Robocop and Bin Laden in Uganda
In Kampala, Nasser Road has become an iconic site of entrepreneurial printing, most famously, its ubiquitous posters of notorious political figures like Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.
Kampala’s Nasser Road—or ku-Nassa as it is known in Luganda—is widely known as the center of Uganda’s printing industry, printing anything from school reports to posters. The posters deal with a variety of subjects ranging from music and movie artists, to hair styles for hair salons.
One type of poster stands out: those focusing on politics. They provide commentary on both national and international events. They are striking in a number of ways: they display images of international figures many regard as villains, such as Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Then, there’s their aesthetics, which are a mixture of images copied from the internet and flashy colors showing Hollywood action figures such as Robocop or Rambo, that only national and international politicians replace their faces.
The posters are both tragic and humorous. They sometimes display graphic images of these politicians’ deaths. Overall, their core theme is the common man fighting the powers that be. They celebrate international villains as heroes fighting Western imperialism, and show them as superheroes taking part in local political struggles. And, these superheroes play a role in the wider region: the posters are distributed and sold in Eastern Congo and South Sudan who use Nasser Road as their printing press.
Together with playwright and columnist Yusuf Serumkuma and photographers Badru Katumba and Zahara Abdul, I provide an overview of Nasser Road and its posters in my newly edited publication. The book in particular attempts to understand the posters’ multilayered nature of influences, each of these influences leaving their imprint.
First, striking as they are, the posters are not unique in using figures such as Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. Rather, these figures are used worldwide as global icons of dissent. For example, Bin Laden’s likeness on posters, stickers, key holders, and many other artifacts have been documented in Nigeria and Malaysia, as well as in Kenya, Thailand, and Mexico, accompanied by slogans such as “vote for Osama,” “superpower Osama,” or “Osama is our hero.”
For many, these posters are primarily symbols signifying anti-imperialism. Rather than engaging in any religious message or the violence of these men, they act as vessels for local frustrations, in the name of the “rejection of, or resistance to, global structures of power and hegemonic systems such as colonialism, imperialism, and capitalist exploitation.”
The use of these figures can equally be understood as a form of role reversal to contest power structures: for their designers and for the buyers of these posters, Saddam and Bin Laden become the warriors, while global hegemons like American presidents are cast as the tyrants. In the words of one poster designer, “Saddam … was the small guy standing up to the mighty United States. He was standing up to imperial forces; he was defending the small guy.”
Visually, a process of local appropriation or mimesis creates these posters. On the one hand, the posters use Hollywood action heroes such as Robocop or Rambo, and iconic images of Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. On the other hand, the designers produce them creatively: the downloading, copying, adjusting, reassembling, and reappropriation of these global figures’ images—both politically and aesthetically—results in their often humorous creation.
In this way, the posters are also very much a product of Nasser Road. The name of this street grew to mythical proportions in Uganda, not only for its printing business but also for its reputation as a center associated with fraud. Nicknamed “Uganda’s Silicon Valley” by some of the designers, it’s a place where anything can be found or made: fake academic transcripts, identity cards, tax slips, all the way up to fake currencies. According to one designer, “you name it, we make it.” As Yusuf Serunukuma argues productively in his newspaper columns and in my book, people perceive these acts as the “revenge of the common man.” Common men taking revenge against the nepotistic and convoluted structures which offer them little choice but to seek alternative modes to officially reproduce themselves.
In this way, the posters have to be understood in the context of the street. We must understand them through their use of uncredited and unsourced images downloaded from the internet. This attitude reflects a broader acceptance of the realities of digital appropriation. In turn, the posters themselves are copied, shared, adjusted, copied again, and so on. Because of this practice, designers have developed a kind of common aesthetic, and many of their posters make use of the same elements. As can be seen throughout the posters featured in my edited publication, this makes them recognizable. The common elements imbue them with a degree of homogeneity. The aesthetic isn’t isolated; Uganda’s film industry, popularly known as Wakaliwood, displays surprising similarities (after Wakaliga, the neighborhood in which it is located).
At the same time, the posters also feature national political figures: President Museveni, as well as opposition figures such as Kiiza Besigye and Bobi Wine. Similar to their international counterparts, the posters display these local leaders as more-than-human military figures. Not only do they reference Hollywood action films, they also reference the dominance of the military in Uganda’s polity.
Jude Kagoro has, for example, shown how military aesthetics play an important role for popular Ugandan musicians, who frequently perform while sporting military uniforms or weapons. The depiction of President Museveni can be understood in this context: he is Uganda’s liberation fighter, larger than life, hybridized into a Hollywood-esque action figure—a combination of pop and political cultures; he references both Hollywood action films and Ugandan political history. The same holds for the depiction of Bobi Wine—but in his case, his aesthetics is militarized in order to take on the political system. The posters’ potential for political messaging and use doesn’t go unnoticed by the authorities. On several occasions, security agencies raid Nasser Road and confiscate its stock of (opposition) posters. They typically do this at politically contentious moments.
Lastly, the posters are also very much a commercial product: Local entrepreneurs in the printing and graphic design industry are continuously looking for hot news items. They look to print these news items on a variety of media to boost their sales—and controversial political figures are a particularly attractive option here. This also means that they are continuously evolving, looking for new options and drawing from sources. Local entrepreneurs use techniques of humor and fabulism to reject hegemonic narratives.