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Lessons from UPDF’s 50 years

Why it’s important for the army or the government to tell the story of its transformation

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Next year, the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF) will mark three major milestone dates. It will be exactly 50 years (Golden Jubilee) since its formation under its precursor name, the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) in 1971. It will also be 40 years since the launch of its second major phase of the struggle, the attack on Kabamba on February 6th 1981. Finally it will be 25 years (silver Jubilee) since it acquired its current name, UPDF, in October 1995 when this constitution came into force.

Over these 50 years, the UPDF has undergone a transformation from a small guerilla force into a large professional national army. Having fought a national liberation war in Uganda, it emerged as the first guerilla army in postcolonial Africa to overthrow a sitting government. From then, it has consolidated peace in Uganda by defeating armed insurgencies across the country, making Uganda free of civil conflict for the first time in 40 years. (President Yoweri Museveni likes to claim in the last 500 years).

The UPDF has over the years acted in a manner that reflects its Pan Africanist foundations: born in exile in Tanzania; initially trained in Mozambique; then fought a liberation war alongside the Tanzania People’s Defense Forces (TPDF) to remove Idi Amin in Uganda; after which it directly helped liberation movements in Sudan, Rwanda and DR Congo; trained the South African Umukhoto We Sizwe, contributed to the stabilisation of the security situation in Somalia, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan; and contributed to peace keeping operations in Liberia.

It has since then also moved beyond being a mere fighting to a productive army, consolidating its position in business through National Enterprises Corporation (NEC). Today UPDF produces ammunition, assembles and repairs tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and other guns and artillery and it produces spare parts for military equipment.

Its engineering unit does metal fabrication, housing and other infrastructure projects. The unit also designs and manufactures machinery equipment for small-scale industries, trains its personnel in light and heavy vehicle mechanics, gun repairs etc.

Finally, UPDF is playing a central role in Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) in a bid to improve agricultural production and productivity and increase household incomes in order to liberate many Ugandans from poverty. Over 300 UPDF soldiers are deployed across the country to implement OWC by ensuring farms supplies such as high quality seeds and animal breeds and also in helping communities and cooperatives set up enterprises. OWC has made many mistakes from which it has learnt critical lessons.

Over the same period, the UPDF has been involved in community activities through the provision of social services like education and health to the population. This is especially so during Army Week when UPDF officers, men and women engage in cleaning public hospitals, collecting rubbish from slums, painting hospitals, offering free HIV testing and counseling services, attending to dental problems etc. UPDF thus enjoys a special place in the political development of Uganda, our region and continent.

Yet in spite of all these, and its founder also being the president of Uganda and the most influential persons in the government being its historical members, there is no effort on the part of the army or the government to tell the story of this transformation. While reflecting on its history, I landed on an article Museveni wrote in 1981 about why he and his compatriots chose a protracted people’s war as the strategy for the struggle. It is one of the most illuminating pieces of writing from which Uganda’s opposition can learn a lot. Museveni says that in 1981, there were four possible paths to power by his group: a conventional war, a popular insurrection, a military coup or a protracted struggle. The first option required amassing of troops in head to head combat, but they (NRA) did not have such capacity to engage the UNLA backed by Tanzanian troops. A popular insurrection demands a degree of coordination but they lacked organisational ability to pull it off. The presence of the Tanzanian army made a coup impossible to execute. So he chose a protracted struggle going through three phases: guerrilla warfare, then mobile warfare and in the final phase conventional warfare.

Initially the rebel army is small relative to the national army. Its major aim is to preserve itself by avoiding direct confrontation with government troops. The initial phase therefore takes the form of short, sharp attacks and ambushes by small groups of rebels against isolated small army and police units. This forces government to spread out its army by fragmenting it into small units. And this helps the guerrillas as it makes government troops subject to surprise attacks, harassment and annihilation.

During this period, the rebel army improves its organisational strength and gains battle experience, making it possible to, over time, mass larger forces (battalions and even brigades) to launch the second phase – mobile warfare.

Here control of territory is unnecessary. So the rebel army avoids positional warfare by fighting fluid battles. The aim? To avoid unnecessary casualties but destroy the enemy’s means of making war – his weapons, morale, economy, physical infrastructure and international credibility. It is only when the balance of forces has shifted to the rebel’s side that a conventional war can be launched. It is incredible how Museveni proceeded to follow this strategy every step to success. In this article, Museveni is conscious of the extraordinary advantages the enemy has over his rebel group, but his strategy seeks to turn all those advantages into liabilities.

On the other hand Museveni is also acutely aware of his own side’s weaknesses but seeks to actually turn them to his advantage. For instance, the government forces have superiority over weaponry. Museveni makes clear that the rebels do not need much weaponry. Where the army has tanks, the rebels need anti tank weapons of modest caliber. Where they have aircrafts, the rebels need anti aircraft weapons. Uganda’s opposition has a lot to learn from this.

For instance, it is forever complaining about how the ground it tilted against them. Museveni sees the repressive propensity of the state as a disadvantage, not an asset. In fact his aim is to provoke the state to be more repressive to turn larger sections of the population against it. His argument is that the basic weapon of the rebels is popular support. Therefore people should be convinced of their ability to overcome the repressive state and defeat it. How so different this is from Kizza Besigye’s message that elections cannot deliver victory



  1. I just made sure that I completed reading the whole article to ensure you didn’t have a dig at your imaginary enemy Dr KB, who you sometimes disguise and lump as opposition but good enough you didn’t disappoint! The Updf is just a personal army of its founder! The so called liberation wars in which Updf is involved are just proxy wars. If I may ask,who foots the financial bills for updf’s presence in Somalia, Central Africa, South Sudan etc.? It’s the US and European Union! So Updf is just used as a puppet on behalf of its funders and therefore the external wars can never be as a result of updf’s professional character. The Updf is a personal army as witnessed in its overt partisan behavior i.e meddling in the political arena in favor of its founder (Gen Kainerugaba dons yellow suits and even many other Updf soldiers freely do so, nrm party color), but I dare any one of them to don blue, red or green, you’ll see the speed with which they’ll be marched to Makindye based court martial to be charged with treason! Is that being professional? Did you say Updf spearheads so called operation wealth creation (owc)? So how many Ugandans have been lifted out of the abyss of povery as a result of updf’s owc activism? As soon M7 will be out of power, first the outfit called NRM will disintegrate followed by its military wing the Updf! That one i can bet my two cents. So the whole article sounds like an unsolicited M7 spokesman envying Tamale Mirundis of this Uganda!
    Finally, the NRA’s success was largely because of the internal divisions within the UNLA especially between the Acholi and Langi military officers. For instance if the military junta led by Gen Tito Okello had not toppled the Obote govt, there was no way M7’s NRA rebels would have succeeded! In fact by early 1985 the NRA was in disarray in Rwenzori mountains en route to Zaire then! So the NRA generally speaking was just lucky that the Buganda area was so hostile to the sitting govt and that’s why the Baganda provided them with shelter, food and human resources, but it’s success had absolutely nothing to do with its superior organization by your cult M7! It’s was just sheer luck just like how it was with Napoleon Bonarpate 1 rise to power in France in 1789.

  2. M9, It shocks me how very uncritical and shallow your reasoning is these days! UPDF is a professional army? If you are still blind or purposely come up with such false information, time will prove you wrong just like it did with your consistent claim that Kagame would not attempt to extend term limits, but hand over power. You even put a bet of $10,000 which you never honored. I would like to bet with you that UPDF is not a professional army. Let’s give it 10-15 years and see how wars and coups are likely to emerge in Uganda. This tribalist and Bahima dominated army! Just hold your breath

  3. Because nobody any longer believes in whatever he says or writes these days, the lying idle and deluded Andrew Mwenda now-a-days writes or talks to himself. In other words, to falsify reality/history or the truth as AM does these days can only be a result of mental health problem/breakdown.

    AM reminds Ugandans of how his MP sister, Muhanga e.g., lied to Ugandans without blinking when she said to sold her goats to raise Shs.10 billion in order to buy a disputed property/land in Bugolobi. In other words, AM comes from a family of neurotic liars.

    According to the “principle of verification” a statement is true if it corresponds with the facts on the ground. Otherwise it is a “nonsense”. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda the UPDF was officially established in1995. But according to AM the UPDF was established 50 years ago in 1970. What a nonsense!

    AM has also to reminded about what Muzee Byanyima (RIP) said of the UPDF: that it is not a professional army, but a politicized and an indoctrinated Army; whose official s ranks and file act like Mr.Museveni’s. Zombies.

  4. @Mr.O:Please stick to selling cats.
    1.The role of the army is to protect the nation from both Internal and External aggression and to also protect a nation’s interest which could be social,political and economical in nature.
    2. @Uwelugosi:(i)Do you how what it means for a 3rd world Nation to be recognized in the International arena?(ii)Do you know why the first world loves M7 despite him being blackmailed by activist?(iii)The first world has quite a number of social and economic interests in East Africa and they could not just look on as Somali is being used as a breeding ground for terrorists.(iv) Dont underestimate the impact of terrorism.(v) As usual when it comes to the pacification of any nation;M7 can not miss out.
    3.Those whose family members serve the UPDF know the benefits for example; their children have access to free food,health care and Education,burial expenses actually a solider can save 100% of his/her salary.
    4.I cried when i read Muhoozi’s book when he stated that one of the senior staff at Sandhurst said he had never met such tall and good looking Africans not until he met Muhoozi, M7 and his daughters.Back then height,good teeth and physique was a requirement for joining the army thats why people from Kasese could not qualify to join the army or even to study medicine coz they were too short.
    5.To serve the army in the first world is prestigious and quite an honour;thats why those who served in the Royal air force,Royal Navy,Navy Seal,MI6,Secret service retire with dignity.
    6.I Iong for the day when retired UPDF officers will establish consultancy and security firms like other retired offiers in the first world for example;Eric Prince served in the navy seal and owns Black water security firm;Triple Canopy is owned by retired USA Special forces,Aegis Defense services is owned by Greham Binnis;Hakluyet is owned by former MI6 agents and Eeben Barlow was a former solider in the army of South Africa he actually helped Uganda fight LRA ,he has a deal to sort the mess in Congo and in Nigeria he secured a deal to sort Bokaram.
    7.Even if all civil servants go on strike;the UPDF has the capacity to fill in the gap.
    8.M7 is just an all rounder he is a genius in war and economics matters.

  5. @Uwelugosi:I am not an ordinary lady first of all i am a lawyer,secondly a Briton i am of high class;The likes of Rajab,Ejakaati,Omeros,Adhola and Kant can attest to that.

    • Received with kindest regards , my dear “learned friend” Winnie!
      However, I would also like to kindly remind you that on very platform, one’s trade, nationality, color, race etc. doesn’t count much! What’s crucial is the content of the message you sell out to potential consumers, period!

    • And for your info Winnie, am just an ordinary potato eater mortal from one of the corners of this so called banana Republic! So I am highly indebted to have had such once a lifetime opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the world’s best brains such as you! Long live my sister Winnie, sorry, the learned counsel!

      • Uwelugosi, if someone tells you s/he is not ordinary, but high class, learned etc.; it means s/he is fake. In other words e.g., a rose flower need not announce its beauty simply because, it is self-evidently beautiful.

        A beautiful woman does not need make ups in order to appear beautiful. In other words, an intelligent person does not tell anybody that s/he is intelligent: Only fools do.

        If Winnie is what she proclaims to be, she would be the least to tell you and me what she is made of: it would have been someone else.

        In my strongest opinion, Winnie is an arrogant, self-proclaim, shallow, petty rumor monger and NRM regime sycophant per excellence.

  6. How on earth can an intelligent, high class, learned sic lawyer Winnie; cry over another false, self-proclaiming crown prince Afandde Muhoozi for being the only handsome African?

  7. Mr.O you can tell a person of class by the way they talk,dress and their etiquette;actually when someone cries its a sign of class. Haven’t you seen the members of the Britain’s royal family cry when they are given flowers by ordinary people on the streets?

    • But Winnie, without the injustices that emanate from arrogance, manipulating, exploiting/enslaving etc. and/or institutionalized segregation and/or oppression.; in the real world of surplus ignorance and poverty; it is not possible to be of a different class (high) as you want us to believe.

      Besides, your narrative can only appeal to the gullible and appearance. Otherwise, even the most ruthless Mafia like Alfonse Capone (Al Capone) can be considered “person of class” by the way they talk, dress, their deceptive etiquette and theatrics of shedding Winnie crocodile tears (a false sign of class).

      In other words Winnie, it is better to belong to the Class of Mother Theresa (RIP) of this world than the Brits or Mr. Museveni’s fake Royal Family. Otherwise throughout history (including the Biblical ones) the so call Royal Families are the most immoral, inhuman, exploitative/enslaving, indifferent, cruel and foul.

  8. @ Mr.O;You should be of class to know how and when classy people cry.

    Did u know that the Queen of England is the head of the Church?Do who know why she controls the Common Wealth?Are you aware that the British were responsible for the world’s Civilization?

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