1984: Mande, Kagame, Saleh Break UNLA’s Spine

January 26, marked the end of a five-year bloody armed struggle that catapulted Yoweri Museveni, the battle-hardened leader of the National Resistance Army (NRA), to Uganda’s highest political office.

The New York Times reported on January 30, a day after Museveni was sworn-in as President, that the ceremony, witnessed by thousands of jubilant Ugandans, was held on the steps of the Parliament building, where some of the fiercest fighting erupted in the battle for Kampala.

The installation of Mr. Museveni, who arrived in a gleaming black Mercedes-Benz and wore jungle-green military fatigues and polished combat boots, came five years after he took his followers into the bush in his quest to overthrow the Government of President Milton Obote.

”Nobody is to think that what is happening today, what has been happening in the last few days is a mere change of guards,” said Mr. Museveni, 40 years old, who is the ninth head of state since this East African nation gained independence from Britain in 1962.

Col Samson Mande
Col Samson Mande

”This is not a mere change of guards. I think this is a fundamental change in the politics of our government.”

”Any individual, any group or person who threatens the security of our people must be smashed without mercy,” Mr. Museveni said. ”The people of Uganda should only die from natural causes which are not under our control,” he said, ”but not from fellow human beings.”

The poorly equipped but resilient NRA had fought decisive and daring battles in the South, Central and Western parts of the country before striking at the heart of Kampala that saw the eventual downfall the military Junta of the Okellos which had earlier toppled Milton Obote in a coup.

Museveni has since consolidated his hold on power, defeating all insurgencies especially in the West, North East and Northern parts of the country.


In this edition, NRA combatant and exiled Colonel, Samson Mande reflects on the ‘Kembogo battle’ that broke UNLA’s spine.


In 1984 there was a merger of the NRA and the late Cheffe Ali’s Uganda National Liberation Front that was based in the Rwenzori Mountains. I was tasked to take the Task Force to merge with Brigadier Cheffe Ali (RIP). In that arrangement the 11th Battalion was formed.

Cheffe Ali became the Commanding officer and I became his second in command.

The General Headquarters – that is the NRA high command under Maj Gen Fred Rwigyema RIP and all non-combat elements of NRA relocated from Luwero triangle to the Rwenzoris.

The move to the Rwenzori which opened the NRA Western axis gave a decisive blow to the UNLA and as a result of the huge losses in equipment and personnel the UNLA caused the pressure that forced the UNLA to overthrow the UPC government.

I did the reconnaissance, the battle of Rubona in Kabalore where we captured new artillery weapons and other special weapons the UNLA had bout in order to flash us out of the mountains.

After the Rubona success we forced the UNLA Regiment that was based in Muhoti barracks in Fort Portal to surrender.

From Fort portal I was tasked to advance and capture Kasese. After a series of battles with a special commandos Unit led by North Korea mercenaries at Kasunganyanja we moved at a terrific speed and occupied Rwimi in order to prepare the final assault on Kasese.

NRA warrior, Salim Saleh
NRA warrior, Salim Saleh

I sent a deployed recce company under command of President Paul Kagame (then my combat intelligence officer) to do reconnaissance on the fortified city. He instead infiltrated the UNLA and made them surrender.

He gave us a signal when he had already taken over strategic positions and the UNLA were surrendering to him without a fight. That collaborated the information we had just got from some civilians and three UNLA officers who had found their way to Rwimi and surrendered to us.

Kasese Falls

After the fall of Kasese. The 11th battalion grew to 11 companies and the NRA formed a new battalion called 15th battalion which I became its commanding officer. The high command decided to attack Mbarara, 11th battalion and 9th Battalion which had come to reinforce the western axis led the advance and I was tasked to advance to Nyakisharara on standby.

Mbarara garison was capture but unfortunately the UNLA made a counter attack and inflicted heavy casualties on NRA. So the 9th and 11th battalion had to withdraw to an RV near Mbarara.

The UNLA gained morale and the initiative. They asked for reinforcement to make a hot pursuit and push NRA out of Mbarara, Kasese and Fort portal.

Heavy reinforcements were sent from Kampala and Masaka to come for that campaign. I was ordered to go on Mbarara Masaka road and block the reinforcement and I chose.

The reinforcements were a combination of UNLA, the late Captain Nkwanga’s FEDEM and Gen Moses Ali’s UNRF who had joined the Gen Tito Okello Lutwa RIP Government. I estimated about 6,000 of them heavily equipped.

I had serious encounters with them for three days at Kembogo, Mile 28, Nshara Stock farm and Rwomutete.

We gave the UNLA combination the heaviest blow they had not witnessed before. After counting 1,000 dead UNLA soldiers. I ordered that counting stops. It’s always painful when I remember the heaps of dead bodies in that battle area.

NRA combatant and intelligence officer, now Rwanda President, Paul Kagame
NRA combatant and intelligence officer, now Rwanda President, Paul Kagame


The remnants of the force withdrew from the battle field via Lyantonde, Mbirizi,  Kinoni to Masaka  town and occupied Masaka barracks. It’s from here the NRA regained the morale and the initiative we had lost in Mbarara.

I got reinforced by the 3rd Battalion and we advanced to Masaka and besieged Masaka and blocked the UNLA reinforcement at Katonga until Masaka UNLA group surrendered. After the fall of Masaka we advanced and reinforced through Katonga to Kampala and beyond.

Although by the time we besieged Masaka we had been reinforced by General Salim Saleh and some of his mobile units it’s the victory of  the 15th Battalion against the UNLA combination that generated the NRA momentum and the shock action inflicted on the UNLA the led to the eventual fall of the Gen Tito Okello government for the combined force was made to accept the NRA was no match.

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