Idi Amin’s regime on exhibition

Friday June 07 2019

Previously unseen picture of Idi Amin playing his favourite musical instrument, the accordion. PHOTO | UGANDA MUSEUM | UBC


A selection of never before seen black and white photographs of Idi Amin from the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation archive are on exhibition at the Uganda Museum in Kampala. The exhibition opened on May 18 and will run to November.

The objective of the exhibition, titled The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin, is to show the different ways in which Ugandans experienced the decade of the dictator’s regime.

Amin came to power in 1971 after overthrowing Milton Obote, and was Uganda’s president until 1979.

His eight-year presidency was documented by a dedicated team of photographers under the Ministry of Information.

The selection of pictures on exhibition highlight Amin's rule, depicting joy and merrymaking; love and celebration; the performing arts and sports; smuggling, overcharging and hoarding; public executions and floggings; and the fear and misery that characterised everyday life in Uganda in the 1970s.

According to the exhibition's curators, for decades it was thought that the Amin photographs were destroyed in the civil upheaval of the early 1980s or misplaced during subsequent relocations of the ministry’s archives.


Previously unseen picture of Idi Amin (left background) chairing a Cabinet meeting. PHOTO | UGANDA MUSEUM | UBC

Then in 2015, researchers and archivists at the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation found a filing cabinet with over 70,000 film negatives in envelops meticulously labelled with dates and subject matter, dating back to the 1950s up to the mid-1980s.

“As far as we know, none of the photographic negatives in the UBC archive have been published or displayed in public. The vast majority of the negatives were never printed. Until now, it was an unseen archive,” the curators say.


In January 2018, UBC set out to digitise the collection with funding and technical support from Makerere University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Western Australia.

A team of archivists has to date digitised 25,000 images. It was this project that made the exhibition possible.

The exhibition 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 associate professor Richard Vokes, of the University of Western Australia.

The pictures

The exhibition consists of only 200 photographs from the UBC collection. “These photographs were made to glorify 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 are unaltered and unedited. Where possible, the curators have titled the photographs using the same titles assigned by the people who filed and stored them.


Previously unseen picture of Idi Amin cutting a cake on his birthday, surrounded by family and friends. PHOTO | UGANDA MUSEUM | UBC

But for many Ugandans, the 1970s was a violent, dangerous, and perilous time. According to the curators, there is very little in the UBC archive that directly shows the history of violence of the times.

As many as 300,000 people died in the regime's hands, but this violence — the torture and murder of dissidents, criminals, and others who fell foul of the state — largely took place out of public view. There are no traces of it in the UBC archive.

The politics of cultural life and govt as curator

The curators of The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin say they too don’t know why the photos were taken and never printed.

“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,” said Dr Peterson.

Idi Amin placed sports – football, boxing and wrestling – at the centre of public life. But out of the public eye, behind prison walls and in police cells, there was 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, inflation rose dramatically, bringing with it a thriving magendo culture (smuggling and the black market).

Amin responded by establishing the State Trading Corporation with a legal monopoly over the import and export of commodities and fixing of prices for all goods.

With it came the Economic Crimes Tribunal, presided over by military judges with powers to investigate and prosecute those who acted against the economic interests of the state.

Smuggling, overcharging, and hoarding were punishable by death by firing squad. Public flogging was common.

There are several dozen photographs in the UBC archive on this, but with no accompanying names.

The curators note that it is impossible to know how many people were arrested for infractions against Amin’s decrees.

But still photography and moving film captured the public process of indictment – the production of evidence, the interrogation of the accused and the punishment of the guilty. This happened in public.

“The photos displayed here were created as an aspect of the effort to document crime. You, the viewer, are meant to sit in judgment of the people whose are pictured here. That is what these photographs do: They made crimes visible,” the curators say.