In a packed popular American franchise that serves fried food in Kampala, I found myself sharing a table with three young men in their early 20s.
I feared their conversations would bore me. Wrong! They were talking about the deceased former president Idi Amin (1971-1979.)
To them, Amin was the best president Uganda has ever had. He built embassies abroad, established Uganda Airlines, railways and chased away Asians to allow Ugandans to join the world of commerce and industry.
University education was free, so was quality healthcare. Public servants had free cars and housing, so they claimed. They lamented that their generation was very unfortunate because things have gone terribly wrong. I did not hear anything about what has become the trademark of the Amin era – alleged gross human rights abuses.
These arguments have become regular on radio talk shows and social media, which is dominated by young people. You even see Amin’s image on trucks and taxis in his ceremonial army uniform, festooned with military medals with glorifying slogans like ‘Africa’s hero!’
Most of Uganda’s post-independence history is unrecorded. As time goes by, many of the important occurrences will just disappear or remain matters of conjecture, embellishments and outright lies.
For any civilisation or society to endure, it must have an honest record and knowledge of its past and how it came to where it is. That will help in charting a way for the future.
It is sad that we do not have a strong culture of being serious about recording the past for posterity. There are hardly any authoritative books written by those who witnessed the Amin era first-hand or derived from interviews with them.
Similarly, there are barely any memorials or sites reserved for the remembrances of major historical events. For instance, it was alleged that thousands upon thousands were killed during the Amin era and dumped in the Namanve Forest Reserve area. Now that much of the forest has been cut down to give way to an industrial park, nothing was recorded if at all any skulls and bones were found in the area while clearing it to prove the claims. We have simply moved on.
There is no authoritative literature by scholars and journalists about the claims that Amin ate some of his victims and kept their heads in a refrigerator at his home on the advice of his witch doctor. So many of these allegations about Amin and other past leaders have never been researched and vindicated or dismissed. They are now matters of ordinary gossip and we have remained in the dark and it will be worse for the generations to come like the young diners with whom I shared a table on that rainy day.
When there is no culture of recording and embarrassing those who have abused power, those who come after them will act with greater impunity to the detriment of society.
Building monuments, researching, writing books, making audio and visual documentaries to keep debates about history alive is something that requires the motivation, passion and drive of being intrigued intellectually. That is lacking.
For instance, when Amin fell in 1979, the looting and destruction saw so many documents, recorded materials, artifacts and buildings of historical importance destroyed. In contrast, when on June 22, 1941 German troops attacked the Soviet Union during World War II, staff and hundreds of volunteers packed more than a million works of art from the museum in Leningrad and sent them to an unknown destination for three years. They are now back in the museum.
Secondly, the media (and academia), has failed to retain their best brains. Most media houses are now manned by relatively young people, who stay for a short time and move on to more lucrative jobs in public relations or become farmers. The numerous glaring errors on basic historical facts in the media is testament to this.
We, therefore, don’t build the institutional memory. We are short of people who can authoritatively say “I was there when this incident took place.”
It was great listening to the late Ssemwanga Kisoolo and Mulindwa Muwonge when they spoke of the Amin era just like it is to listen to Joachim Buwembo, Timothy Kalyegira, Fred Guweddekko, Tony Owana, the Rev Amos Kasibante, Assuman Bisiika, etc. These people need to be facilitated to record what they saw, know and have read about.
But perhaps the greatest challenge is mainly that for society to record history, you need a regular change of guard in terms of the makers of history of a given era. Those who then take on the duty of recording will work without the fear of being harmed by those whose deeds they record and expose.
But Uganda has a unique aspect. Most of the governments in power since independence have been unpopular and at war. Their opponents at times sabotage them by committing human rights abuses to make them look bad.
When there is a takeover, the new hands are against writing history (except their own selective accounts) for fear of their own deeds being exposed. This is one of the reasons why the State Research Bureau was a target of the liberators from Tanzania.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. firstname.lastname@example.org