Uganda recently declared its intention to build an Idi Amin museum to “attract tourists.”
This is problematic on two levels. First, the planners must ensure the museum does not end up glorifying or sanitising one of the most gratuitously murderous regimes in the history of Africa, right from pre-colonial times, through colonial conquest and the post-Independence period.
Amin’s tyranny also represented the many contradictions that defined Africa’s post-Independence history. Africa became a continent free from colonialism, but in many ways the newly independent states proved just as repressive as the colonial regimes, if not more so.
It was a continent with bold ambitions, but still struggling to shake off aspects of traditional culture that tended to impede progress.
It was a continent that liked to think of itself as friendly, open minded, and happy, but whose citizens were falling into the miserable depths of poverty.
It was a continent where leaders preached pride in the African heritage, but whose insatiable appetite for material possessions from Europe occasioned state neglect and citizens’ misery.
To be faithful, therefore, to national and continental history, Idi Amin cannot be the museum’s focus. The era he represents and his role in its history should instead be situated within the context of national and regional post-Independence history.
The second level of concern is that no country builds museums of national history or erects commemorative monuments as tourist attractions.
Countries do so because they want to keep the memory of the past alive in current and future generations. They want to preserve the historical narratives because these form the architecture of their nationhood. The tourists who come to visit or view these museums and monuments are their effect not their cause.
There are examples of museums in Africa that Uganda can borrow from or avoid replicating. The Kigali Memorial Museum traces the development of genocide, from its ideological beginnings to its apocalyptic explosion in 1994. The museum also tells the story of other contexts of hate and fear and how they, too, led to genocide – the extermination of the Herero and Nama communities by the Germans in 1904, and the Nazi murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust.
The museum does not advance a nationalist propagandist project; it is a space for honest, deep and sober reflection. Visiting the museum leaves one deeply disturbed because, like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in the jungles of Congo, what one really confronts is oneself.
In Accra, there is a museum dedicated to Kwame Nkrumah. The museum is more a nationalist rather than historical project. It continues the cult of personality Nkrumah had built around himself, a larger than life messiah, or as he styled himself, ‘Redeemer’. To visit the museum and then read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a damning fictional portrayal of the rot under Nkrumah, is a schizophrenic experience induced by two diametrically opposed narratives of the same person and the same era.
In Kenya, commemorative monuments have been erected, not to preserve Kenyan history in an unbiased way, warts and all, but, as in the case of Nkrumah, to elevate former presidents to the pantheon of gods.
The creation of counties has brought an added tribal twist to creation of historical heroes. One county, for instance, has built statues to commemorate two individuals as national heroes, their notorious political careers notwithstanding. Some other other counties too have indicated their intention to build monuments in honour of their “national heroes.”
In these cases, history takes a back seat, as tribal political agendas are pushed to the forefront.
The question of who is a national hero is contested terrain around the world. The practice, however, in more sober jurisdictions is to formulate specific criteria to determine who becomes part of national history. A committee of highly respected citizens then uses these criteria to propose names of those who deserve to be commemorated as central to a nation’s history.
So as Uganda embarks on building their museum, it is important that it serve interests of history, not politics. The museum must curate the good, the bad and the ugly, not only of an individual but of the national and continental history he represents.
Clearly, out of the examples cited above, the Rwanda model offers the best prototype. We should remember Robert Hughs’s wise counsel in his book, Culture of Complaint that dragging history into propaganda “denies the dead their humanity; their sins, their virtues, and their failures.” But most importantly, it denies us the crucial lessons we must learn in order to create more human societies.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.