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How Kagera War Ended Tanzania’s Activist Foreign Policy

The economic hardship that the Kagera War caused eroded Tanzania’s policy autonomy, undermined Nyerere’s legitimacy, and signalled the need for a new era.

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The Uganda – Tanzania War (1978/1979), also known locally as the Kagera War is, arguably, the most important foreign policy issue since Tanzania gained its independence 60 years ago.

The war remains a key-defining incident, in spite of the country’s long history of tackling issues of prominence in international politics, such as the support for liberation in Southern Africa, the push for regional integration in Africa and across the Global South, and concerted engagement in conflict resolution within the Great Lakes region.

Historical accounts of the war often trace its origin to January 1971, when a coup d’état against Milton Obote, then President of Uganda, by then country’s Chief of Armed Forces Idi Amin, brought a period of friendly relations with Tanzania to a sudden end.

Tanzania was quick to reject the use of force to acquire political power in Uganda and offered the deposed, left-leaning leader asylum in Dar es Salaam. By denouncing the coup, and hosting Obote, Tanzania had chosen a side, unlike Kenya, which had rejected the request for asylum.

Having personally survived multiple coup attempts, and grappled with indiscipline in the armed forces, Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first Head of State, found it necessary to challenge the illegitimate ascent of Idi Amin, at a time when the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU), was wedded to a vague and unpopular principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of member states.

For Idi Amin, the rejection of his ascent, and the hosting of Obote, embodied a clear threat of a counter-coup from Tanzania. He, therefore, sought to pre-empt the threat, initially through diplomacy and propaganda, and later through military action.

Historians point to this background as the foundation of the Kagera War. However, this understanding has overlooked a key and formative dynamic in the evolution of Tanzania’s foreign policy, and one that would determine Tanzania’s response to Uganda’s invasion in 1978.

A desire for Pan-African respectability

Tanzania showed a distinct desire for Pan-African respectability, and autonomy over its foreign policy, very early after independence. For instance, the intervention of British commandos in suppressing the January 1964 army mutiny left President Julius Nyerere so embarrassed that he frantically sought to explain his rationale for requesting foreign assistance to the public, and even the OAU, in a bid to influence public opinion.

The downgrading of relations with West Germany over the question of diplomatic status to be afforded to East Germany soon after the Union with Zanzibar, and severing of diplomatic ties with Britain over independence for Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, are two other early actions that reflect the early commitment to policy autonomy, and respectability.

The quest for Pan-African respectability has been specifically cited in the literature as a key driver of Tanzania’s ‘activist’ foreign policy in the two decades (1961 -1981) following independence from Britain.

The period between 1965 and 1975 can be interpreted as the peak of Tanzania’s respectability. This period of ascent was characterized by a considerable degree of foreign policy autonomy, midwifing of the OAU’s liberation committee (and support for armed struggle in Southern Africa), and declaration of Ujamaa as an alternative, ‘locally-bred’ model of development. The Ujamaa experiment positioned Tanzania as a ‘showcase’ of development and attracted scholars and development policy specialists from different corners of the world.

The ascent phase was, unfortunately, punctuated by the failure of Ujamaa, which was clear from 1975, the collapse of the East African Community (which had grievous philosophical implications for Nyerere’s ‘gradual’ integration agenda), and was sealed by the Kagera War (1978/79) which left the economy crippled, and revealed the ramifications of waging total war.

An existential threat

The Kagera war was a direct product of the 1971 coup against Milton Obote. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the full-scale war would have taken place had Tanzania not developed a relentless desire for respect in its formative years.

After all, there is overwhelming precedent in the literature that points to the influence of status on the behaviour of states, and there is ample evidence to suggest that Tanzania became a casualty of this phenomenon.

The Kagera War was preceded by a great deal of verbal abuse between Nyerere and Idi Amin. President Nyerere denounced Idi Amin as a ‘killer’, and a ‘buffoon’ while Amin described his counterpart as an ‘old woman’ and a weak leader. For Nyerere’s Tanzania, Idi Amin was a ‘disgrace’ to the honour of Africa. To Idi Amin, Tanzania represented an existential threat.

In spite of the animosity and occasional armed skirmishes between the two countries, Tanzania tolerated Idi Amin’s troubles for close to nine years. What historians’ overlook, or fail to account for is, what changed, and made the war inevitable in 1978.

The test of defending territorial integrity

Idi Amin’s invasion and attempted annexation of the Kagera salient (today’s Misenyi district) took place at a time when Tanzania was in a dire economic situation, because of the faltering Ujamaa experiment, global oil crisis, and prolonged drought.

Tanzania was generally in no condition to fight a war. However, a nation with a solid reputation for supporting the liberation of other countries now faced the test of defending its own territorial integrity, and most importantly, its status as a showcase of development and a principled sovereign power.

The Kagera War represented a controversial change of strategy: from clandestine support for liberation in Southern Africa to a full-scale war in Uganda. The effects of the war, especially on the economy, marked a turning point in Tanzania’s foreign policy.

The economic hardship that followed eroded the country’s policy autonomy, undermined Nyerere’s legitimacy, and signalled the need for a new era.

Dastan Kweka is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Dar es Salaam. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @KwekaKweka. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for further inquiries.

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