Museveni Explains Strategy That Brought NRA to Power

Part XXII of these series is an article written by President Museveni in 1981 after the start of the guerilla war that eventually brought him to power.

In the article, published in Resistance News newsletter, Museveni explains why the NRA adopted protracted people’s war as the military strategy that he believed – as far back as 1981 – to be the winning formula for his rebel movement.

This article aims at explaining to our people, as well as friends of Uganda elsewhere, the broad strategy of our struggle. It will also outline the progress we have made so far in the liberation war, and deal briefly with the prospects for its successful conclusion.

The strategy of the National Resistance Army (NRA), which is the armed wing of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), is that of a protracted people’s war. The concept of a protracted people’s war is not a new one but it is not properly understood, particularly in Africa. Nor is the term “strategy” itself, in the technical military sense, always properly understood.

Strategy is often confused with tactics, as if one meant the other. Therefore before we talk about the progress and prospects of a protracted people’s war in Uganda, we shall briefly examine the terms “strategy” and “tactics” and the concept of a protracted people’s war itself. We should also be aware of the different kinds of strategy which may be employed to resolve a war situation.

Strategy means the methodology one uses to solve a problem as a whole that is, to solve a problem from A to Z. Tactics on the other hand, are the methods one uses to solve parts of a problem from A to B or from B to C. In situations like that of Uganda after Obote grabbed power last year, there are four possible strategies to consider.

Conventional war

Conventional war is the strategy where large formations of armies slog it out in face-to-face battle following fairly definable and identifiable frontlines. These entail the use of large pieces of modern equipment including artillery, aircraft and rockets.

The degree of sophistication depends on the belligerents. Aanced countries have very sophisticated equipment, while Third World countries have varying degrees of sophisticated equipment depending on their wealth, political systems and presence or absence of regional conflicts.

But to describe a war strategy as conventional does not mean that it depends only on the sophistication of the weaponry used: it depends also on the nature of the fighting, as pointed out above. Conventional war as a strategy uses tactics of large-scale formations, fighting face-to-face battles. Examples of these are World War II and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.

In the case of Uganda, the strategy used by Tanzania People’s Defence Force (TPDF) in the 1978-79 war was that of a conventional war. Two divisions of the TPDF supported by Uganda freedom fighters, moving along two axes, routed Amin’s army and drove it up to the Sudanese frontier over a period of eight months.


This is a strategy where the population e.g. students, soldiers or workers stage an uprising against the government and overthrow it. This normally takes a short time, perhaps a couple of days, but it involves a lot of people.

This was the strategy used in the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 and the Congolese Revolution of 1963 against Filbert Youlou. This kind of strategy needs a high degree of coordination.

Coup d’etat

A coup d’etat is a strategy where elements of the army seize key installations and take over power in a relatively short time. It normally takes a few hours to accomplish.

This strategy has been the most widely used in African countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt in 1952 and Idi Amin’s coup in Uganda in 1971. In the case of Ethiopia, however, the officers of the Ethiopian army, principally those of the Second Division in Asmara, used the method of a “creeping coup” against Haile Selassie and it took them several months to overthrow him.

Protracted people’s

This is a strategy where popular forces, i.e. those forces supported by the masses, wage a protracted war against those in power. The elements in power may be colonial or local oppressors. Popular forces may start off with weak military units in terms of numbers, weaponry and organisation but by using the strategy of a protracted war, they will turn potential into actual strength, thus overcoming their weaknesses vis-agrave-vis the enemy forces.

A protracted people’s war goes through three phases: guerilla warfare, mobile warfare and finally, conventional warfare. The phase of guerilla warfare entails operations carried out by small units-sections, platoon or company – operating almost independently and launching short, sharp attacks, ambushes and executions of notoriously anti-people elements.

In order to cope with these attacks, the government or the colonial forces will try to spread out their forces by fragmenting their army into numerous small units. These small units are thus made more vulnerable and subject to surprise attacks, harassment or annihilation.

If, on the other hand, the enemy does not scatter his forces in this manner, he will lose control of territory and population to the popular forces. This is an absolutely insoluble dilemma for a repressive machinery, provided the cause is popular and the guerilla commanders do not make mistakes through aenturism or defeatism.

The guerilla forces concentrate on disruption of communication networks, the economy, the enemy administrative structure and the spy network. The guerilla forces also initially concentrate on attacking weaker structures like police units, auxiliary units like militias, or the less powerful of the enemy forces.

This is done in order to avoid casualties and to gain battle experience before taking on tougher assignments. They concentrate on attacking the enemy when they are on the move rather than when they are in encampment because the enemy is more vulnerable on the move.

This process of wearing down the enemy will eventually shift the balance of power, with the repressive forces becoming worn out and the popular forces gaining in strength, weaponry, numbers and combat experience and organisation.

Once the popular forces have solved the initial organisational problems of weaponry and combat experience, they will start operating with bigger units like companies, battalions or even brigades, and eventually reach a level where they can fight mobile warfare. Mobile warfare involves fighting of mobile and fluid battles.

At this junction, and during the phase of the guerilla warfare, the popular forces should not worry about loss of territory or control of the population. Loss of territory is, at this stage, of no consequence.

In our case, the more important considerations are the preservation and expansion of our forces by avoiding unnecessary casualties, and destroying the enemy’s means of making war, i.e. his weaponry, his troops and their fighting morale, his economy, his physical infrastructure and his international credibility.

Of course, all this assumes the support of the masses otherwise, such a war could not be sustained even for a day. When the balance of forces has shifted in our favour, we shall launch conventional warfare. This entails fighting positional warfare for control of towns and strategic points.

It is the final phase of the people’s war, but even here, the popular forces do not have to compete with the enemy forces in terms of weaponry. All one needs to defeat the unpopular forces of repression, provided one has grasped the science of a people’s war, is basic infantry weapons and artillery, i.e. field artillery, anti-armour pieces and anti-aircraft missiles.

The point to stress here is that we do not need as much weaponry as tyrants in power. Where they have tanks, we only need anti-tank weapons of modest calibre where they have aircrafts, we only need anti-aircraft weapons. The basic weapon, however, is the support of the people and their political consciousness.

The people should also be convinced of their own strength vis-agrave-vis that of the enemy. The strategy of protracted people’s war was used with great success in China, Cuba, Mozambique, Vietnam, Algeria, Kenya and other countries. Any failures have been caused by mistakes made by the organisers, or because the war was being fought for wrong political reasons.

The Eritreans in Ethiopia and the Somali secessionists in Kenya have for a long time been involved in guerilla warfare but in spite of substantial foreign backing, their struggle has not aanced very far. When the Obote clique seized power on December 12, 1980, a number of patriotic forces started considering the question of armed struggle to remove the dictatorship.

Two lines of thought emerged on the strategy that should be adopted: Some aocated a coup d’etat while others aocated a protracted people’s war. We, who later formed the Popular Resistance Fighters [and went on] to form the National Resistance Movement and Army, rejected the strategy of a coup.

The main point against staging a coup was the presence of Tanzanian troops in Uganda which could always be reinforced from Tanzania. By trying to capture the radio station and take power in one day, we would have been making a gift of ourselves to the Tanzanians, since they had already decided to become backers of Obotes’s dictatorship.

We, therefore, decided to give them an expensive war – a protracted people’s war -which would render their superior weapons irrelevant and wear down their means of making war in Uganda, i.e. the economy, morale, and domestic political support in Tanzania for their government’s involvement in Uganda.

We knew that the Tanzanians could not afford to fight the people of Uganda once they had become well organised. The consequences for the perpetrators of aggression against the popular force of Uganda using the TPDF would not be very pleasant. The people of Tanzania are not only brothers but allies to the people of Uganda. Anybody betraying the interests of the Ugandan people using the TPDF would soon be found out by the Tanzanian people.

A number of other factors dictated our choice of strategy. The plot of the Obote clique against the Ugandan people revolved around the following points: making TPDF support Obote’s usurpation of power the illegal expansion of the tribal militia in the months before the elections and concentration of this militia in Kampala while non-UPC elements in the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) were dispersed to places like Soroti, Mbale, Jinja and Masindi.

According to this plan, those elements opposed to Obote’s seizure of power within the UNLA will not be in position to challenge this array of Obote-Tanzania strengths.

How could “pro-Museveni” soldiers move from the Sudanese border and other remote areas to come and challenge Obote in Kampala?

Therefore, when Obote’s clique seized power on December 12, 1980, they thought they were home and dry! Obote now concentrated on co-opting the neighbouring countries into supporting his anti-people coup thinking that he would isolate the popular forces in Uganda by starving them of any assistance that might help them in the struggle.

Some of us watched this circus in amazement because we knew that the people of Uganda, provided they were well led, were capable of administering a deadly counter-blow in defence of their abused democratic rights. Because of limitations in their political outlook, Obote’s clique and the Tanzanian authorities greatly underestimated the revolutionary capacity of the Ugandan people.

Their contrived dispersal up-country of the pro-people elements in the UNLA had the practical result of further dictating that we should opt for a protracted people’s war strategy. Having chosen our strategy, we launched the war against the Obote dictatorship of February 6, 1981 by attacking Kabamba School of Infantry at 8:30am using our own platoon we attacked 1,400 trainees and the one company of Tanzanians which was training them.

We overran the camp by capturing the quarter-guard, the communications room, the military transport depot and all the administrative quarters. But we failed to enter the underground concrete armoury where a Tanzanian corporal, because of our mistake of premature firing at the quarter-guard, had taken firing position under excellent concrete cover.

When we weighed the possibility of the casualties we might sustain, we ordered our fighters to withdraw, taking all the vehicles and our available equipment. Thereafter, we established ourselves in various areas of central Uganda and started launching attacks against the enemy.

Our operations have comprised of surprise attacks like the one on Kakiri, 17 miles on the Kampala-Hoima road which was on April 6, 1981. In this attack, we used a company to engage twice as many of Obote’s bandits who had camped there since February, terrorising and stealing from the people.

We overran the camp and captured everything: sub-machine guns, one 82mm mortar, one 60mm mortar, anti-tank grenades, one GPMG and one box of 7.6mm rounds of ammunition. We also, unfortunately, killed some Tanzanian officers and men who had ignored our orders for them to stop while they had been on their way from Busunju.

When we withdrew with our booty, the Tanzanians from Busunju and other units from Kampala supported by APCs, tried to encircle us in a forest near Kakiri. Had it not been for the heavy load of our booty we would have inflicted grievous damage on the reinforcing units.

Eventually, we slipped through the net they were trying to weave around us and withdrew to our bases in good order. This was a typical operation of fairly aanced form of guerilla warfare – i.e. reaching the stage of attacking enemy encamping. A characteristic of this kind of operation is that it is short and sharp. We do not fight protracted battles rather, we fight protracted campaigns and protracted war.

Another tactic we use is to ambush. The best example of this so far was when we carried out an ambush against Obote’s troops at Kawanda on March 16, 1981: Kawanda is only six miles from Kampala on the Gulu road. Using several sections, we lay in ambush for 12 hours until 5:30pm when we decided to go into action. Altogether we destroyed eight army vehicles: three lorries and five Landrovers, captured substantial quantities of ammunition and killed 70 enemy soldiers.

However, from April to the end of June, we suspended operations to allow the Tanzanians time to withdraw. We did not wish them to get involved in our war and be killed on their way home after they had helped Ugandans get rid of Amin. We resumed operations on June 30th, and we are achieving success after success. What the enemy has received so far is but a drop in the ocean of what we shall give him if he does not accede to the people’s demand for democracy.

It is important to note that in all our operations, our soldiers maintain the highest level of discipline and have instructions to be humane even to captured enemy soldiers. We have also refused to adopt assassination as a tactic. More important, however, we regard assassination as a cowardly tactic used because of a failure to identify and isolate anti-people criminals.

It must also be said that indiscriminate political assassinations can pre-empt the maturing of a process and thus deny the population an opportunity to see for themselves the bankruptcy of the repressive elements in power. Thus we do not use individual elimination to neutralise a political opponent simply because he is a political opponent, even in war situations like ours. We concentrate, instead, on neutralising armed opponents. We believe in disciplined, organised and politically-motivated violence against systems, but not against individuals.

However, it must be emphasised that notoriously anti-people elements who persistently undermine the struggle, especially by killing civilians and our fighters, will not escape their just punishment. He who indulges in committing anti-people crimes turns himself into a legitimate military target and earns his death as just retribution.

Source : The Observer

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