Tanzania has arguably one of the best armies in Africa. Few have risen to the highest ranks of this mighty army. Since the nation gained its independence in 1961, countless soldiers have fought and paid the ultimate price to win freedom and independence for Tanzania and other African countries. Many legendary soldiers have perished silently in what is one of the most secretive armies in Africa. But this need not be; freedom is not free. The young people will take the freedom they enjoy for granted unless they are given an opportunity to learn about some of the nation's heroes. The late Major General John Butler Walden aka the “Black Mamba”, provides us with an example of a brilliant soldier who gave his all to the nation and served it with distinction. His story tells us something about perseverance, sacrifice, patriotism, and excellence.
John Butler Walden was born on December 12, 1939 in Tunduru, southern Tanzania. His father, Stanley Arthur Walden, was a British colonial district commissioner. His mother Violet Nambela was the daughter of Andrew Sinkala, an official at the Game Department at Tunduru. Stanley met and fell in love with Violet. John was born at a time when relationships between Europeans and Africans was shunned upon. Thus it is not surprising that John and his maternal grandmother eventually moved to Mbeya in 1941.
Stanley Walden was transferred to Njombe, Iringa in 1942. John followed his father to Njombe shortly afterwards. He was registered at Tosamaganga, Iringa in 1945. Tosamaganga was a boarding school that enrolled many of the children born to white and black parents. John’s younger brother, Paul Walden, also joined Tosamaganga. The teachers, some of whom were Sisters of a church order, took a liking to John and his brother. John and his brother did not get many opportunities to communicate with their father while at the school. John Walden had limited contact with his mother while at the school simply because she was an African woman. John completed elementary school at Tosamaganga in 1952 and proceeded with primary education at the same school. He finished standard ten at Tosamaganga in 1956. The experience at Tosamaganga shaped the character of the young John. He learned to be tough and independent.
The King’s African Rifles (KAR) advertised for recruits in 1957. Walden came across the advertisement and immediately decided he would apply. He was a young man and wanted adventure; he initially wanted to join the navy and travel around the world. However, he eventually settled for the army. 1957 marked the beginning of John Walden’s military carrier.
Walden showed up at Colito Barracks in 1957 and enlisted with KAR. His first assignment was performing clerical work. Walden started military training six months later. He finished training in February of 1958 and was assigned to A Company of the KAR. Walden performed his duties with distinction and was promoted to Lance Corporal within two months. The army needed soldiers with specialized training; Walden was sent to Nakuru to take a course on storekeeping. He was promoted to full Corporal after returning from training. The demands for trained soldiers were very high at the time. Some soldiers were assigned multiple duties. In addition to storekeeping duties, Walden often performed clerical work and worked as an interpreter.
Colonial authorities rotated KAR units to different territories. Walden and his unit were sent to Mauritius in 1959. He was in the island when it was hit by a devastating cyclone in 1960. Cyclone “Carol” was reported to have killed at least 42 people. Walden, then a Corporal in KAR, supervised the relief operation. It was a valuable experience for the young soldier. The time in Mauritius gave Walden an important experience in military/civilian relations and sharpened his leadership skills. He returned to Tanganyika sometime in 1960.
The year 1960 marked a new phase in Tanganyika’s history. Tanganyika won self-government in August 1960 and Julius Nyerere became the new Prime Minister. The army had to be reorganized as the country approached independence on December 9, 1961. Government of Tanganyika took two battalions that made KAR from the colonial era and changed the name to Tanganyika Rifles just after independence.
Walden faced many challenges in the army. There were some suspicions about his loyalty because his father was white. The question of loyalty would creep in from time to time during course of his carrier. Part of the early suspicions were due to the fact that his father had been a British colonial official who was at times not supportive of the struggle for independence. S.A. Walden was, for example, hostile towards the UN mission when they visited Mwanza in 1957. The father’s attitude partly became the source of suspicion towards John Walden. Nyerere spoke to Walden at one point; he made no secret of his reservation about John’s loyalty. Nyerere informed the young soldier that he would have to work hard to earn his position in the new army. Walden was not discouraged. The young warrior gave his all in every task placed on his hands. It was his exceptional intelligence, dedication to his profession, and ultimately loyalty to his country that set him apart.
Tanganyika won independence on December 9, 1961. This was a new beginning for the nation and the army. Walden was promoted to Sergeant in 1962 and worked as a Quartermaster Sergeant in the newly independent Tanganyika. He was always looking for ways to sharpen his military skills. He took courses on weaponry. Walden had an opportunity to attend the prestigious Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, UK sometime in 1962. He was at the school from the end of 1962 to April 1963. Walden was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant upon his returned to Tanganyika. He was promoted to platoon commander at Colito Barracks. President Nyerere presented regimental colors to 2nd Lieutenant Walden and 2nd Lieutenant Elisha Kavana in June 1963. Being selected to receive the colors from the President was a big honor. This was recognition that John Walden was already an exceptional soldier.
Tanganyika Rifles was a new army in 1963. Walden was among a handful of highly trained officers who attended prestigious military academies in UK by mid-1963. Sarakikya, Kashmiri, and Nkwera were among the Commissioned officers who attended the prestigious Sandhurst. Others would join Sandhurst subsequent years, including Kombe and Kiwelu. Walden was among small group of Commissioned officers who attended Mons; others include, Mahiti, Marwa, and Mboma.
Walden served the army in different capacities during the late 1960s. He was at one point head of the JKT camp in Mafinga, Iringa. He was then a major in the army. Walden was one of the armies’ best marksmen. Walden was known to hit a target accurately from a distance using various weapons. In one instance in Mafinga, he aimed and shot used cartridges placed at a distance without missing a single target. Few soldiers in the Tanzanian army could surpass him in target shooting.
Walden served the nation well during the period of the struggle for liberation in southern Africa. By the end of 1970s, Tanzania People’s Defense Forces (TPDF) had fought in various places, including Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Angola. Walden served in Mozambique as a military attaché shortly after that nation won its independence. TPDF gained valuable experience during period of intense liberation wars in southern Africa. The skills gained would be put to use in 1978-1979 war between Tanzania and Uganda.
Brigadier General Tumainieli Kiwelu, a graduate of Mons, was given the task of preparing for war. He reorganized the army. Brigadier General David Msuguri was promoted to Major General and given the overall command of the operation. Brigadier General Silas Mayunga took command of the 206th Brigade, Brigadier General Marwa commanded the 208th and Brigadier General John Walden commanded the 207th.
TPDF pushed Ugandan soldiers out of Tanzania. Walden was given the task of taking over Minziro along a sugar plantation during the early operations. Walden, then Brigadier General, led a battalion that was one of the first to enter Ugandan territory. Walden and other military planners came up with a brilliant plan for taking the important city of Masaka, Uganda. From Minziro, where Walden and his soldiers camped, there were two roads to Masaka. The main road was too dangerous as Ugandan forces were waiting with tanks. Another road was through a narrow footpath and swamps on the edge of the lake. The enemy did not expect Tanzanian soldiers to take this route. Uganda soldiers would be caught with their pants down.
The 207th Brigade under the command of Major General Walden spent three nights moving in snake and crocodile infested swamps, with parts of their bodies under water. All the soldiers painted their faces black and moved quietly towards enemy lines. Walden was given the nick named “Black Mamba". He led his soldiers fearlessly through crocodile and snake infested waters, shooting them with his pistol when they got close to him.
The Ugandans fought hard at Masaka. Idi Amin sent Lt. Col Abdu Kisuule to lead the fight against Tanzanian soldiers at Masaka. About one thousand Libyan soldiers joined Ugandans to defend Masaka. The Libyans were equipped with heavy guns. Walden and his soldiers fought heroically and helped take over Masaka. Kisuule would later say that their defeat at Masaka was final blow for the Ugandan army. He stated that [Masaka] is were “we lost the war.” Walden played an important role in the victory at Masaka, and hence, overall victory for Tanzania. Walden led his soldiers by example and they learned to love and respect him.
The TPDF carried out psychological warfare against Uganda forces. At one point Walden broadcasted on the radio assessing the preparedness of the Cuban, Israelis, Americans, and Mozambican soldiers; it was all made up. The whole broadcast was done with the understanding that Ugandan soldiers monitoring radio waves would hear the conversation. The ploy worked; Uganda soldiers were struck with fear at the thought Cubans, Americans and Israelis fighting against them. Amin wrote to the OAU and UN to complain about foreign interference in the conflict. Idi Amin’s rush to judgment made him look like a fool in the international community while broadcast caused Ugandan soldiers to be filled with fear. Walden’s psychological operation worked, but it caused some consternation with the political leadership.
Walden was among the few commanders given the task of conquering Kampala, the capital city. The other commander was Major General B.N. Msuya. The Tanzanian soldiers were under strict orders not to destroy the city. Major General B.N. Msuya became the de facto ruler of Uganda for at least three days at one point. Msuya was eventually ordered to pull back and Walden was left to command the Tanzanian forces. It is reported that Walden commanded a unit that attacked Iddi Amin’s residency. Walden came out with a number of trophies belonging to Idi Amin, including a silver Colt 45 pistol he found in Amin’s bedroom.
Nyerere stepped down in 1985 and Ali Hassan Mwinyi became the President of Tanzania. There were questions about who would be appointed the new Army Commander when President Mwinyi came to power. Mwinyi appointed General Ernest Mwita Kiaro and General Tumainiel Kiwelu as the nation’s top soldiers. Some hoped that Walden would be given the top position. After all, he was one of the most senior officers and best qualified for the position. This was not to be. According to some sources, Mwinyi called Walden to discuss the matter. He told Walden that he was the most qualified, but could not give him the appointment. We many never learn exactly what transpired and why Walden was passed for promotion.
Walden once again came to the forefront of the public eyes in the end of the 1980s. He was given the task of eliminating game poachers in 1989. The operation came at a crucial time when poachers were wiping out elephants. Walden led an operation codenamed “Operesheni Uhai.” Elephant population was estimated to be 350,000 at the time of independence; it dropped to around 55,000 at the end of the 1980s.
It was not uncommon to see Walden walking in the bush with his Colt 45 strapped to his waist during Opereshini Uhai. The unit he commanded flushed out poachers and the elephant population started increasing once again. It was one of the last military operations for the proud warrior.
Major General John Walden passed away on July 7, 2002. He was buried in Mbeya. Walden rose to the top of the Tanzanian army. He was able to achieve what few have been able to do. It was not always an easy journey. Yet he accomplished what few have been able to do. He will be remembered for his bravery, brilliancy, and service to his nation