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 – March 1986

NRA victory


Uganda Ugandan government

 North Korea (1981–1985)
Supported by:
 United States[2]

Uganda National Resistance Army (NRA)

Uganda West Nile rebels:

  • Uganda Army (1980–81)[3]
  • UNRF (I) (1981–85)[3]
  • FUNA (1981–85)[3]
  • Nile Regiment[4]

Uganda UFM (1980–83)[5]
Uganda FEDEMU (1983–85)[6]
Uganda ULM[7]
Uganda UNLF-AD[8]
Supported by:
Mozambique Mozambique (alleged)[7]

Rwenzururu movement (until 1982)
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[3]
Moses Ali[3]
Amin Onzi[8]
Juma Oris[8]
Felix Onama[4]

David Lwanga[8]

Balaki Kirya[10]
Andrew Kayira (POW)[8]
Units involved

Ugandan military

Pro-government militias

  • People's Militia
  • National Youth Army
  • Tribal militias
  • UPC youth paramilitaries
Korean People's Army[11]
Numerous rebel militias
UNLA and allied militias:
15,000+ (1981)
35,000–40,000 (1984)
11,000 (until 1980)
800–1,000 (from 1981)
 North Korea:
30+ (1981)
c. 50 (1984)
170–700 (1985)
Uganda Army:
c. 7,100 (1980)[3]
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 by the official Ugandan government and its armed wing, the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), against 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 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 NRA captured Kampala, Uganda's capital, in January 1986. It subsequently established a new government with Museveni as President, while the UNLA fully disintegrated in March 1986. Obote and Okello went into exile. Despite the nominal end of the civil war, numerous anti-NRA rebel factions and militias remained active, and would continue to fight Museveni's government in the next decades.


In 1971, the President of Uganda Milton Obote was overthrown in a coup d'état by General Idi Amin of the Uganda Army. 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).[12][13] 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.[3]

Bush War[edit]

West Nile rebellion, elections, and formation of the NRA[edit]

The first rebellion broke out in the West Nile region of Uganda's northwest. The epicenter of the war later shifted to the Luwero Triangle north of Kampala.

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.[3] The West Nile 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).[5][14]

Furthermore, southwestern Uganda experienced a resurgence of the Rwenzururu movement which wanted self-determination for the Konjo and Amba peoples. The movement had been largely dormant since the 1960s, but managed to take control of weapon stockpiles that had been left unguarded when Amin's government collapsed in 1979. They thus resumed their insurgency, and the security situation in the mountainous border areas of the southwest quickly detoriated in 1980.[15]

Meanwhile, the UNLF government experienced its own divisions. As the UNLA was being transformed from a loose alliance of various anti-Amin insurgent groups into a regular army, the different political factions attempted to ensure that their own loyalists would be present and dominant in the new military. Obote outmaneuvered his rivals, most importantly Yoweri Museveni, and made his several-hundred strong Kikosi Maalum group the core of the UNLA. In contrast, just 4,000 out of Museveni's 9,000 FRONASA fighters were allowed to join the new army, and these were distributed across several units. Furthermore, FRONASA was forced to give up its own weaponry.[10] At the same time, the UNLA was rapidly expanded; most of the new recruits came from ethnic groups that supported Obote.[16] As result, power shifted to pro-Obote elements in the government and the army.[17]

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. Several political factions claimed electoral fraud, and believed to be proven correct when Obote immediately launched a campaign of political repression. As the UNLA was dominated by pro-Obote forces, a coup was impossible, so that the opposition instead launched armed rebellions against Obote's government: Museveni's Uganda Patriotic Movement party organized the Popular Resistance Army (PRA), Yusuf Lule formed the Uganda Freedom Fighters (UFF), and Andrew Kayira armed his Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM).[5] The PRA and UFF later merged to create the National Resistance Army and its political wing, the National Resistance Movement.[18] 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.[19][20]

On 6 February 1981, hostilities began in the south with a PRA 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.[21] Some believed that he was supported by his old Mozambican allies, resulting in tensions between Obote's government and Mozambique.[7] In any case, Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi opted to provide support to the NRA, although it was made up of forces which had overthrown his old ally Amin. Gaddafi believed that Libya could gain greater influence in central Africa through the NRA than it had previously with Amin.[9] 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.[22]

Early rebel successes, government counter-offensives, and stalemate[edit]

As the war escalated, foreign support became vital for the survival of Obote's government. The Tanzanians initially helped to defend his regime and kept some order through the presence of about 10,000 Tanzania People's Defence Force soldiers and 1,000 policemen. Nevertheless, the unsustainable costs of these troops led Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere to gradually withdraw most of his forces from Uganda. Just 800 to 1,000 Tanzanian advisors remained in the country from June 1981.[16] These advisors remained of crucial importance for the UNLA,[10] but the Tanzanian withdrawal greatly weakened Obote's position. To compensate, he tried to enlist further foreign aid: He hired a British private military company, and convinced the Commonwealth of Nations[23] as well as the United States to send small teams of security advisors.[2]

North Korea under Kim Il-sung (pictured) was one of Obote's foreign allies during the Bush War, and provided military equipment as well as advisors.

One of Obote's most important allies was North Korea. The Ugandan President visited the country in late 1981 and signed a cooperation agreement which included military support for his regime.[2] At least 30 North Korean officers were subsequently sent to Gulu in northern Uganda, where they trained UNLA soldiers and repaired military equipment.[11] By 1984, the number had risen to about 50 North Koreans who acted as security, intelligence, and military advisors.[24] Museveni claimed that over 700 North Koreans were ultimately used by the UNLA; Obote maintained that only about 170 were present in Uganda.[25] According to one study, the North Korean officers actively participated in and even led counter-insurgency operations for Obote.[11] A Central Intelligence Agency report stated, however, that the North Koreans refused to actually venture to the frontlines. The Ugandan military also sent some officers and non-commissioned officer to North Korea for advanced trainings.[24]

Obote's government also organized various paramilitary groups to assist the UNLA. The "People's Militia" consisted of Langi, Acholi and Teso tribesmen, and was mostly loyal to UNLA chief of staff David Oyite-Ojok. It became increasingly powerful, and garned a reputation as fierce but brutal force. In addition, there were the "National Youth Army" (NYA),[26] various tribal militias,[27] and the UPC youth paramilitaries.[24]

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 supporting Obote's attempts at restablising Uganda. The threats worked, and the U.N. stopped its training programme for the Ugandan police.[7]

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.[10] By 1981, four different insurgent factions were active in northwestern Uganda, all of which claimed to have no direct links with Amin.[28] One West Nile rebel group, the so-called "Nile Regiment" (NR) was set up by Felix Onama, a former follower of Obote.[4] 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.[7] In contrast, Obote opted for a more conciliatory approach with the Rwenzururu movement. Following negotiations, the Ugandan government signed a peace agreement with the rebel group's leadership in return for payements and other benefits to the latter. Furthermore, Obote granted the Rwenzururu region some limited autonomy.[29]

By late 1981, the UNLA was already in a critical situation. Its rapid expansion to over 15,000 troops by December 1981 resulted in a majority of its troops being untrained, badly armed and often unpaid. Corruption became rampant, and great differences emerged between UNLA units. Some, like those that were active in northern Uganda, were given preferential treatment and became relativel reliable. In contrast, the Central Brigade that mostly fought the NRA mostly consisted of barely-trained militiamen who were considered to be "cannon-fodder" by their own commanders. The counter-insurgency operations against the West Nile rebels were thus much more successful than those against the NRA. Overall, the UNLA already showed signs of great strain at this point, and would have probably collapsed without Tanzanian support by the end of 1981.[16]

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.[4] 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.[10] UNRF subsequently relocated from West Nile and its bases in southern Sudan to northern Uganda, where it attempted to rally the Karamojong people to its cause.[6] In the south, the UNLA under chief of staff Oyite-Ojok waged a counter-insurgency campaign against the NRA in the Luwero Triangle which resulted in the "genocidal killings" of thousands of Baganda civilians. Many government troops deployed in the Luwero Triangle belonged to the Acholi people who became widely hated by the southeners.[30]

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.[citation needed] Furthermore, one rebel force, the Uganda Freedom Movement, was largely defeated in 1983 while its exiled leadership was scattered due to a crackdown in Kenya. Remnants of the UFM, possibly a few hundred militants strong, subsequently formed the Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU).[6]

Up to late 1983, Obote's government had remained relatively stable and in control of most of Uganda thanks to the efforts of the UNLA's ruthless, capable, and popular chief of staff David Oyite-Ojok. Though it could not defeat the NRA, the military was able to contain it.[27] Despite this, Obote's forces suffered from tribalism, corruption, and internal rivalries.[31] The UNLA and its allied militias had been expanded too quickly in an attempt to defeat the insurgency: By 1984, Obote had 35,000 to 40,000 men under arms, but just 15,000 had received basic training. As result, the soldiers were undisciplined, unreliable, and prone to harass, steal from, and murder civilians due to a lack of proper pay and supplies. Although the Ugandan government knew that it could not not even feed its large army, let alone properly train or arm it, Obote was unwilling to demobilize troops out of fear that the soldiers could behave even worse if they were no longer employed.[32]

Fall of Obote and National Unity government[edit]

The situation began to change with Oyite-Ojok's death under suspicious circumstances in a plane crash in December 1983. At first, people believed that the chief of staff had been killed by rebels who consequently assumed responsibility. Oyite-Ojok's loyal troops, most importantly the People's Militia and National Youth Army responded by carrying out revenge killings against suspected rebel supporters. After one week, however, rumours spread among the military according to which Obote had arranged the death of his chief of staff due to developing rifts between them.[26] Although Obote's responsibility could not be proven, the rumours damaged Obote's reputation among the military.[27] The CIA judged that Oyite-Ojok had been crucial for keeping the Ugandan government afloat, and had been responsible for "maintaining some semblance of security and order" in the country.[31] With him gone, the UNLA began to unravel.[27][33] An increasing number of Acholi soldiers believed that Obote was using them as cannon-fodder, while filling the country's leadership with Langi.[34] At the same time, the NRA became more successful at spreading its propaganda, and attracting dissatisfied Acholi army officers to their cause. The growing unrest in Obote's army eventually resulted in his downfall.[35]

The situation eventually escalated when Acholi troops of the UNLA mutinied in Jinja and other locations in June 1985. Rifts subsequently erupted in the government and some political groups such as the Democratic Party attempted to exploit the chaos by gaining control over the military.[36] The news also reached Gulu, where Lieutenant General Bazilio Olara-Okello, an Acholi, was stationed. Fearing that a new government in Kampala might purge the Acholi, he revolted.[37] Olara-Okello gathered a force dominated by Acholi mutineers, and won the support of ex-Amin loyalists from the West Nile and Sudan. Using these troops, he conquered Lira, and then marched on Kampala.[34] The capital fell after a short battle in July 1985,[38] but Obote had already fled to Tanzania.[34] He later relocated to Kenya and finally Zambia.[38] After the successful coup, General Tito Okello was installed as President; this marked the first time in Uganda's history when Acholi had achieved state power.[39] The coup had catastrophic consequences for the UNLA. The new Acholi leadership promptly began to use their new power to disempower and exploit other ethnic groups including Langi, resulting in the collapse of discipline and order among many military units. From then on, the UNLA gradually devolved into "marauding bands".[40] On 23 August, the 196 North Korean military advisers to the UNLA were flown out of Uganda.[25] Regardless, the government opened negotiations with the numerous insurgent groups, and eventually reached an agreement with the FUNA, UNRF (I), and FEDEMU. These rebels agreed to join a new National Unity government, and officially integrated their militias into the government army. The NRA was opposed to compromise with Okello's regime out of ideological reasons, but stalled for time and ostensibly agreed to a power-sharing deal. In truth, it prepared its force for a decisive offensive.[38]

Collapse of the Ugandan government, victory for the NRA[edit]

In August 1985, the NRA launched a series of co-ordinated attacks that resulted in the capture of significant amounts of territory in central and western Uganda.[38] It besieged and captured the crucial garrison towns of Masaka and Mbarara, greatly weakening the UNLA.[41] By January 1986, the UNLA was starting to collapse as the rebels gained ground from the south and south-west.[42] Okello's regime effectively ended when Kampala was captured by the NRA on 26 January 1986. Yoweri Museveni was subsequently sworn in as president on 29 January, and the NRA became the new regular army of Uganda. Despite this massive defeat, the UNLA attempted to rally once more, and intended to defend its remaining holdings in northern Uganda.[43]

These holdouts were led by Bazilio Olara-Okello who ordered a mass mobilization in Gulu and Kitgum. Everyone who could hold a rifle, including women and girls, was armed and provided with an ad hoc training.[40] Meanwhile, the NRA continued its offensive, capturing Jinja by late January, followed by Tororo in early February.[43] At this point, the UNLA attempted one last time to stem the rebel advance. It counter-attacked at Tororo, but was repelled. The NRA proceeded to assault the fortified the crossings of the Nile,[43] encoutering particularly heavy resistance by the UNLA and allied West Nile militias at Karuma and Kamdini. After bitter fighting NRA overcame the UNLA's defenses, inflicting "catastrophic losses" on the Acholi troops.[40] With effective resistance no longer possible, the UNLA disintegrated and its remnants fled into exile, along with many former government officials.[43] The NRA captured Gulu and Kitgum in March 1986, while the defeated Acholi soldiers mostly returned to their villages. The war appeared to be over.[40]


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.[44][45][46][47]

Although the NRA had formally won the civil war, fighting did not end. Various anti-NRA rebel groups and remnants of UNLA remained active, with major insurgencies affecting Acholiland and West Nile in particular.[48] The UNLA's Acholi soldiers had never been disarmed, and many had grown accustomed to the life as soldier. They were no longer willing to live as peasants, and dissatisfied with the new government as well as the traditional rule of the tribal elders.[40] Many were extremely poor, and economic and political chaos was widespread in northern Uganda in the Bush War's wake.[30] As time went on, groups of ex-soldiers began to band together as bandits, and violence gradually grew worse in the north. Some NRA garrisons in the region mishandled the crisis by responding with extreme brutality. Though many NRA troops actually behaved well, the army's undisciplined elements tarnished the reputation of Museveni's government. Rumours began to spread that the government was planning to kill all male Acholi.[49] Many Acholi feared that the NRA sought revenge for the mass murders in the Luwero Triangle during the Bush War.[30] In fact, many southeners blamed not just the violence of the Bush War on the Acholi, but even the brutal regime of Idi Amin[50] – even though the Acholi had been marginalized by Amin.[51] This unrest contributed to the return of open war to northern Uganda.[49]

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.

Despite its support for Obote during the civil war, North Korea quickly developed amicable relations with Museveni's government. Cooperation was restored as soon as 1986, and the new Ugandan military consequently received weaponry as well as training by North Korea.[52] The country's involvement in the Bush War had other long-lasting repercussions, however, as North Koreans became a symbol for mystical military power in northern Uganda. As result, rebel groups such as the Holy Spirit Movement went on to claim that they were aided by North Korean spirits in their war against Museveni's government.[53]

Human rights abuses[edit]

The ranks of the UNLA included many ethnic Acholi and Langi, 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.[54][55]

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.[56]

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.[57]



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Works cited[edit]