In 1971 Idi Amin launched a military coup that overthrew the President of Uganda, Milton Obote, precipitating a deterioration of relations with the neighbouring state of Tanzania. Amin installed himself as President and ruled the country under a repressive dictatorship. In October 1978 Amin launched an invasion of Tanzania. Tanzania halted the assault, mobilised anti-Amin opposition groups, and launched a counter-offensive.
In a matter of months, the Tanzania People's Defence Force (TPDF) and its Ugandan rebel allies (unified under the umbrella organisation "Uganda National Liberation Front", abbreviated UNLF) defeated the Uganda Army in a number of battles, and occupied Kampala, Uganda's capital, on 11 April 1979. With his military disintegrating or already in open revolt, Amin's rule was finished. Having escaped from Kampala, he consequently traveled to a succession of cities in eastern and northern Uganda, urging his remaining forces "to go back and fight the enemy who had invaded our country", even as he prepared to flee into exile. Most Uganda Army units opted to surrender, desert or defect to the Tanzanian-led forces, but some decided to continue to fight for Amin's collapsing regime.
Thus, the Tanzanians and the UNLF allies continued their advance to secure eastern, northwestern and northern Uganda. The Tanzanian 201st Brigade under Brigadier Imran Kombe and a smaller number of UNLF fighters were ordered to capture the important town of Lira in the north. The UNLF fighters consisted of Kikosi Maalum members loyal to ex-President Obote, and were led by Lieutenant Colonel David Oyite-Ojok. The entire force consisted of about 5,000 troops. Lira was home to one of the largest Uganda Army barracks in the country. Throughout the spring of 1979, Amin loyalists harassed, abducted, and murdered residents in the surrounding area because many had tribal links to Obote and were thus considered suspect. They also maintained a roadblock in the town and harassed passing civilians. After the fall of Kampala, Uganda Army troops from the south moved into Lira, and the local population fled. The soldiers then looted all of the town's shops and banks.