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When NRA Cut Off South-Western Uganda at Katonga Bridge :: Uganda Radionetwork
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When NRA Cut Off South-Western Uganda at Katonga Bridge

Robert Ssempa, a retired banker, says that the current situation is not as bad as it was back in the day but with the collapse of the bridge such memories are inevitable to cross the minds of those who witnessed it. Ssempa, born in Masaka, was working with Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) in Kampala when the incident took place.
22 May 2023 09:22
Residents are still converging to witness the flooding of River Katonga that cut off Masaka-Kampala Highway

Audio 4

The recent collapse of River Katonga due to flooding has evoked dark memories of when the southwestern region of Uganda was completely cut off at the same point in 1985. It is a reminder of how battles fought at Katonga have shaped the course of at least two wars in 1979 and 1985.

Robert Ssempa, a retired banker, says that the current situation is not as bad as it was back in the day but with the collapse of the bridge such memories are inevitable to cross the minds of those who witnessed it. Ssempa, born in Masaka, was working with Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB) in Kampala when the incident took place. 

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He describes a time when there were essentially two separate regions, making it impossible to travel to Kampala. Towards the end of the 1981–1986 war in Uganda, in October 1985, rebels of the National Resistance Army (NRA) cut off Katonga Bridge.  

While the availability of alternative routes nowadays is a positive development, Ssempa says back then such options were nonexistent. Consequently, some individuals attempted to cross Lake Victoria, resulting in numerous fatalities.  

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Due to the complete blockade of direct access routes, Ssempa explains that certain businessmen from southwestern Uganda took an alternative path through Mutukula in Tanzania, then continuing on to Bukoba, and eventually reaching Kisumu in Kenya before finally arriving in Kampala. 

Ssempa specifically recalls two businessmen, Kato Kajubi (who later faced imprisonment in a child sacrifice case) and another individual named Sserunjogi, who opted for this route to ensure the continuity of their business operations. During his time at UCB, Ssempa personally handled their transactions. The duo primarily engaged in the coffee trade.

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Ssempa further adds that during that period, there was a rumor circulating that the NRA rebels had planted landmines in the Katonga area. This rumor instilled fear among individuals who sought to secretly travel either from Masaka to Kampala or from Kampala to Masaka.  

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Frank Mutebi, a resident of Nyendo in Masaka city, says that the decision to cut off Katonga Bridge had far-reaching consequences on various aspects of life in southern Uganda. The impact was particularly severe on business, social interactions, economic activities, and even education in the region.  

“The action disrupted daily life in the villages, and people were forced to adjust to new routines. The shortage of critical commodities such as sugar, salt, and paraffin made life challenging and unpredictable,” he said. Mutebi further noted that there was a positive shift in the situation in Southern Uganda as time progressed. The availability of essential commodities improved, and this was largely attributed to the increased supply coming from Tanzania. 

Crossings such as Mutukula and others played a significant role in facilitating the transportation of these supplies into the region, contributing to the overall improvement in the availability of essential goods. In the present situation, the closure of the bridge has already begun to affect the livelihoods of people residing on both sides. 

Reports indicate that there has been an increase in the prices of food items sourced from the southwestern part of the country. Similarly, certain trade items in Masaka, which are purchased from Kampala, have also seen price hikes due to increased transportation costs.  

“The increase is expected and might not have a big impact. In our days it was just worse,” Mutebi told our reporter. Records show that the Katonga Bridge was the site of a prolonged and bloody battle between the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) and the NRA soldiers, as the latter attempted to cross from Masaka toward Kampala. 

The intense fighting at the bridge spanned over four months and is remembered as one of the deadliest conflicts in Uganda's military history. The capture of the bridge proved to be a crucial victory for the NRA, making their eventual takeover of Kampala much easier.  

On October 13, 1985, there was a clash between the Government troops and NRA rebels at the strategically important bridge over the Katonga River. The rebel forces had set up an ambush that resulted in several government units falling into their trap. According to archives obtained from United Press International, witnesses reported that on October 26th, guerrilla fighters were engaged in a fierce conflict with government troops at Katonga, located approximately 80 kilometers southwest of Kampala.   

In addition, it was noted that military roadblocks, which had previously disappeared following an army coup of July 27, 1985, which brought General Tito Okello to power, reappeared in Kampala on the same day. 

In his book titled “Uganda's Revolution, 1979-1986: How I saw it”, the late Gen Pecos Kutesa explains that the control of all access routes from Kampala to southwestern Uganda was necessary to effectively control the area under the NRA/NRM and prevent enemy reinforcements in Mbarara and Masaka. Kutesa further mentioned that the 1st Battalion, commanded by himself and deputized by Fred Mugisha, was responsible for blocking the bridge, while the 5th Battalion under Stephen Kashaka and Ahmed Kashillingi was instructed to man the southern side of the road. 

This event took place just prior to the fourth round of negotiations scheduled to take place between the government and the leaders of the NRA/M leaders in Nairobi the following week.  Following this incident, the defacto vice president Brigadier Gad Wilson Toko, who was also Minister of Defence, accused the NRA rebels of violating the ceasefire agreement and announced that the government would no longer participate in any peace talks. 

While peace negotiations later resumed and even a peace agreement was signed in December 1985, the rebels advanced and captured Kampala in January 1986.  

Same bridge, different war(s)  

It is worth mentioning that this particular place had previously experienced a distinct form of violence and holds great significance in the military history of Uganda, as well as in the pre-colonial periods of Bunyoro and Buganda. The control of Katonga Bridge and the “strategic areas” around it were a factor in the execution of the war that climaxed with the overthrow of President Idi Amin Dada, in April 1979. In October 1978 the Uganda Army soldiers crossed the southern border and carried out attacks in the Kagera region of Tanzania.

Shortly after, President Amin declared Kagera part of Uganda. Tanzania was by 1978 home to thousands of Ugandans, including soldiers, who had run away following the 1971 military coup which brought Amin to power. Deposed President Milton Obote was also living in exile in Tanzania.   A combined force of the Tanzanian national army – the TPDF—and groups of Ugandans launched a counter-offensive to not only drive Amin’s army from Tanzania but also cause a regime change in Kampala.  

Colonel Abdu Kisuule was a senior officer in the Uganda Army and one of those deployed to contain the invading forces. In February 1979, Masaka fell to the TPDF, and Colonel Kisuule was asked to command an offensive to recapture Masaka.  In 2014, Kisuule narrated to The Citizen newspaper how the plan hinged on taking control of Katonga and using it as a springboard to drive the invading force back. 

He said: “I went with Amin up to Buganzi Hill to see what was happening.  Amin came back to Kampala, leaving the operation to retake Masaka in my hands. By then, Lukaya was still in our control but our soldiers had looted everything they could lay their hands on, and the locals had all fled…I decided to put my tactical headquarters in Buwama at the county office, and I ordered all soldiers to stay 500 meters away from the center.”  

According to Colonel Kisuule, it was at Katonga and Lukaya areas that up to one thousand Libyan soldiers, sent in to support President Amin, deployed.   “The Libyans had now joined us and we mounted heavy guns which they brought on the hills across Katonga; all of them facing Lukaya and we also deployed tanks. We planned to advance to Masaka on March 9 after briefing the more than 1,000 Libyans at Mitala Maria who had come to boost our ranks. They came with many big guns that we did not have like the 122mm mortars.”  

Unfortunately for Colonel Kisuule and his men, the war did not go according to their plan and he was on the receiving end of the action. “The fighting was so fierce and many of my men were killed and tens of jeeps were ferrying dead bodies from the frontline to Kampala,” he noted adding: “I am sure that was the last serious battle and that’s where we lost the war.” 

Another war lost at Katonga!

The invading forces went on to capture Kampala and overthrow President Amin in April 1979. Today, the only remnants of these past encounters include the gradual and incomplete monument of Presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Muammar Gadhafi of Libya. Additionally, a new poster has been put up by the army, announcing their plans to construct a military museum at the location to immortalize Katonga as a defining spot, where the NRA rebels fought a bloody war to achieve victory. 

In July 2010, President Gadhafi visited Uganda on what would become his last trip to the country. Commissioning the monument at Katonga had been arranged as one of the activities for the visiting president but, for some unclear reasons, he returned home without doing so. He was overthrown in August 2011 and assassinated two months later.  

Katonga Medal  

The Ugandan government, under President Museveni, established the Order of Katonga medal to recognize exceptional acts of heroism and bravery. The medal takes its name from the decisive battle of the Ugandan Bush War, which saw the National Resistance Army emerge victorious. 

This prestigious award is the highest military honor in the Ugandan Honors System and is seldom given out. President Museveni presented the first Order of Katonga medal to the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, on April 6, 2004, in Tripoli, in recognition of his support for the NRA during the Ugandan Bush War. In July 2007, President Museveni awarded the medal posthumously to former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere.  

Historians have documented this location as a site of frequent confrontations between Buganda and Bunyoro, with the Bunyoro's Abarusuura using it as a strategic stronghold to deter the Abatabazi from Buganda from invading their lands. However, in the 17th century, under the rule of Kabaka Jjunju, the Abatabazi eventually went past Katonga and later incorporated Buddu into Buganda’s domain.  

Still, in pre-modern times, the crossing of the Katonga River carried immense importance for travelers originating from the southwestern regions, specifically the Buddu area, on their way to the royal palace or Kibuga. A Luganda proverb, "Oli mu kulya nga Katonga ajjula," highlights the significance of time management, as individuals had to carefully time their crossing to coincide with the river's subsiding water levels.