Revisiting Idi Amin: Man, Myth, and Memory

AHA Session 42
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Wilson Room A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Nancy Rose Hunt, University of Michigan
Nancy Rose Hunt, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

Nearly a decade ago, Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia after living there for 24 years in exile. The Ugandan government denied him a state funeral, and President Yoweri Museveni said that he would “not shed a tear” over the death of the notorious former president of Uganda. Internationally, obituaries were quick to cast Amin as a bloodthirsty tyrant. The popular film, “The Last King of Scotland,” cemented the image of Amin as the singularly ruinous force in postcolonial Uganda—paranoid, violent, and instrumental in unraveling the Ugandan economy.

While Idi Amin may be a symbol of postcolonial degradation for lay audiences and some historians of Africa alike, he remains a contested figure in Uganda. Following these ongoing local debates from pub to Parliament, a new generation of scholars is beginning to reconsider the meaning of everyday life under Idi Amin. Historians are turning their attention to governmentality in Amin’s Uganda, to the ways in which ordinary Ugandans shaped—rather than merely persevered through—Amin’s administration, and to Amin’s contested legacy for subsequent generations of Ugandans. In this work, they have been encouraged by the recent opening of government and private archives in Uganda, as well as the discovery of field sites suited for historical ethnography, such as hospitals and border towns.

Uganda’s current government has discouraged reflection on the past except as a source of a pain and degradation to be overcome or as a site of depoliticized culture embodied in historic kingdoms. However, such a vision of the past is hardly hegemonic in Uganda. A range of Ugandans today invoke Idi Amin as a nationalist hero, defender of indigenous political traditions, and advocate of African economic empowerment. For many Ugandans, Amin’s image is an object of cultural intimacy, as well as a source of external embarrassment. He is a “mwanainchi,” or common person, and a source of ambivalent nostalgia for African empowerment.

This panel brings together scholars studying diverse aspects of Ugandan society in the 1970s, all of whom share a concern with the production of knowledge on this era in the midst of ongoing debates and struggles over the meanings and memories of Idi Amin. The papers argue that these discussions occurred in across public and private sites in 1970s Uganda and beyond. Discussing memories of the Asian expulsions, Edgar Taylor's paper contextualizes how Idi Amin is understood in present day Uganda. Derek Peterson’s paper on a widely circulated cartoon strip in the Voice of Uganda, argues that comedy was a critical tool for critiquing the disintegration of the state and the erosion of moral order in Idi Amin’s Uganda. In a very different public space, Marissa Mika demonstrates how a cancer ward became an arena for both the Africanization of biomedical research and government soldiers’ medical care. In private homes, Holly Hanson shows how Ugandans tried to mediate and moderate threats of sexual violence and violation in the 1970s. We hope this panel will be a much needed step in reimagining the legacies of Idi Amin.

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