagame had been trained in Tanzania as a spy and later became Museveni's counter-intelligence chief.[11][12]

On 6 February 1981, hostilities began in the south with an NRA attack on an army installation in the central Mubende District. Museveni was familiar with guerrilla warfare, having fought with the Mozambican Liberation Front in Mozambique, his own Front for National Salvation to fight the Amin regime, and had continued to campaign in rural areas hostile to Obote's government, especially central and western Buganda and in the western regions of Ankole and Bunyoro.[13] Some believed that he was supported by his old Mozambican allies, resulting in tensions between Obote's government and Mozambique.[5] Most attacks by Museveni's force involved small mobile units called "coys" under the command of Fred Rwigyema, and Museveni's brother, Salim Saleh, with "A" Coy led by Steven Kashaka, "B" Coy by Joram Mugume, and "C" Coy by Pecos Kuteesa. There were three small zonal forces: the Lutta Unit operating in Kapeeka, the Kabalega Unit operating near Kiwoko, and the Nkrumah Unit operating in the areas of Ssingo.[14]

By May 1981, another rebel group was formed, the so-called "Uganda Liberation Movement" which threatened to kidnap and kill United Nations personnel, as the latter was the latter was supporting Obote's attempts at restablizing Uganda. The threats worked, and the U.N. stopped its training programme for the Ugandan police.[5]

While the rebellion in the south grew in intensity, UNRF and FUNA started to fight each other in West Nile. The former managed to gain the upper hand, but this inter-rebel struggle only resulted in the overall weakening of the West Nile insurgents.[6] By 1981, four different insurgent factions were active in northwestern Uganda, all of which claimed to have no direct links with Amin.[15] One West Nile rebel group, the so-called "Nile Regiment" (NR) was set up by Felix Onama, a former follower of Obote.[3] The Ugandan government exploited these divisions by launching counter-attacks into Western Nile from 1981, where its regular military and "People's Militia" committed numerous atrocities.[5]

By November 1982, the National Resistance Army, Uganda Freedom Movement, Uganda National Rescue Front, and the Nile Regiment had formed an alliance, called the "Uganda Popular Front" (UPF). Exiled politician Godfrey Binaisa was appointed head of the UPF. While being based in London, Binaisa decided to organize an invasion from Zaire to topple Obote. He attempted to enlist the aid of white mercenaries for this plot, but his plans fell through and were revealed when he was unable to pay for the operation. The entire plot discredited Binaisa.[3] The UNRF was mostly destroyed in a government offensive in December 1982. This operation included widespread destruction and massacres at the hands of the UNLA in the West Nile region, whereupon 260,000 people fled the area for Zaire and Sudan. This in turn destroyed the "insurgent infrastructure" of UNRF and FUNA, further weakening their remnants.[6]

In 1983, the Obote government launched Operation Bonanza, an extensive military expedition of UNLA forces that alone claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced a significant portion of the population. The blame for the massacres was placed on the people of northern Uganda for supporting the actions of the NRA, which increased the existing regional tensions in the country.

In July 1985, the UNLA military commanders General Tito Okello and Lieutenant General Bazilio Olara-Okello staged a coup d'état that ousted Milton Obote from the presidency, who then fled to Kenya and later to Zambia. By 22 January, 1986, government troops in the capital Kampala had begun to abandon their posts en masse as the rebels gained ground from the south and south-west. Okello ruled as president for six months until he fled to Kenya in exile when the government was eventually defeated by the NRA on 25 January 1986. Yoweri Museveni was subsequently sworn in as president on 29 January, and the NRA became the new regular army of Uganda, which was renamed the Uganda People's Defence Force in 1995.


It has been estimated that approximately 100,000 to 500,000 people, including combatants and civilians, died across Uganda as a result of the Ugandan Bush War.[16][17][18][19]

Milton Obote never returned to Uganda following his second overthrow and exile, despite repeated rumors he planned to return to Ugandan politics. Obote resigned as leader of the Ugandan Peoples Congress and was succeeded his wife, Miria Obote, shortly before his death on 10 October 2005 in South Africa. Tito Okello remained in exile in Kenya until 1993, when he was granted an amnesty by Musaveni and returned to Uganda, where he died in Kampala in 1996.

Human rights abuses[edit]

The ranks of the UNLA included many ethnic Acholi and Lango, who had themselves been the victims of Idi Amin's genocidal purges in northern Uganda. Despite this, the UNLA under Obote targeted and abused civilians, reminiscent of Amin's own abuses. These included the forced removal of 750,000 civilians from the area of the then Luweero District, including present-day Kiboga, Kyankwanzi, Nakaseke, and others. They were moved into refugee camps controlled by the military. Many civilians outside the camps, in what came to be known as the "Luweero triangle", were continuously abused as "guerrilla sympathizers". The International Committee of the Red Cross has estimated that by July 1985, the Obote regime had been responsible for more than 300,000 civilian deaths across Uganda.[20][21]

The NRA also committed atrocities, as land mines were used against civilians, and child soldiers were widespread in the NRA's ranks, and continued to be after the NRA had become the regular Ugandan army.[22]

In popular culture[edit]

The Ugandan Bush War was depicted in the 2018 film 27 Guns. It was written and directed by Natasha Museveni Karugire, Yoweri Museveni's eldest daughter.[23]


  1. ^ Cooper & Fontanellaz (2015), pp. 40–41.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Cooper & Fontanellaz (2015), p. 39.
  3. ^ a b c d Seftel 2010, p. 268.
  4. ^ a b Cooper & Fontanellaz (2015), pp. 39–40.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Seftel 2010, p. 262.
  6. ^ a b c d Cooper & Fontanellaz (2015), p. 40.
  7. ^ Gberie, Lansana (2005). A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone. London: Hurst & Company. ISBN 1-85065-742-4.
  8. ^ Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda (30 July 2009). "WHO FOUGHT? Chihandae supplied 16 of the first 27 NRA guns". The Observer. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  9. ^ "Peace and conflict in northern Uganda 2002–06 (2010)".
  10. ^ "A Country Study: The Ten-Point Program", Library of Congress Country Studies
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ "". Archived from the original on 2015-02-05.
  13. ^ "A Country Study: The Second Obote Regime: 1981–85", Library of Congress Country Studies
  14. ^ Dr Kizza besigye, "We fought for what was right Archived 2007-06-13 at the Wayback Machine", The Monitor, 1 July 2004
  15. ^ Seftel 2010, p. 263.
  16. ^ Encarta. Microsoft. 1995.
  17. ^ Eckhardt, William (1987). Sivard, Ruth L. (ed.). World Military and Social Expenditures 1987–88 (12th ed.). ISBN 0-918281-05-9.
  18. ^ Wasswa, Henry (10 October 2005). "Uganda's first prime minister, and two-time president, dead at 80". Associated Press.
  19. ^ Bercovitch, Jacob; Jackson, Richard (1997). International Conflict: A Chronological Encyclopedia of Conflicts and Their Management 1945–1995. Washington: Congressional Quarterly. ISBN 1-56802-195-X.
  20. ^ 1947–, Ofcansky, Thomas P., (1999). Uganda : tarnished pearl of Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. p. 55. ISBN 9781435601451. OCLC 174221322.
  21. ^ Seftel 2010, pp. 265–267.
  22. ^ Uganda, Landmine Monitor Report, Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, May 2004
  23. ^ "27 Guns trailer out: dawn of a new age-Museveni's revolution". Reportrt. Edge. Retrieved 14 November 2018.

Works cited[edit]

  • Cooper, Tom; Fontanellaz, Adrien (2015). Wars and Insurgencies of Uganda 1971–1994. Solihull: Helion & Company Limited. ISBN 978-1-910294-55-0.
  • Seftel, Adam, ed. (2010) [1st pub. 1994]. Uganda: The Bloodstained Pearl of Africa and Its Struggle for Peace. From the Pages of Drum. Kampala: Fountain Publishers. ISBN 978-9970-02-036-2.