Joining KAR, drill master Amin and Lutwa
“I joined the 4th (Uganda) Battalion of King’s African Rifles (KAR) on February 5, 1953. Those days we were enlisted at 18 years, the last age being 25 years,” Terencio Okello Lawelo recalls. He says soldiers were required to serve for 18 years then retire to a pension life.
Lawelo says he joined during countrywide recruitment, with districts allotted quotas.
Lawelo says four of them from Pamolo in Kitgum District, were recruited, with the KAR training centre for entire East African countries based at Nakuru, Kenya.
He says 300 Ugandan recruits were enlisted in the year of his intake.
“I found [former President Tito Okello] Lutwa at the training centre in Nakuru that same year, although he had joined [the army] earlier in 1939.
Lawelo says both his paternal uncle Abuculum and Lutwa fought in the Second World War in 1942.
Lawelo says Lutwa was an instructor in-charge of tactical training, while Idi Amin was a ‘drill sergeant’ instructor.
He says Amin joined the army in 1944.
While in Kenya years later, Lawelo recalls being deployed to fight the Mau Mau rebels together with Amin on the side of colonialists.
“We trained for six months at Nakuru. There were obstacles throughout the training and when one fails to cope after three months, one would be sent back home. So many recruits were returned home during our time at Nakuru,” Lawelo recalls.
But being a dedicated and focused recruit, Lawelo beat the odds and excelled.
“I completed the trainings successfully and I emerged ‘the best recruit’ from Uganda. And the best recruits were given special considerations,” he boasts.
By ‘best recruit’ Lawelo says it, among other things, referred to being keen and attentive during lessons, maintaining good personal hygiene; active participation and generally excelling in tasks one was assigned.
“If there was a task to perform, I often wanted to do it fast and with perfection. But most important of all was discipline,” he recollects.
“Equally taken quite seriously was personal hygiene. I was very tidy and an example to be emulated as our instructors told fellow recruits to ‘always be like Terencio’. All the time I would be showcased before fellow recruits and the instructors would say: ‘…if everybody could be like Terencio, it would be very good’.”
Amin gets technical knocked (KO)
A component of our training at Nakuru included some self-defence techniques, with one expected to kick, box or use gun butts in the event of absence of guns or depletion of ammunition. Lawelo took a liking to boxing.
“When we went for boxing training, they realised I performed much better than other recruits. So, I was selected among the team of instructors,” he recalls. It was during his boxing stints that he would again come face to face with Amin, a fellow boxing enthusiast.
He says Amin was in the heavyweight category, while he boxed in the light-heavy weight category.
He remembers the ex-president as a ferocious boxer.
“Amin was a very powerful boxer. He would mostly beat opponents through technical knockouts (Kos). Amin was terrible,” he recollects.
Whenever Amin was boxing, Lawelo recalls, every punch he landed on an opponent would be accompanied by a loud roar escaping from his mouth, as though it was a lion.
“In fact his roars alone would scare you. Even when his fist was moving for a punch, he would breathe so heavily. But should his punch land on you, you would be down flat on the canvas,” Lawelo says, with prolonged laughter.
Lawelo says all of Amin’s opponents, except one Ben Ocan, the son of Erica Lakor from Gulu, who defied the odds with Amin’s boxing prowess, while back in Uganda.
“Ocan was a gigantic Acholi, whose chest width was equal to Amin’s. He too was a heavyweight boxer. His wrists and fists were so huge,” he recalls with a hearty laugh.
“A bout had been organised between the two heavy weights. So, Amin collected his wives to witness how he was ‘going to defeat Ocan’,” Lawelo says.
“Amin was so powerful in boxing that he beat everybody he fought. Except for Ocan, who almost killed Amin in the boxing ring. He was the only one who overpowered Amin,” Lawelo recalls.
“Ocan gave him a knockout. It was so serious. Amin was unconscious and only gained consciousness at Mulago hospital where he was rushed for urgent medical attention. Ben Ocan!” Lawelo again laughs heartily, as he narrates the story.
But in an apparent revenge, after his military takeover, Lawelo says Amin stormed Radio Uganda and Ocan disappeared, never to be seen again, Lawelo says Ocan then worked at the public radio broadcaster.
While Lawelo trained in boxing together with Amin while still in Kenya, they never sparred.
He says the boxing regulations forbid boxers of different weight categories to fight one another.
But Lawelo reckons that had they been of the same weight and fought, he could have most likely beaten Amin in the ring.
“If it were fighting over points, I would beat Amin but weight didn’t permit me. We used to train together with Amin. During trainings, whenever he tried to land a punch on me, my wave, block, and footwork were fantastic.
My jab was also perfect and you wouldn’t retreat before I shook your head with my heavy punch,” he laughs hard and long as he narrates, with some of his children and grandchildren now gathered around us listening into our interviews.
“So we were in the same army boxing team together with Amin. I boxed for nine years under light-heavyweight and even represented Uganda in many fights before retiring.”
Military training in Nakuru, Kenya
For someone like him who didn’t study much, Lawelo says at Nakuru, there were classes designed for his kind at the army training wing to make recruits cope academically. The courses were broken into third, second and first classes.
“As a soldier, they expected you to know certain things such as map reading and history. Because, if you’re not conversant in these areas, you would not be made a leader,” he says.
“So I did well and passed all those courses. Overall, I got a Second Class Education, which was an equivalent to Junior One back then,” he says.
After the Nakuru training, some Ugandan trained officers remained in Kenya or were deployed to Tanzania. But Lawelo excelled – or so he thinks, and was brought back home to Uganda.
“But after six months, since I got a good record at the training wing, I was promoted into army leadership,” he boasts.
Lawelo notes that the military training back then was tailored in such a way that an army officer who retired would be expected and required to transition seamlessly into the civilian administration and life.
“If you retired from the army at the rank of a sergeant, you could come and serve as a sub-county chief. A Sergeant Major would earn you the post of a county chief in civilian life after retirement,” he says.
Those days, Lawelo recounts, government civilian officers were recruited from the few existing colleges.
Lawelo says during the colonial period, most public officers were brought all the way from the United Kingdom to serve in colonial Uganda.
“Uganda only started getting indigenous officers after Independence in 1962. I was among them, together with Lutwa, who was [army number] U01; Bazilio [Olara Okello], Amin, and others. We were the officers who were handed over the army by the British. All these people are no longer alive, it’s me who is still left,” he recounts.
But after returning home from Kenya, Lawelo again later met with Lutwa and Amin in Jinja.
While back home, Lawelo continued to pursue several military courses, both in Uganda and abroad.
He recounts his first additional training was a course in Administration and Command at the School of Infantry at Jinja.
He later went to Israel for further training on self-defence techniques, where the Israeli instructors trained them in martial arts. The training in Israel lasted six months.
“They also trained us on various pressure points throughout the body where you kicked or punched if you wanted someone dead,” he recalls.
Lawelo later had another training stint in Israel in 1973, as Company Commander, and another for Battalion Commander in Ghana in 1975.
Again in 1984, Lawelo had another training for Brigade Command from Tabora in Tanzania, although their instructors were Chinese.
“For all our ranks in the army, one has to undergo training. Like me and other army officers in our time did,” Lawelo notes.
He says he rose through army ranks after successfully completing the various courses required to attain those ranks.
The ranks he held during his 51 years of serving all Uganda armies from KAR to UPDF, he says, include being Lance Corporal, Sergeant, Sergeant Major, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel, and lastly Brigadier, being the last rank he held before he retired from the army in Mbale in 2001.
“I was discharged from the army with honour and as in the army tradition, I should have been awarded with Good Conduct medal. It’s even in the law. But it has not been given to me,” he laments.
But Lawelo could not have lived this long to tell his story had lady luck not smiled upon him when he, just like most Acholi and Langi army officers then, were earmarked for the slaughter house after the 1971 Amin military takeover.
“Amin had limited education, but he had a lot of ‘ryeko anywali’ (intuition). If you told him something he would own it as his. And he also loved to stay close to wise people, who he loved asking questions,” Lawelo says.
When Amin took over government, Lawelo never fled to exile.
“I remained and served all those governments. All the changes of governments I would be among the first to be arrested. Don’t play with God, He is indeed there,” he declares, to testify to his survival through the regimes as a rosary dangles from his neck.
About Brig Terencio Okello Lawelo
● 1927: Born at Pamolo, Labongo-Layamo, Kitgum District
● 1935-1939: Studied at Kitgum Boys Primary School
● 1938: Baptized in the Roman Catholic faith
● 1953: Married first wife, Elizabetha Atim
● February 5, 1953: Enlisted in 4th (Uganda) Battalion, King’s African Rifles (KAR)
● 1953: Completed six months training at Nakuru, Kenya
● Trained in Administration and Command course at School of Infantry, Jinja
● 1973: Trained as Company Commander in Israel
● 1975: Trained as Battalion Commander in Ghana
● 1984: Trained as Brigade Commander with courses in Administration and planning in Tabora, Tanzania
Rising through the ranks
● 1953: Lance Corporal, Jinja
● 1954: Corporal, Jinja
● 1956: Sergeant, Jinja
● Sgt Major
● 1963: Captain, Kabamba
● 1973: Major, after training in Israel
● 1984: Lieutenant Colonel, Eastern Brigade Headquarters, Mbale
● 1985: Brigadier, Mbale
● 1987: Abducted by Holy Spirit Movement rebels of Alice Lakwena and forced to fight until her defeat at Magamaga, Jinja, in same year.
● 1987: Reported to NRA Barracks, Soroti
● 1989: Discharged from NRA
● 1989: Arrested, charged in Court Martial and detained at Makindye Barracks, Kampala, for 11 years.
● 2001/2002: Retired from active service.