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The unseen pictures of Idi Amin.

A fascinating exhibition of previously unseen photographs of Uganda's maverick dictator, Idi Amin, who unleashed a reign of terror during his eight years in power in the 1970s, has attracted tens of thousands of viewers in Kampala. Bamuturaki Misinguzi reports.

The previously unseen photos of Idi Amin at this exhibition, in a jolly mood playing his favourite music instrument, the accordion, cutting a cake on his birthday, receiving foreign dignitaries, boxing and swimming, juxtaposed with those portraying death, sadness, uncertainty, and the arrest and prosecution of profiteers and hoarders, represents the different dimensions in which Ugandans experienced the dictator's decade-long regime.

The selection of black and white photographs from the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) archives depicts joy and merrymaking, love, celebrations, the performing arts, sports, smuggling, public executions and floggings, as well as the fear and misery, of everyday life in Uganda in the 1970s.

Idi Amin overthrew President Milton Obote in January 1971 and his eight-year Presidency was the subject of hundreds of thousands of photographs. A dedicated and talented team of photographers under the Ministry of Information followed Amin, taking pictures of the dictator in a variety of settings, public and private.

Amin lost power in April 1979, following the war between Uganda and Tanzania in 1978-79, and was replaced by Yusuf Lule. Amin went into exile in Saudi Arabia until his death in 2003.

The exhibition, entitled 'The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin' opened at the Uganda Museum in Kampala on 18 May, in a showing lasting until December. It is curated by Nelson Abiti (ethnographer, Uganda Museum), Dr Derek R. Peterson (Professor of History and African Studies, University of Michigan, US), Edgar C. Taylor, and Richard Voices, Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia.

According to the curators, for decades it was thought that the photographs the Ministry of Information had made were lost to posterity--destroyed during the tumult of the early 1980s or misplaced during subsequent relocations of the Ministry's archives.

In 2015, though, researchers and archivists at the UBC uncovered a filing cabinet full of thousands of photographic negatives. Each envelope was carefully labelled with information about the date and subject of the photograph. In all, there are 70,000 negatives, dating from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s.

"So far as we know, none of the photographic negatives in the UBC archive have been published or displayed in any public venue. The vast majority of the negatives were never printed. It has until now, [been] an unseen archive," the curators say.

In January 2018, UBC launched a project to digitise this important collection. With funding and technical support from Makerere University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Western Australia, the dedicated team of archivists has digitised 25,000 images to date.

The exhibition consists of 200 photographs drawn from the much larger collection held by UBC.

"All of these photographs were made to glorify President Amin, elevate the accomplishments of his presidency, and make visible the iniquities of the enemies both real and imagined--that his government pursued," say the curators.

Unique insight

"These photographs testify to the passions and enthusiasms that his government cultivated. The archive also includes many pictures of everyday public and cultural life in 1970s Uganda. It provides a unique insight into how the Amin years were experienced by ordinary Ugandans, how people worked, played, and loved during this time," the curators add.

The photographs on display are unaltered and unedited. Where possible, the curators have titled the photographs using the same wording assigned by the photographers at the time the negatives were developed.

The timeline on display juxtaposes the grandiose and impressive images of Amins presidency--shown in the top row--with images which show the intimate occasions that also feature in the archive (in a middle row). According to the curators, as the photos depict, the 1970s were also a time of cultural creativity, a time for love, music, and new life. But for many Ugandans, the 1970s were also a violent, dangerous time.

The curators say there are no photos of people being tortured, or assassinated, or kidnapped. "So in the bottom row of the timeline, we have placed the photographs of individuals, organised according to the date on which they were murdered. This is our attempt to highlight the horror that was occurring at the same time as the celebrations organised by the state."

According to the curators, there is very little in the UBC photo archive that directly illustrates the awful history of violence and inhumanity in the 1970s. As many as 300,000 people died at the hands of men serving Amins government. This violence--the torture and murder of dissidents, criminals, and others who innocently fell afoul of the state--largely took place out of public view. It goes unrecorded in the UBC archive. "The positive and uplifting photos in this collection mask the harsh realities of public life at this time: unaccountable violence; a collapsing infrastructure; and shortages of the most basic commodities. As curators, we have made efforts throughout this exhibition to remind you, the viewer, that for many Ugandans the 1970s were a violent, perilous time. But this archive cannot tell that story with any fluency."

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the exhibition earlier this year, Prof. Vokes, said: "The exhibition that you see here today is the culmination of many months of work, and has benefited from the knowledge and expertise, and also from the sheer hard work, of a large number of people. However, what has really held the whole project together has been the three strands of: the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation; the Uganda Museum; and the international partners."

On the role of the UBC, Prof. Vokes noted: "Ever since the Ministry of Information first began setting up official media units--with the creation of the Photographic Section, in 1945; Radio Uganda, in 1953; and Uganda Television, in the early 60s--the various entities of what eventually became the UBC have played a key role in recording all aspects of Uganda's public life. Over time, the masses of photographs, radio reels, and video tapes that these recordings constituted became the largest, and most important, archive for Ugandan history."

One can only hope that other African countries take their cue from Uganda and try to unearth old or neglected photographs of past ages, so that the true picture of Africa can be assembled.

"The first public presentation on display [consists of] ... about 120 pictures covering aspects of the Amin regime and public life in Uganda in the 1970s, out of a total of 70,000 images which are in the possession of and [under] copyright to UBC," Prof. Vokes told NA.

"The importance of this exhibition is to have a public conversation about this period in Uganda's history--clearly a troubled period in many ways, in which up to 300,000 people lost their lives. So the curators of the show employed several strategies to portray the trauma and suffering of ordinary Ugandans during that period. Yet the photos taken together also show the ways in which Ugandans enjoyed themselves through sports, music and the arts in general," he added.

"The biggest mystery about this exhibition is why these photos were taken in the first place. The Amin regime kept a photographic team that took ... pictures and they were never printed and published but kept in a drawer," Dr Peterson told NA.

"My answer is speculative. I think the Amin government and Amin himself thought that everything they did was historically important and it had to be remembered. And so the reason that the photographs were important [was] the people would not forget what their regime did for the country," he argued.

"Why take photos and not print them? These were not propaganda photos because no one ever saw them. These were pictures that were never seen before because they were not printed," Dr Peterson added. "Different people saw Amin very differently. I think we should not adopt a very negative or positive image of Amin. People have lots of different experiences under Amin."

The politics of cultural life

The curators observe that for the Amin government, the revival of the traditional performing arts helped to prove the regime's anti-colonial credentials. Never before had artists enjoyed such a prominent place in public life. Uganda's national arts troupe--the 'Heart Beat of Africa'--had been moribund under the Obote government. It was revived in the 1970s, with representative members from each of Uganda's ethnic groups.

The troupe travelled widely: it visited the Soviet Union in 1973, Iraq in 1974, and New York and Zaire (now DR Congo) in 1975.

In 1977 Uganda sent a large delegation to Lagos, Nigeria to participate in the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. For several years before this, the Amin regime organised regional competitions to select representative works of art that could be displayed in Lagos. In this and in other ways, the Amin regime encouraged the standardisation of the traditional performing arts. Performers from other places visited Uganda, too: dancers from Sekou Toure's Guinea and Mobutu's Zaire made regular visits, as did performers from Gaddafi's Libya.

The curators elaborate that at the same time, Amin placed sports--especially football, boxing, and wrestling--at the centre of public life. "These games projected a kind of'muscular masculinity' which appears at times lighthearted. But out of the public gaze, behind prison walls and in police cells, this same sentiment was generating terrible violence.

"These photographs bring this field of cultural and political activity into view. They highlight how political interest overlapped with athletic and artistic performance. They also highlight the dedication of Uganda's artists and athletes, and the enthusiasm that their performances generated."


In 1973 prices rose dramatically in Ugandan marketplaces. According to government statistics, the cost of living for low-income workers increased by 531 per cent between 1971 to 1977; while the cost of living for high--income groups rose by 234 per cent. The Amin government responded to the inflationary pressure on prices by attempting to curate the Ugandan economy. The State Trading Corporation was established by presidential decree in September 1972. It had a legal monopoly over the import and export of commodities. There were fixed prices for goods sold to consumers, and in every district there were government-appointed 'agents' who were responsible for the distribution and sale of commodities.

There was a yawning disparity between the official prices structure and the market value of things. Selling commodities at the state-approved price was financially imprudent. Many people looked for markets across borders, selling coffee and other valuable things in Kenya and Zaire, where purchase prices were much higher. The Amin regime decried all of this activity as 'magendo', profiteering. But it was a key factor in the economy of the 1970s: between 1975 and 1979 as much as $520 million in coffee was smuggled out of Uganda.

The Economic Crimes Tribunal

The Economic Crimes Tribunal was established by presidential decree on 25 March 1975. Its military judges were empowered to investigate and prosecute profiteers, hoarders, and others who acted against the economic interests of the state. Smuggling, overcharging, and hoarding were made punishable with death by firing squad. By April, traders charged with selling goods above government prices were being arrested and executed. Others were flogged in public.

According to the curators, there are several dozen photos in the UBC collection that picture the work of the Economic Crimes Tribunal. The names of the people they depict are largely lost in history, as the tribunal's records have apparently not survived.

Crime and punishment

The curators note that it is impossible to know how many people were arrested for infractions against President Amin's decrees. It is clear that, for some people, punishment was exemplary. The whole process of indictment--the production of evidence, the interrogation of the accused, the punishment of the guilty--was conducted in public, in front of audiences that sometimes numbered in the thousands. Cameramen from the Ministry of Information were present, too. In still photography and in moving film they captured the evidence, creating a record that could memorialise the government's war against economic indiscipline.

"The photos displayed here were created as an aspect of the effort to document crime. You, the viewer, are meant to sit in judgement of the people who are pictured here. That is what these photos do: they made crimes visible," the curators say.

But the unseen violence, secretly meted out away from the public view, "leaves no trace in the UBC archive," they add.


According to the curators, at the time Amin came to power, Uganda had one of the most developed media infrastructures in Africa. One survey found that, in 1965, eight out of ten Ugandans over the age of 16 listened regularly to Radio Uganda. Amin set about expanding the radio infrastructure, and in the early 1970s new transmitters were set up in Mbale, Gulu, Mityana and Kabale. The newspaper business was also transformed. Older publications were either outlawed or closed, and a new paper--the Voice of Uganda--was established to represent the official view.

For the Amin government the national news media was a means by which to dictate to Ugandans. Journalists were present at every public occasion, and even the most minor aspects of official business were relayed through Radio Uganda and the Voice of Uganda. Civil servants called it 'government by radio announcement'. It is not clear how many of these actually reached their intended audiences. By the mid-1970s, chronic shortages of 'essential commodities' meant that many Ugandans were unable to buy simple batteries for their radio sets.

Amin also keenly embraced global media, and international journalists from the BBC, Reuters, or Voice of America were regularly invited to official functions. Amin hoped this would amplify his image as a global statesman. "What it actually did was draw increasing international attention to the brutality of his regime. It is for this reason that Amin remains a notorious figure among global audiences," the curators say.

Photographing Amin was a perilous job. One government photographer--Jimmy Parmer--was murdered by Amin's henchmen as punishment for his pursuit of unapproved photographic subjects.

The curators see this exhibition as a starting point, and a work-in--progress, not a final product. They hope to develop a more fully representative exhibition about the experience of ordinary Ugandans in the 1970s. They are calling on the public to snare objects or photographs with them--or recognise the people or occasions seen in the exhibition.

After Kampala, the exhibition is set to travel to other museums in Uganda, and there are plans to take it abroad, to countries including Australia, the USA and the UK.

Caption: Right: President Idi Amin giving citizenship to British officials on 29 September 1975

Caption: Above: President Idi Amin playing the accordion at Buvuma Island in October 1971

Caption: Right: Chinese delegates and Idi Amin (2nd r) join a Ugandan dance

Caption: Top: President Idi Amin christens Queens Road as Lumumba Avenue in Kampala on 18 January, 1973
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Title Annotation:Arts/Photography
Author:Musinguzi, Bamuturaki
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6UGAN
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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