The unseen archive of Idi Amin

A trove of unprinted photographs and other media from the Idi Amin years in Uganda is now available for public view giving us insight to the concerns of the regime and realities of living under his rule.

H.E. opens Jjajja Marina. 24 July 1975.

The recent discovery of a major archive at the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC) in Kampala is shedding new light on the photographic practices, and wider media engagements, of the Idi Amin regime (which was in power from 1971-79). The archive includes more than 70,000 photographic negatives, several hundred hours of radio records, and one hundred film reels, the majority of which were produced by the many official photographers, and other media professionals, who worked under Amin’s Ministry of Information.

Black Americans meet H.E. 11 August 1975. The delegation included Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Idi Amin came to power on 25th January 1971, following a military coup against President Milton Obote. Amin enjoyed calling his regime a “government of action,” and he regularly launched public campaigns aimed at transforming Uganda’s economy and society. The most notorious of these was the “Economic War,” which began in August 1972 with the summary expulsion of the country’s Asian community. As many as 80,000 Ugandans of Asian descent—many of whom had lived in Uganda for generations—had to flee the country within 90 days. Beyond the public eye, the Amin regime was even more brutal still: during the 1970s, as many as 300,000 Ugandans died in prison barracks, police cells, and government-run torture chambers. Amin was eventually overthrown in April 1979, following an invasion led by the army of Tanzania.

By the time the archive was unearthed, in 2015, very few of the photographic negatives had ever been printed. Although all of the negatives had been developed and carefully placed into wax envelopes (each meticulously labeled with information about the date and subject of its images), very few of the images were ever used to produce actual photographs. They were never displayed, or published, in any forum. This was, quite literally, an unseen archive.

H.E. opens Jjajja Marina. 24 July 1975.

In January 2018, UBC Managing Director Winston Agaba launched a project to digitize this unique collection of photographic negatives, as well as the Corporation’s holdings of radio and film reels. With funding and technical support from the University of Michigan and the University of Western Australia, the UBC’s dedicated team of archivists has to date digitalized around 25,000 of the negatives, as well as several dozen of the radio reels, and some of the film reels. It is hoped that this project will be the forerunner to a project that will create a much larger digital national media archive for Uganda.

51st Birthday of H.E. 1 Jan. 1979.

In May 2019, an exhibition of 150 of the recently digitalized images opened at the Uganda Museum in Kampala, curated by the authors of this article. The exhibition—entitled The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin: Photographs from the Uganda Broadcasting Corporatione—will be open in Kampala until the end of 2019, after which it will move on to venues in several municipalities around Uganda (including to Arua, Mbarara, and Soroti), before traveling to international museums and galleries. A series of publications relating to the archive, including a photo book based on its contents, are also coming soon. So what do these previously unseen photographs reveal about the position of photography in Amin’s Uganda?

Smugglers of elephants tusks. 21 August 1975.

Firstly, the sheer volume of negatives found here demonstrate the great emphasis that both Amin, and his senior officials, placed upon having all of their public engagements—including everything from their political rallies, to their visits with foreign dignitaries, to their many development “drives” (which were a regular undertaking for Amin’s “government of action”)—documented photographically. The fact that so few of the resulting images were ever printed or published suggests that the role of the photographers here was primarily performative. It was the presence of the cameraman that was consequential, not the pictures that he generated.

International Year for the Child. 1 Jan. 1979.

Yet even if the photographs weren’t destined for printing or publication, the men who took them (all of the photographers were men) nevertheless worked either directly for the Ministry of Information, or under its accreditation. As a result, the images tend to represent Amin and his associates in a generally positive light; in ways that offer an elevated view of his government, and of its “achievements.” As curators of the exhibition, we were mindful that we did not want to display the photos here in ways which might reinforce this more propagandistic dimension of the imagery. In response, we held a series of participatory workshops at Makerere University (chaired by Derek Peterson), and in rural South-western Uganda (at anthropologist Richard Vokes’ long-term field site), in which Ugandan audiences were invited to respond to the digitalized images, and to share ideas about how they might be exhibited in ways that would deprive them of their proclamatory power.

Archbishop Janani Luwum with President Amin. Assassinated on 17 February 1977.

In the end, we decided that the best way to do this was to display the exhibition in two halves. In the first half, the photographs are laid out as a timeline, which presents images of grand state events, yet also includes portraits of the Amin regime’s victims, organized according to the date on which they were killed. This layout is meant to remind viewers about the reality of violence that undergirded the public life of the 1970s. In the second half of the exhibition, we have highlighted particular episodes from Amin’s Uganda—the expulsion of the Asian community, the Economic Crimes Tribunal, and the crackdown on magendo (“black-marketeering”)—in which innocent people became victims of the regime. At the end of the exhibition, we have also put on display images made by the photographers of the Uganda National Liberation Front government (which came to power following the overthrow of the Amin government in 1979). The UNLF photographs include pictures of the torture chambers that were used by Amin’s notorious intelligence agency: the State Research Bureau.

H.E. at a press conference in Command Post. 20 June 1973.

The curators conceive of this exhibition at the Uganda Museum as a starting point, and a work-in-progress, rather than a final product. We hope that later exhibitions—including the ones that are already scheduled for Ugandan regional centers, and international venues—might include additional photographs, and other audio-visual material, to develop a more fully representative view of the experience of ordinary Ugandans in the 1970s, including of the friends and families of the approximately 300,000 Ugandans who lost their lives at the hands of the Amin regime.

If any readers of this article have photographs, or other materials, that they would be willing to share with us for this purpose, then please contact us at: [email protected]

About the Author

Richard Vokes is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Western Australia.

Derek R. Peterson is Professor of History and African Studies at the University of Michigan.

Edgar Taylor is a Post-doctoral Fellow in Historical Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

Nelson Abiti is Curator for Ethnology and History at the Uganda Museum and a PhD candidate at the University of the Western Cape.

Further Reading