In luxury hotel, a window on Uganda's bid to forget its troubled past

The former Nile Hotel was once a stomping ground for Uganda's dictators. But like in the rest of the country, much work has been put in to forget that history. Presidential election results are expected Saturday.

REUTERS/James Akena
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni (with file) and National Resistance Movement (NRM) party presidential candidate shakes hands with Amama Mbabazi former prime minister and the The Democratic Alliance (TDA) presidential candidate during presidential debate held in the Serena Hotel in the capital Kampala February 13, 2016.

There are few photos that so neatly capture the zeitgeist of a time as the shot of former Ugandan president Idi Amin arriving at Kampala’s Nile Hotel for a diplomatic reception in July of 1975.

In the picture, carried by newspapers around the globe, Amin’s 280-pound bulk is held aloft by four white men with frozen grins.

Amin dubbed the stunt the “white man’s burden,” a gleeful inversion of the 19th-century British poem extolling the noble necessity of the West’s colonial projects. By the time he was deposed by coup four years later, publicity stunts like this had sealed his legacy as one of the world’s most bewilderingly inventive dictators, a man whose staggering cruelty seemed matched only by his outsized flair for showboating.

In Kampala, that complicated legacy became synonymous with the hotel that Amin was carried into in 1975 – the site of both infamous torture chambers and glitzy parties, where the president routinely kept dissidents locked in one room while feting diplomats in the next. The Nile Hotel was so beloved to Amin that he sometimes claimed to have been born on the site where it was built.

But over the past four decades, the hotel has undergone a quiet transformation, one that mirrors the country’s own ambivalent relationship to its scarred past. Today, well-to-do visitors come to the Nile – now a chain luxury hotel called the Serena – to eat salmon and baked Alaska in its leafy courtyard, or gaze out over the congested city from one of its $300 a night suites.

In neighboring Rwanda, a macabre tourist industry has sprung up specializing in  genocide memorials – churches filled with bloodied clothing, bones stacked neatly in underground crypts. But in Uganda, the discovery during hotel renovations of three skeletons buried in the basement brought a scramble to cover up the story, lest their hotel take on such a grim association.

 “It is a practice of our regimes here to try to erase any legacies or memories of the regimes they have overthrown,” says Deo Katono, chair of the department of history, archeology, and organizational studies at Makerere University in Kampala. “As part of their attempt to legitimize themselves they try to eliminate any outward public symbols of what came before them.”

In fact, as he points out, Uganda has few post-colonial public memorials, and nearly nothing– schools, hospitals, streets – is named for the military dictators who preceded President Yoweri Museveni, as though history began anew the day he came to power in 1986.

And as Uganda prepares for the results Saturday of its presidential election – which Mr. Museveni is expected to win handily – that narrative has been as useful as a thousand campaign rallies. Across the country, Museveni's grandfatherly face beams down from campaign posters bearing a pithy message: Steady progress.

 “No one can disturb our peace,” Museveni promised at last week’s presidential debate, which was broadcast live from the conference center of the Serena Hotel. “We struggled against so many problems [and] we cannot allow anybody to … disturb our people. It's not acceptable.”

The promise was made from a symbolic vantage point – just below the president’s feet lay the labyrinth of basement offices where the security forces of Amin and fellow military dictator Milton Obote tortured and interrogated members of the opposition. The lawns outside were the same ones where, four decades earlier, a trio of high-ranking government officials accused of treason had been forced to confess before 3,000 soldiers chanting “Kill them! Kill them today!” 

Today, Museveni's government still makes regular use of the Serena, though largely for more prosaic purposes. He gives his annual State of the Nation Address there, and regularly books out the conference centre for official functions -- like the recent launch of a new addition of his autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda. (Opposition sources, however, have recently alleged a more nefarious use as well, claiming that Museveni is using the Serena as a vote rigging site in the current elections).

 But if the dark corners of the Serena’s history – like that of the country writ large – often go unremarked, it doesn’t mean they have been forgotten.

“I have never seen a ghost here, but I don’t rule it out,” a waiter in one of the Serena’s cafes says. Workers remember its history from their childhoods, and tend to avoid walking the grounds alone at night. Guests, too, have been affected. One TripAdvisor reviewer from 2011 noted that “no amount of renovation can ever erase the horrors hidden in its history.”   

And the Serena is not the only site in Kampala where the present has placed a fragile veneer over a troubled past. A constellation of Amin’s former torture centers dots the city and its surrounds – the ramshackle Makindye military barracks, the corpse-dumping grounds in the forest of Namanve, the Lubiri Palace. Of these, only the tunnel-like torture chamber at Lubiri is open to visitors. The rest, like the Serena, carry on with barely a nod to their past.

In part, this is pragmatism for people and a country attempting to move on, says Mr. Katono, the historian. But it’s also practical in a more basic way. Uganda is poor, its cities crowded. To turn every place with a violent history into a memorial would freeze the city itself. People here must tend to the basic necessities of their present lives before they can even think of preserving the past, he points out: “Is historical memory edible? No, unfortunately it’s not.”

Ryan Lenora Brown's reporting from Uganda was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation.

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