13 February 2005

Uganda: Our Intelligence Services; Tale of Many Mistakes And One Moment of Brilliance


Kampala — Those who seek and hold state power are always aware of powerful forces that sit in contest, in opposition, in envy wanting to undermine that power or defeat it altogether. As such, those who hold power must, at all times, probe into the motives and plans of the people around them. An intelligence agency is the institution created by every nation on earth to work around the assumption that political forces are plotting to undermine one's power and influence. Timothy Kalyegira looks at the workings of Uganda's intelligence services, some of which have been murderous, over the years. This is Part I covering 1964-1979. Part II runs next Sunday: -

The early days

The major kingdoms of the southern part of Uganda (Ankole, Buganda, Bunyoro, Busoga, and Toro) had to constantly fend off threats to their territories, as well as act against rebel princes and other political rivals to the sitting king.

The first important incident in which military intelligence operations were undertaken was on June 8, 1872 at the start of the famous Battle of Masindi. The Bunyoro king, Omukama Cwa II Yohana Kabalega (1852-1923), was confronted by a 1,200-man force led by the British explorer Samuel Baker who had designs on the kingdom.

Kabalega sent poisoned cider disguised as a gift, whose goal was to weaken Baker's men in battle. Eventually, they did get sick but Baker won the battle and lost four men, while Kabalega lost nine.

When the British eventually took control of what would become the Uganda Protectorate, they had to secure their place in the hostile territory.

Their first intelligence work was to study the population and understand its ethnic composition. They realised that the most powerful forces at work in the collective society were tribe and religion.

These had to be exploited.

The Nilotic peoples of northern Uganda were numerically fewer than those from the southern Bantu tribes.

The British decided that minority groups were usually very reliable and loyal when they were made to work for the state: their lower numbers put in them a basic insecurity that could work to the government's ends.

The policy from the British government was to give all law-enforcement roles - the army, police, and prisons - to these minority tribes, and thus was born the idea that personnel for the Uganda Army, Uganda Police Force, and Uganda Prisons Service would be recruited mainly from the Acholi, Langi and some West Nile peoples like the Kakwa, Lugbara, and Madi.

The General Service Unit

The first national intelligence agency was formed on April 1, 1964. To head it was a man named Naphtali Akena Adoko, a first cousin of Prime Minister Milton Obote.

The headquarters of the GSU, as it was commonly known, was a building along Kimathi Avenue in Kampala that for many years was part of the Neeta Cinema. (Today it is the same building that houses the Emirates Airlines offices and WebCity Internet Café.)

Mysteriously, even during all the political upheaval, military coups, and mass looting following changes of government, the former GSU offices remained intact, never broken into and looted.)

The GSU set the tone for the rest of Uganda's intelligence history and it is necessary to ask what this tone was that would give all subsequent agencies such a bad reputation.

In Kenya and Tanzania, the General Service Unit was a paramilitary force attached to the police. The GSU would have been the equivalent of the anti-riot, anti-terrorism crack troops of the police force. It also performed some intelligence gathering roles.

In Uganda, the GSU was charged with a totally different assignment - mainly that of intelligence gathering, intelligence analysis, and intelligence operations acting on the information gathered and analysed.

Within the GSU, which came under the President's Office, was a department called the State Research Bureau (SRB). (Contrary to the general impression of the SRB, it was not created in the 1970s, but rather formed during the late 1960s.)

The SRB was charged with gathering intelligence.

President Obote also created a body called the Special Force. It was a paramilitary unit (like Kenya's present General Service Unit) and its role was to neutralise the army. It was to act as a counterweight to the army and deter mutinies and coups.

It was designed in such a way as to eventually become a Republican Guard in the pattern of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Once Obote brought in an underhand way of managing national security, it would not be long before Uganda's breakdown into chaos would begin.

In 1970, a young graduate from the University of Dar es Salaam joined the State Research Bureau.

Obote kept a file on this particularly stubborn and obsessive young man in his office. In that file, Obote recommended to the young man's friend, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, to get the young man some medical attention, since he seemed a little unusual.

That young man in Obote's office and the State Research Bureau would much later be a real headache to the veteran independence leader. He was named Yoweri Museveni.

Why intelligence services?

Although Akena Adoko was a well educated and competent man, his GSU ultimately failed, as have most African intelligence services in one key respect: that of intelligence analysis.

And the Ugandan intelligence community has failed in the area of analysis mainly because of the kind of societies they work within and the calibre of political leaders to whom they report.

The purpose of Uganda's intelligence agencies, like that of similar agencies worldwide, is mainly to secure the country's vital interests and assets, including, for example, Uganda's embassies abroad, and to ensure the country's very survival. That is the defensive posture.

The offensive, pre-emptive, proactive role is not only to secure what assets Uganda has, but to see to it that they strengthen Uganda's position and stake among the nations, seeking out the country's comparative advantage and to influence the perception that the international community holds of Uganda.

Also, the role of Uganda's intelligence services would come down to protecting the large Ugandan community living abroad or trying to persuade back to Uganda the many skilled professionals who work for overseas companies and governments rather than work locally to develop Uganda.

The role of the intelligence services, summed up, would be to work all these themes up into creating a strong, viable Uganda.

Given that outline, they should be among the most admired agencies and careers in them the most respected in Uganda. But they are not. Instead, the prefix to nearly all Uganda's intelligence agencies has been "dreaded".

They still create fear and dread in Ugandans' minds today.


The costly failures

Like the armed forces, the intelligence agencies became tools at the disposal of politicians, there to spy on political opponents, investigate the activities of opposition political parties and student movements and try to contain political unrest in the country.

Above all, their role right to this day became that of securing the head of state in office.

Because Uganda's heads of state more often than not wanted to entrench themselves in office, rather than read the mood of the public and advise the leaders to step down or open up political space, the intelligence services have tended to work to disperse the growing sense of unrest and resentment in the population against the regime in power.

Akena Adoko's failure to influence President Obote, to make him see Uganda's interests beyond his stay in power, was the first disastrous failure of the intelligence services and upon that failure has Uganda's post-independence history hinged, all hopes of progress dashed.

The GSU was unable to forecast the political climate in the country sufficiently to help the government steer Uganda through the growing waves of restlessness that followed the January 1964 army mutiny and the November 1964 riots in Buganda over Bunyoro's "lost counties".

It was unable to assess the extent of the danger posed by the small but loyal Muslim West Nile presence in the army and how much that small band looked up to Idi Amin as a figurehead.

When Obote sent a top secret message while in Singapore for the January 1971 Commonwealth summit for Army Commander Amin to be arrested before his return, the GSU did not reckon that a Muslim staff sergeant would intercept the communication and pass it on to Amin.

In September 1991, while appearing before the Uganda Human Rights Commission in Kampala, former Minister of Defence Felix Onama said that the decision to attack the palace of Kabaka Edward Muteesa in May 1966 had been based on mistaken intelligence provided by then Director of CID Mohammed Hassan.

Much of the hatred that many Baganda feel for Obote was borne of this attack on the Kabaka's palace - all of it based on a hurriedly assembled report on a claim that the Kabaka had amassed arms in his palace to fight the government. Another failure of intelligence. Another chapter on Uganda written in tragedy.

Finally, the GSU failed to properly influence the government to proceed carefully over the question of reining in the powers of the traditional monarchies and what adverse impact this would have on the country.

The main disputes between Obote and the Kabaka of Buganda, as file records indicate, was Obote's resentment at the tendency of the Kabaka to use state resources to appease his subjects. In the 1960s, Obote obsessed over the ideal of seeing Uganda develop a professional, non-partisan and patriotic government and civil service.

The Kabaka, perhaps because royals are not given to the expectation of accounting for their actions to the people, had the habit of allocating fuel to his subjects and friends from fuel depots in Entebbe (where State House was located at the time.)

This angered the public service-minded Obote and this is partly where their disputes arose.

In all this, the GSU was unable to work around and transform the crisis into an approach that would not result into a breakdown of trust between the ceremonial President Muteesa and his elected Prime Minister Obote.

It can be claimed that the turmoil of Uganda's history is rooted in the failure of intelligence to perform long-term national monitoring and analysis.

There was, however, one arm of Uganda's security system that was always professional but, unfortunately, had its rightful role relegated to the sidelines as the state became tied with the ruling Uganda People's Congress party.

This arm is called the Special Branch. It is the intelligence division of the Uganda Police Force and, in terms of attention to detail and professional attitude, it has arguably been the most effective part of government in Uganda's history.

(More on Special Branch in part two of this series.)

State Research Bureau (1969-1979)

When Amin took power in 1971, the State Research Bureau, the national counter-intelligence agency, was briefly abandoned. Uganda's intelligence was handled by the Military Intelligence, headed by Maj. Mali L. Ozi.

Two years later Ozi was replaced by Lt. Col. Francis Itabuka as the director of the Bureau.

The Bureau was involved in routine and rather mundane work besides its gathering of intelligence. It authorised people who wanted to conduct research in such fields as geography, archaeology, botany, and medicine.

They screened applicants for passports and other travel documents and scrutinised people coming in and out of hotels.

Although Itabuka was director, a long-time British resident in Uganda named Robert Astles was instrumental in the setting up and training of the Bureau's agents.

Astles had been involved in the smuggling of gold and ivory in the DR Congo in 1965 and eventually through his private airline brought Amin and Obote into the racket.

What Amin might not have known was that Astles was also a bit of a double agent, working at the same time for the British intelligence.

(Britain's two main counterintelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, are reputedly the best security services in the world, contrary to the legendary image of Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks, known in Hebrew as ha-Mossad le-Modiin ule-Tafkidim Meyuhadim, or Mossad in short.)

Astles' ability to know accurate information on the activities of anti-Amin guerrillas might have come from his knowledge of British intelligence reports.

This, perhaps, was what gave the State Research Bureau a degree of efficiency that many thought beyond an institution staffed by what they perceived as semi-literates. Starting in 1972, the Bureau received extensive training and financial assistance from Libya.

In 1978, Itabuka was replaced by Maj. Farouk Minawa, later lieutenant colonel. Minawa has been living in exile in Libya since 1979.

The Bureau was able to thwart numerous coup and assassination attempts against Amin and more remarkably, for the duration of Amin's eight years in power, there was no single corner of the country where rebels operated in any recognisable territory.

Even then the Bureau failed, as had the General Service Unit. It was unable to provide sound intelligence forecasts to the government on the consequences of the President's actions.

It failed in 1971 to advice Amin against a wholesale purge of the military of its Acholi and Langi officers, an action that stiffened opposition to Amin who, up to that time, had been very popular in the army.

More seriously, in 1972, the Bureau did not supply the President with a broad report on the consequences of uprooting 70,000 Ugandans of Asian descent when they controlled much of the retail trade and occupied middle-level managerial positions in the economy.

Of all the State Research's blunders, this remains the most far-reaching.

Another of the Bureau's failures was its inability to counter the deliberate smudging of Uganda's reputation by the exile community, keen to rob Amin of international support.

Much of the generally negative image of Uganda that has formed over the years - of a buffoon-butcher President and a regime that killed 500,000 people - was fed to ignorant and prejudiced western news media and the International Commission of Jurists.

The best example came in 1977. On February 22, following the deaths of Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum and Cabinet ministers Charles Oboth-Ofumbi and Wilson Erinayo Oryema, a group of Ugandan exiles in Lusaka issued a statement claiming that 500,000 Ugandans had been killed in a "reign of terror" by the Amin regime since 1971.

On March 7, 1977, the American newsmagazine Newsweek published a cover story picking up the exile group's term, and titled the story "Idi Amin's reign of terror".

Rather than the State Research Bureau calmly and easily proving that this claim by the exiles was baseless, the Bureau panicked and went about banning all importations into Uganda of Newsweek and other western newsmagazines and the Daily Nation of Kenya.

By the end of 1977, Uganda was fully ostracised by the international community and yet in the same year the government had recorded Uganda's richest ever profits from the international sale of coffee.

The intelligence service was unable to secure Uganda's reputation because it was unable to refute a grossly inaccurate claim by exile groups.

For example, pilots and cabin crew who flew with Idi Amin on the presidential Gulfstream G-2 jet and those who have flown subsequent Presidents report that Amin, of all Uganda's heads of state, showed them the most courtesy, the most consistent interest and concern for their families and welfare.

He would visit the cockpit during the flights, ask how the pilots were, ask about how the plane flew and at the end of every flight on landing at Entebbe International Airport, thank them for the safe and comfortable flight.

Presidents Obote and Museveni, it is said, lack such personal warmth and courtesy to their air crews.

The Amin that ordinary people encountered and whom they have recalled in numerous Ugandan newspaper articles comes across in one consistent picture: a soft-spoken, playful, warm person who liked to exaggerate his own greatness but otherwise saw life as full of fun. He was not interested in money and seemed genuinely, in his naïve way, to care that Uganda became great.

It remains a matter of mystery how Amin was to have such a horrible reputation created of him and the intelligence services were unable to somehow produce the facts or dispel the errors being spread about by the exiled Ugandans.

The Bureau's fatal error

The last blunder that was to cost Amin his presidency and the Bureau its reputation and very existence was its failure to prevent the dramatic and impulsive Amin from even contemplating an invasion of Tanzania in October 1978.

It was not made clear to him that to launch such an attack on the Kagera Salient in northwestern Tanzania would only invite a Tanzanian reprisal. Uganda would not be able to hold onto the territory and there was no point, in any case, of such an attack.

However, the State Research Bureau, through its own fault and weaknesses, has suffered the same ignominy and terrible reputation as Idi Amin, much more through its carelessness than its inherent evil.

Many Ugandans who were arrested by the Bureau to this day report that they would be interrogated, have their passports checked, and when they were found innocent, set free, as would any other counter-intelligence agency.

One man who was obsessed with crossword puzzles was arrested over his habit of buying the banned Daily Nation. He explained that he no longer found those puzzles in the government-owned Voice of Uganda challenging enough and decided to fill out the Nation's.

Asked if he knew that this Kenyan newspaper was a banned paper, he said he had never heard of it. He was set free by the Bureau and told that he should not be reading it. That was the State Research Bureau at its mundane, everyday job.

After the fall of Amin in 1979, the new Uganda National Liberation Front government published in the Uganda Times newspaper from April to July full page lists of people who had worked with the Bureau, whose names and photographs had been discovered at the agency headquarters in Nakasero, Kampala.

The greatest shock of all was that the vast majority of these State Research Bureau agents and informers had been people of the most ordinary kind imaginable - primary school teachers, medical lab assistants, businessmen, university students, church choir boys, town council clerks.

The image of the Bureau as an agency filled with Muslim men wearing dark glasses and flowered shirts and driving UVS-number plated Peugeot cars was shattered once and for all.

In 1997, in the first major interview with a Ugandan journalist since his April 1979 downfall, Amin then alive in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, told the late Yunus Abbey of the New Vision that in his opinion, the tragedy of Uganda under his watch had been the failure of intelligence.

Many of the prominent people killed during the Amin years, it emerged after his death in August 2003, had been betrayed by the exile groups.

Several private FM radio talk shows in Kampala in August 2003 shed light on this fact. People like the former Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, Frank Kalimuzo, were personal friends of Amin.

Kalimuzo used to take the President on guided tours of the university and explain to him the students' difficulties. They enjoyed each other's company and Amin was enthusiastic about Makerere as a strong, modern institution.

However, Kalimuzo was set up by some exiles and it was made to appear that he was in a plot to overthrow Amin, and that was how he and hundreds of prominent public figures met their deaths - - all a failure of the State Research Bureau to realise that they were falling into the trap of their political opponents.

Even when Amin was drawn into a dispute between an ordinary Ugandan public official and the erratic army's Chief of Combat Operations, Brig. Isaac Malyamungu, survivors of these encounters reported that Amin would often listen to the pleas of the arrested man and overrule Malyamungu, who seemed particularly obsessed with sending people to jail.

Following Amin's downfall, the State Research Bureau was disbanded and the National Security Service headed by Mr James Nasimolo replaced it. In 1980, Amon Bazira succeeded Nasimolo.

Bazira left one enduring and foresighted bit of intelligence. In 1982, Bazira, from Kasese, negotiated an end to the 20-year Rwenzururu tribal war in the Rwenzori mountains.

More significantly, Bazira had made a startling argument in 1980 that if the question of the continuing exile of the Tutsi in Uganda remained unresolved, a genocide was certain to happen one day, followed by total breakdown of political order in the Great Lakes region.

In Bazira's mind, the only real security Uganda had from external threats and border instability would be to grant full citizenship to all refugees from other African countries who streamed into the country.

After all, what was pan-Africanism if it were not this brotherhood in action?

If any forecast by a Ugandan intelligence director was to prove tragically accurate and the consequences lingering, then this 1980 analysis by Bazira on a genocide 14 years away in the future in Rwanda and complete chaos in Zaire (now DR Congo) in 1996 and turmoil in the Great Lakes region starting in 1998 was a master work of intelligence at its professional best.

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