Maneuver Warfare As An ‘ African Way Of War ?

Battles of the Ugandan Resistance: A Tradition of Maneuver
by Muhoozi Kainerugaba
Fountain Publishers, 2010, $10, 246 pp., ISBN 978-9970-25-032-5
Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba (Lieutenant Colonel at the time of publication of the book under review) is arguably Uganda’s most trained military officer, having attended some of the world’s finest military colleges. He is a First Son, Commander of the elite Special Forces Command, and believed by many to be a possible successor to his father, President Yoweri Museveni. Invariably, Muhoozi is for the most part judged and assessed, both fairly and harshly, by his familial ties to Uganda’s State House. Critics assert that he has benefited from fatherly favoritism, that is from the Commander in Chief (C-i-C), to be catapulted to the level of a one-star general within just over a decade since starting out as cadet officer in 1999. Yet, a neutral reader with no knowledge of the author’s family background would find Battles of the Ugandan Resistance a compelling and absorbing narrative, skillfully threaded and cogently argued. The author brings together vast knowledge of both the theory and history of modern warfare in making sense of selected key battles that are construed as decisive in the course of ‘Uganda’s resistance war’ – 1981 to 1986.
This book is an important contribution to enriching our understanding of the guerilla armed struggle that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. The author displays remarkable mastery of the finer details of the actual battles fought by the NRA against Milton Obote’s Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA). In writing this book, the author must have benefitted immensely from privileged access to the most senior commanders of the rebel army, the National Resistance Army (NRA), including Yoweri Museveni (Chairman of the High Command and now C-i-C of Uganda’s armed forces), Elly Tumwine (NRA’s Army Commander), Salim Saleh (Commander of the rebel army’s Mobile Brigade and now senior presidential advisor on the military), and many others.
General Salim Saleh, needless to say, is uncle to the author and is believed to have been one of the most heroic and leading commanders. He has the most entries in the index and the author places him at the centre of most of the ‘battles’ analyzed in the book. General Saleh’s heroism is widely appreciated not only by his bush-war colleagues but even also by critics of the current establishment. Yet, the cynical reader is tempted to conclude that the author paints a picture of a war that relied so much on Saleh’s solo bravery and Museveni’s meticulous grasp of guerrilla warfare. In any event, one wishes that this book, so well written, had been authored by someone else other than Muhoozi, or that the author was not a First Son, for the simple reason that the top two players in Battles of the Ugandan Resistance are the author’s father and uncle.
That said, in writing this review essay, I have taken care to understand and appreciate the book on its own merits without undue biases for or against the author. This review subjects the book to the same scholarly scrutiny expected of a reviewer: to tell the readers what this book is about, how it advances our knowledge of the subject matter, how it speaks to the larger scholarship on the subject, and to critically examine the central claims of the author.
The Structure of the Book
The book’s thirteen chapters are divided into three parts. The first part asks if ‘there is an African way of war’. To answer this question, the author turns to a brief account of the Western and Eastern ways of war, relying heavily on Carl von Clausewitz to understand conventional modern warfare, and Mao Zedong for ‘protracted people’s war.’ For Clausewitz, ‘the direct annihilation of the enemy’s forces must always be the dominant consideration because destruction of the enemy’s forces is the overriding principle of war…’. According to Muhoozi, this ‘obsession with battles of decision’ is the Western way of life (p. 2).
By contrast, Mao’s legacy extolled maneuver above the physical destruction of the enemy’s mass, relying on deception, cunning, pre-emption, speed, and attacking vulnerabilities. In the first case, the corresponding military doctrine is ‘annihilation’ while, in the second, it is ‘maneuver’. The author draws this contrast in search of a uniquely African way of war, and this is where the book runs into serious problems (see below). Summing up this contrast of the West and East, the author asks: ‘if Occidental military culture was biased towards decisive battles of annihilation and Oriental martial experience towards maneuver, was there an African theme to war?’ (p. 4).
The author attempts to identify the African way of war through a historical reconstruction and interpretation of war as conducted by Ethiopians, the Zulu of South Africa and the Banyankore of southwestern Uganda, all before the advent of colonial rule. In analyzing the cases of Ethiopia and Zulu, the author finds mixed results as regards to military doctrine. He notes, ‘there can be little doubt that the Ethiopian victory at Adowa was a battle of decision in the tradition of the Western way of war.’ ‘However, through an adept use of terrain and aggressive tactics, they decimated an army that had superior technology’ (p.6).
For the Zulu, prior to Shaka’s rise, Muhoozi finds that ‘warfare in southern Africa had involved hardly any fighting’. It was based on an unwritten code that abhorred bloodshed (p. 7). But Shaka, the author argues, shattered this consensus. ‘Warfare was meant to ensure the physical destruction of the enemy, in Shaka’s mind’. And lastly, in the case of the Ankole, ‘in Nkore the trend towards battles of annihilation continued unabated. However, Ntare V deviated from this, pressed by the exigencies of a civil war in which his side was at a great disadvantage’.
In the light of the above mixed picture, it is bewildering that the author concludes thus: ‘it would seem that there is indeed a unique and innate African way of war, which is a product of the specific history and peculiarities of the continent’. There are problems with this conclusion. First, as the author acknowledges (p. 4), using a handful of cases to deduce ‘an African way of war’ is less than persuasive. Second, given the mixed findings, elements of which appear in eastern and western ways of war, it is hard to lay claim to ‘an African way of war’. Lastly, the author’s attempt to make a direct link between the ‘Ankole way of war’ and the ‘Ugandan resistance war’ stretches the imagination. Most of the senior commanders of the rebel NRA may have had their ancestral origins in Ankole. But there is no direct evidence of schooling in the ‘Ankole way of war’; nor did they have practical experience with the maneuver warfare that the author attributes to them. The other two chapters of Part One of the book detail Museveni’s initial involvement in organizing armed struggle against Idi Amin in the 1970s. The author revisits the infamous incident in Maluku-Mbale, eastern Uganda, at the house of Maumbe Mukhwana – a pioneer member of the Front for National Salvation (FRONASA), the nucleus of the NRA.
The second part, which has seven chapters, is the heart of the book. It identifies and closely analyzes seven battles, starting with the NRA’s first attack on the Kabamba military barracks. The attack on Kabamba confirmed that Yoweri Museveni had made good his promise to take up arms against Milton Obote’s government after the December 1980 national elections. The successes in these and many other battles in the course of the five-year bush-war attest to the organizational strength, discipline and cohesion exhibited by the rebel army. These attributes, which must have played a critical role in the NRA’s victorious conclusion of the war, have been acknowledged by successive scholarly studies, the most recent being Jeremy Weinstein’s Inside Rebellion.
The author pieces together the seven battles with remarkable brilliance. He sheds light on the NRA’s formative stages and gradual evolution from a guerrilla fighting group to engagement in conventional warfare in the final onslaught on Kampala that finally led the rebels to State House. The NRA’s evolution and transformation into a national army was anchored on the core human resources of its officers, many of whom were schooled in (or had at least read) Marxist thought and modern revolutionary warfare. Weinstein (2007) has rightly noted that this rebel group was built on social endowments and explains why it succeeded in capturing power. Also, its social base and its maintenance of high discipline among the rank and file partly explains why the NRA did not gain notoriety for unleashing violence against civilians, as was the case with similar contemporary rebel groups around the world.
There appears to have been four distinct, albeit related, core objectives in the seven battles that the author studies in Battles of the Ugandan Resistance. First, the rebel group, especially in its early days, having started out with a paltry twenty-seven rifles, desperately needed arms and ammunitions. Thus, the attacks on Kabamba and Masindi barracks were primarily intended to yield supplies of arms and ammunitions to carry on with the armed struggle. The second objective was to capture and control territory, perhaps the overriding objective for a rebel group intent on ultimately capturing state power. This was reflected in the attacks on and siege of two towns in central and southwestern Uganda, Masaka and Mbarara, respectively.
The third objective was what the author refers to as attacking the ‘enemy’s center of gravity.’ The famous battle of Kembogo, which pitted the UNLA’s elite force, the Special Brigade, against the NRA’s Mobile Brigade, under the command of Salim Saleh, was the NRA’s fiercest direct military confrontation, and took the form of conventional war. With the government army’s best trained and equipped fighting brigade roundly defeated, this battle marked the turning point and emboldened the NRA to move the struggle to another level, expanding its geographical control and preparing for the final assault on the capital, Kampala.
The fourth and ultimate objective of the battles in Muhoozi’s book was the capture of state power by taking the capital city. The final push on Kampala, lasting several days and claiming the lives of many officers and men of the rebel army, distinguished the NRA from other contemporary rebel groups and demonstrated Yoweri Museveni’s mastery of Maoist revolutionary armed struggle. While some rebel groups rushed to capture capital cities without building any governance networks and structures in the countryside, the NRA started with the latter, putting up local council structures and establishing control over central and western Uganda, before advancing on the capital. By this time, the NRA had evolved into a formidable and well organized army, grouped into more than two dozen battalions, complete with a command structure.
The third part of Muhoozi’s book pulls together insights from the previous two sections, in an effort to arrive at an understanding of the overarching military strategy of the NRA and the emergent war doctrine. Thus, an epigraph to the final chapter quotes General Salim Saleh agreeing with the author, ‘yes, I think you are right, our war was based on maneuver’. This third part underscores the book’s main project: revealing the war strategy and doctrine employed by the NRA through a historical reconstruction of a series of battles to unravel the approaches employed by commanders. This is perhaps the author’s most important original contribution to our knowledge of warfare in independent Africa, especially as pursued by what William Reno (2011) refers to as ‘reform rebels’. Yet, this contribution is also the book’s most problematic aspect. It is to this that I turn in the next part of this review.
The Book’s Project and Weakness
By focusing on the war strategy pursued by the NRA, the author undertakes two distinct but related projects, one descriptive and the other prescriptive. As noted above, Muhoozi seeks to trace the war doctrine used by the NRA, which he finds to have been maneuver warfare. On the other hand, he attempts to prescribe maneuver to the current Ugandan army, the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF). In pursuing these related but divergent projects, the author runs into an obvious contradiction: if maneuver has been the doctrinaire approach of the NRA that was carried over to the UPDF, why then prescribe it, since, logically, this doctrine is already an integral part of the army since the transformation of the NRA into the UPDF? ‘Our doctrine (which must be based on our historical experience)’, the author recommends, ‘must espouse a maneuverist approach to war’ (p. 213). He continues, ‘fortunately in the Ugandan experience, we already have a solid maneuverist foundation to build on. For when the present-day UPDF was still a guerrilla outfit, etching out an existence in the unforgiving bushes of Bulemezi, Ngoma and Singo, it survived through maneuver’. The tension between description and prescription is apparent here.
But what does the author mean by maneuver warfare? ‘A manoeuverist approach is defined as an approach to operations in which shuttering the enemy’s cohesion and will to fight is most paramount.... This seems to have been the unwritten, unspoken creed of the NRA,’ the author concludes (p.211). Maneuver warfare takes three related dimensions: pre-emption (seizing an option before the enemy does), dislocation (rendering the enemy’s strength ineffective), and disruption (defeating the enemy by attacking his centre of gravity).
To deduce, from a select set of battles, that the NRA employed a maneuverist approach to warfare is at best debatable. One need only refer to other publications on the NRA’s war, the most recent being the autobiography of Major John Kazoora, a notable figure in the bushwar, who repeatedly evokes the word ‘annihilation’ while referring to the NRA’s encounter with the UNLA and other perceived enemies. Yet, even for the few battles analyzed in the book, the author finds a mixed bag of maneuver and battles of decision/annihilation. For example, he writes: ‘Saleh’s decision to stand and fight was the critical event that ensured that a battle of decision was fought at Kembogo… The battle fought on the 21st of June 1985 was largely one of annihilation. Starting at about 10:00 am, it went on until dusk… It featured intense gunfire (both direct and indirect), was fought at close range with Mobile Brigade able to hold its position all day’ (p. 136).
It is my contention that, like any fighting force, the NRA’s approach to war depended as much on its gameplan and ideology as on the actions and inactions of its perceived enemy. In the cases of the two battles to capture Masaka and Mbarara town, had the UNLA brought in reinforcements, the NRA would have had no choice but to fight battles of decision. Contingency plays a much critical role in such nonconventional warfare than the author is willing to grant. So, it seems somewhat erroneous to refer to the NRA’s war doctrine as maneuver without qualifying this assertion. As a Maoist guerrilla group, the NRA naturally prosecuted its war agenda through aspects of pre-emption and disruption, which comprise maneuver, but it also turned to other methods as
and when circumstances demanded.
It is also worth noting that Battles of the Ugandan Resistance is conspicuously silent on civilian deaths, both in the Luwero triangle and in the fighting that occurred as the rebels advanced on the capital. It says little, if anything, about how ‘maneuver’ doctrine deals with civilian casualties and violence against civilians in theory, and how the NRA dealt with the matter in practice. The issue of civilian massacres, especially in the Luwero triangle, has become controversial in recent years, with the leadership of the Uganda People’s Congress (the party in power during the war) insisting that the NRA too killed civilians.
In Chapter Ten, on ‘Kampala,’ the author notes that General Saleh feared a bloodbath if the NRA had blocked UNLA soldiers from fleeing east of Kampala. But by this time, the rebels had captured Kampala and the ultimate objective had been achieved. How about if they still needed to capture the capital? More broadly, it may be the case that the NRA’s war approach did not entail targeting civilians, as successive writers, including Muhoozi, have noted. However, the NRA enjoyed enormous support from the people of Buganda (in central Uganda), who had disliked Milton Obote’s government since the infamous 1966 invasion of the Kabaka’s (King’s) palace, forcing the Kabaka Edward Mutesa II to flee into exile. What would have been the NRA’s war approach had the rebels operated in an area where the local population was hostile to them? This casts doubt on the claim to a pre-determined war doctrine. The exigencies of war tend to define the courses of action that commanders will undertake. If shove came to push, it is unlikely that the NRA would have restrained from engaging the UNLA in battle, for fear of civilian casualties.
Finally, in reflecting on the future of maneuver warfare in the age of information technology, the author is upbeat. He writes, ‘information age forces will be able to overwhelm the enemy by fighting the “close” and “deep” battles simultaneously. This will overwhelm the enemy’s command and control systems and hopefully lead to a collapse of the enemy’s defences, thereby achieving “simultaneity,” a key concept in the maneuverist approach to operations’ (p. 216). In making this claim, the author refers extensively to the US. Who else! Now, we know that reliance on high-tech and information systems by the US and NATO in Afghanistan and Pakistan has at best yielded very modest results. Over the last couple of years, the US counter-insurgency doctrine has shifted more towards reliance on support from local populations and winning civilian hearts.
By Way of Conclusion
In sum, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba has written a book that is worth reading and re-reading. The author demonstrates excellent understanding of the history of the NRA’s evolution from a guerrilla force to a national and professional army. He also does well in bringing into the discussion important theoretical insights although, in some instances, the attempt to make theoretical claims based on historical facts and vice-versa is a little bit superficial, if not too mechanical. Better still, the author’s dual-project of describing the contours of the ‘Ugandan Resistance’ and prescribing maneuver warfare for the UPDF, based on his vast reading, is laudable, yet at same time rather problematic. Perhaps, the author would have done well had he undertaken these two projects separately rather than simultaneously.
Muhoozi’s vast knowledge in modern warfare, acquired from the more than a dozen war colleges he attended, and his rich understanding of the history of the NRA and the ‘Ugandan resistance,’ attained through his family and collegial ties, constantly run into collision in different parts of the book. Inevitably, his attempt to fit the NRA’s history into his theoretical understanding of modern warfare runs into serious analytical and conceptual problems, as noted above. He also ends up with rather rushed conclusions.


Reno, W., 2011, Warfare in Independent Africa, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Weinstein, J., 2007, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence, New York: Cambridge University Press.




Pages  10-11

Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres

Volume 09 N° 01,​ Mars 2013


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