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When “All Hell Broke Loose” in Uganda

Under the rule of current President Yoweri Museveni, Uganda has seen a period of relative stability compared to the turbulent unrest that plagued the country in the 1980s.

5911 16th Street N.W. Washington D.C. Uganda Embassy (October 2011) Slowking4 | wikipedia.org
5911 16th Street N.W. Washington D.C. Uganda Embassy (October 2011) Slowking4 | wikipedia.org

He has rebuilt the economy to be one of the most successful in Africa and has greatly reduced the power of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel organization that once wreaked havoc in the northern region of the country. However, prior to Museveni, Uganda experienced dark times, especially under former President Milton Obote (1962–1971, 1980–1986).

Obote was a prominent figure in Ugandan politics for decades, first serving as prime minister for four years following the country’s declaration of independence from the British in 1962. He then occupied the presidency until 1971, only to return to the role in 1980 after brief interlude of four other men, the most notorious being Idi Amin.

However, not everyone welcomed his return to power. Following claims of electoral fraud, Yoweri Museveni publicly challenged the results of the 1980 election and embarked on a campaign of armed resistance against the government. The resulting “Bush War” pitted Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) against the government’s Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). The conflict raged for five years, from 1981 to 1986.

In 1983, the UNLA started to collapse from within due to increasing ethnic tensions between Obote, an ethnic Lango, and leading members of the military, many of whom belonged to the Acholi tribe. The conflict culminated when Tiko Okello, Obote’s general, overthrew him in 1985. Encouraged by the internal rivalries and divisions within the UNLA, the NRA continued to engage in offensive attacks in western and northern Uganda.

After the seizure of Kampala, the capital, in 1986, Obote and Okello fled the country and a new government was established with Museveni at the head. This government still leads the country today.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we recall U.S. Ambassador Allen Davis, who served in Uganda at the height of the Bush War. He was at the chancery when Okello and his military personnel stormed Kampala. While fearing for his own life, his worry for his two sons took predominance, as they were at the ambassador’s residence alone. His worries intensified upon learning the house was being targeted by the opposition groups.

Davis had previously served as a Consular Officer in Monrovia, Liberia from 1958 to 1960 and as the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea from 1980 to 1983.

Davis’s interview was conducted by Peter Moffat on June 26, 1998.

Read Davis’s full oral history HERE.

Read about the overthrow of President Obote HERE.

Read about the rise to power of the “Butcher” of Uganda HERE.

Drafted by Sophie May

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Excerpts:
“The only words that I think adequately describe it are ‘all hell broke loose.’”

           
President Yuweri Museveni of Uganda, speaking at the London Summit on Family Planning (July 2012) Russell Watkins/Department for International Development  | wikipedia.org
President Yuweri Museveni of Uganda, speaking at the London Summit on Family Planning (July 2012) Russell Watkins/Department for International Development | wikipedia.org

Chaos in Kampala: As it became more and more difficult for Obote to control his civilian security folks and his military, there was a rupture between Obote and his commanding general. The general just left Kampala and moved to the north, his home territory and kind of bided his time for the better part of, as best I remember, two or three months. Then I was completing my tour, the household goods were packed in boxes—most of it. My wife and my daughter left Kampala for France, and about three days after they departed my two sons were in the residence some distance from the township when suddenly almost without warning, the general and some forty or fifty trucks—that’s all it took, but they were full of military personnel—just moved almost without opposition from the north all the way down through the center of the country into Kampala.

The only words that I think adequately describe it are “all hell broke loose” in Kampala with rocket propelled grenades, all kinds of cannon fire, and small arms fire broke out in town while I was in the office, along with the major part of the staff. We were pinned down in the chancery for the better part of—my memory is beginning to be a little shaky on exactly how long—but I think the better part of three or four days.

“We didn’t know how the invaders from the north—not invaders, but the people who had come into the capital from the north—were going to treat foreigners.”

Complications and Miscommunications: And during this time, there was a terribly difficult task of staying in touch with those who were in isolated parts at the time. We didn’t know how the invaders from the north—not invaders, but the people who had come into the capital from the north—were going to treat foreigners. As it turned out, they were really not focusing their ire on the foreigners at all. They were focusing on the followers of Obote. Anyway, the embassy had had a very, very tough time with its communications systems which linked us back to the Department. I had been so obstreperous that I had become very irritating to the Department about this. I didn’t know what could be done, but assuming surely there was a technology that could keep us in practical communications. So we were using—for the most part—we were relying very heavily on these little moveable sets like the CIA and the military used. When the invasion of the capital took place, telephone lines were just left—the people in the telephone headquarters just apparently fled and left what was plugged in plugged in and what was unplugged, unplugged.

And as it turns out, one phone set in the embassy had been left plugged in at the switchboard and for the better part of three or four days we had an open line, nobody attending to it whatsoever. And everything was happening on this line between the Department. No telephone, no telegraph connection whatsoever. And we couldn’t get to the emergency radio that had been at the house of one of the CIA personnel.

“The most dramatic thing for me personally was that my two sons—probably late elementary school and high school age, were at home alone.”

It’s Not Safe Outside: The most dramatic thing for me personally was that my two sons—probably late elementary school and high school age, were at home alone. The residence was right beside one of the strongpoints militarily where there was an anti-aircraft gun. This anti aircraft gun could be lowered and fired at ground targets, so the military were determined to take it. The house was virtually between the anti-aircraft emplacement and the people who were coming up the hill to take it. So there was a great deal of skirmishing around the residence. We did have hand-held walkie-talkies.

In a real stroke of luck, we had a British national who was helping us to finish packing the household goods and nailing them into crates. He happened to be at the house working when the strike hit the capital, so he was there with the kids. What they did was barricade all the doors and windows and then with the thought they were going to get hit by heavy artillery shells, they went into the corridors and took heavy mattresses into the corridors. There were bedrooms on both sides of the corridors so you had a little bit of a cushion, and that’s where they spent the entire time without electricity. This all came to a kind of traumatic climax when the British fellow got on the hand-held voice set and said, “The forces are bringing up a machine gun—they are setting up a machine gun in front of the house, they are training it on the house and they are asking us to take down the flag. They have asked permission to come and examine what is in the crates. These were the crates of household effects. We told them, “No, this is American territory, and it would not be appropriate. They simply must not come in.” And so then there were some North Korean military assistance people there and they seemed to be involved in this little…I don’t know what to call it. It was a feint or whether they really meant to fire on the house. He said “And they are now getting down on their stomachs and they are aiming at the house. What do we do?” I said “Yesterday when I met with the colonel who has come in with the forces from the north, I asked him for a telephone number to reach him in case we had this kind of emergency. I will try to reach him.”

“There’s something dreadful happening at the residence of the American ambassador. “

           
Soldiers of the Uganda People's Defence Forces stand in formation as the multi-national, Eastern African Standby Force Field Training Exercise begins Nov. 29, 2009 with an opening ceremony in Djibouti (November 2009) Master Sergeant Carlotta Holley  | commons.wikimedia.org<br />
Soldiers of the Uganda People's Defence Forces stand in formation as the multi-national, Eastern African Standby Force Field Training Exercise begins Nov. 29, 2009 with an opening ceremony in Djibouti (November 2009) Master Sergeant Carlotta Holley | commons.wikimedia.org

The Aftermath: I hung up and called. Sure enough, I got through to him. I said “There’s something dreadful happening at the residence of the American ambassador. There are people in the house, and it looks like there’s going to be a firefight either between these people who are setting up a gun emplacement in front of it and the anti-aircraft emplacement. Could you please do something about it?” He said “I’ll try.” About fifteen minutes later, the British man called back and said “They are picking up the machine gun and they are going back down the hill.” It was highly personal, but it also underscored the good luck, I guess, that I had had—either the presence of mind or the good luck the day before to say “But tell me, Colonel, what do we do if an American is about to be set upon and hurt physically or not just injured but killed?” And he had given me his private number. I can’t remember—their little strongpoint where we visited them soon after they got to the capital, put out feelers, got back information that they would be glad to receive me. I think they were headquartered in the office of the gendarmerie. That was their command post.

Q: I hope your sons were not totally traumatized by that!

DAVIS: They still talk about it with a great deal of pride. They did see people receiving bullets and falling and bleeding. That part of it was pretty shocking to them. But as best I can make out, it also provided wonderful subjects for stories when they got back to their schools. And who knows what all the effects might have been. I think for one thing they had kind of glorified that kind of uprising in their own minds and when they got to see what it was really like with the confusion and the machine-gunning of automobiles, and the ugliness of it, it made quite an impression.

Q: This must have delayed your departure a bit.

DAVIS: It delayed the departure for not very long. I was asked to go to New York and work at the UN with General Walters and his people. Although I asked Jim Bishop if I could stay a little bit longer until things calmed down, he said no, come on out. So maybe my kids were not the traumatized one. Maybe I was.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA George Washington University 1953
School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University 1956
Joined the Foreign Service 1958
Monrovia, Liberia—Consular Officer 1958–1960
Moscow, USSR—Political Officer 1966–1968
Guinea—Ambassador 1980–1983
Uganda—Ambassador 1983–1985