Previously unseen photos of Uganda’s former president Idi Amin 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, the arrest and prosecution of profiteers and hoarders on display in a six-month long photography exhibition attempt to represent the different dimensions in which Ugandans experienced the dictator’s nearly decade-long regime.
A selection of the unseen black and white photographs from the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) archive depict joy and merrymaking, love, celebrations, the performing arts, sports, smuggling, overcharging, and hoarding, public executions and floggings, fear and misery that characterised the everyday life in Uganda in 1970s.
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 many occasions when he appeared before the public. Amin lost power in April 1979.
The curators of the exhibition say for decades it was thought that the said photographs 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 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 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. This is until now, an unseen archive,” the curators say.
In January 2018, UBC launched a project to digitize 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 titled “The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin” that opened at the Uganda Museum in Kampala on May 18, will run up to November 2019.
It is curated by Nelson Abiti (ethnographer, Uganda Museum), Dr Derek R Peterson (Professor of history and African studies, University of Michigan, USA), Edgar C. Taylor and Associate Professor Richard Vokes, of the University of Western Australia.
The exhibition consists 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. 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 say.
The photographs on display are unaltered and unedited. Where possible, the curators have titled the photographs using the same titles assigned by the photographers at the time the negatives were developed.
The timeline juxtaposes the grandiose and impressive images of Amin’s presidency – which are shown in the top row – with the images in the middle row, which picture the intimate occasions that also feature in the UBC archive. According to the curators, as these photos show, the 1970s was 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, and perilous period.
According to the curators, there are no photos of people being tortured, or assassinated, or kidnapped.
“In the bottom row of the timeline, therefore, 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.”
The curators add that there is very little in the UBC photo archive that directly illustrates the awful history of violence and inhumanity in the 1970s.
A great number of people, as many as 300,000, died in the hands of men serving Amin’s government.
The violence, torture and murder of dissidents, criminals, and others who innocently fell foul of the State – largely took place out of public view. It leaves no trace 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 on May 18, 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, the thing that has really held the whole project together has been the three strands of: the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation; the Uganda Museum, and; the international partners.”
“Over the past six months, these organisations have pulled strongly together, and we hope that their collaboration will provide a model for future cross-institutional projects in the arts and heritage sector as well,” Prof Vokes added.
On the role of the UBC, Prof Vokes noted: “That 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 output grew to become one of the largest, and most important, archives for Ugandan history.”
“The first public presentation on display are 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 possession of and copyright to UBC,” Prof Vokes told Sunday Monitor.
“The importance of this exhibition is to have a public conversation about this period in Uganda’s history which clearly was 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,” Prof Vokes added.
“The biggest mystery about this exhibition is why these photos were taken in the first place. The Amin regime kept a photographic team who took several pictures and they were never printed and published but kept away in a drawer,” Dr Peterson told Sunday Monitor.
“My answer is speculative. I think the Amin government and Amin himself thought that everything they did was historically important and it has to be remembered. And so the reason that the photographs were important for the people would not forget what their regime did for the country,” Dr Peterson argues.
“Who 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,” he 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,” Dr Peterson says.
In 1973 prices rose drastically in Ugandan market places. Government statistics indicate 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.
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 price 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 others valuable things in Kenya and Zaire, where purchase prices were much higher.
The Amin regime decried all of this activity as magendo, profiteering. But magendo 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 March 25, 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 in excess of established 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 tribunals records have apparently not survived.
Crime & 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 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 there no these occasions, too. In still photography and in moving film they captured the evidence as it was produced, creating a material record that could memorialise the Amin government’s war against economic indiscipline.
The Politics of Cultural Life
The curators observe that for the Amin government the revival of traditional performing arts helped 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 Best of Africa’ – had been moribund under the Obote government. It was revived in the 1970s, with representative members from each of Uganda’s different 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 Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. Over several years leading up to the festival the Amin regime organised a series of regional competitions to select representative works of art that could be displayed in Lagos.
In various 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 to Uganda, as did performers from Ghaddafi’s Libya.
The curators add 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.”
The curators say at the time Idi Amin came to power, Uganda had one of the most developed media infrastructures in Africa. One survey found that, in 1965, eight of 10 Ugandans over the age of 16 listened regularly to Radio Uganda. President 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 newspaper, The Voice of Uganda, was established to represent the official view.
For the Amin government, 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.’ 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 enthusiastically embraced global media, and international journalists from the BBC, Reuters, or Voice of America were regularly invited to official functions. He hoped that these engagements would amplify his image as a global statesman. 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 share objects or photographs with them . “After the exhibition is finished in Kampala we plan to take the show to other museums. We are encouraging those with photos or other objects from the 1970s that they would like us to include in future exhibitions to get in touch with our project team via the email: email@example.com,” Prof. Vokes said.