Archives: Governance, Memory, and Heritage - Uganda's Path to Truth-seeking and Accountability

Uganda's journey towards truth-seeking and accountability has been slow moving and significantly hindered by the poor traction and management of its archives and records. Yet repositories of information remain invaluable for remembering and understanding the past, addressing historical injustices, and promoting transparency in governance. This is important because memory is deliberate; it needs to be remembered and stored. Our recall of the past frequently changes with obtaining situations. Yet in Uganda archival and records valorization has been marked by  inefficiencies  and exacerbated by Uganda’s rich history of oral tradition and storytelling, which primarily relied on collective memory and the wisdom of elders to preserve heritage and maintain accountability. Yet the transmission of cultural values, norms, and wisdom from older generation and younger generation has waned due to changes in cultural practices, diminution of homestead campfire systems due to depletion of firewood, and impact of technology on family routines and practices. Subsequently, the transmission of Uganda’s histories and practices has lacked a sense of truth and common history.  Preservation of memory protects us from because we are normally incapable of remembering the whole of the past which remains capable of being augmented.  Individuals often remember shreds and fragments of experience shaped by their particular circumstances.  Elements of histories that are remembered, survived or vanquished, the oppressed and suppressed, the forgotten and buried traces of pains and struggles are as much as part of history as those which triumphed, prevailed and succeeded. Victories and defeats, joys and sufferings always remain part and parcel of common and individual histories. Preserving the sense of wholeness makes us authentic stewards and bearers of personal and shared histories grounded in truth telling.  Speaking the truth always remain decisive in the construction of common liberative narratives or stories we tell about ourselves and others that make possible fraternal comprehension or a universal community possible.

It is in this sense that in recognizing the importance of preserving its historical heritage, Uganda established the Uganda National Archives (UNA) in 1963. This institution aimed to collect, preserve, and provide access to official records, manuscripts, and other valuable historical documents. The 1995 Constitution of Uganda underpins the legislative framework supporting this institution, including:

  • Records and Archives Act (2001): This legislation provides the legal basis for records and archives management in Uganda. It outlines the responsibilities of public institutions, mandates the creation of records management programs, and emphasizes the importance of preserving records for future generations. The Act also establishes the National Records and Archives Advisory Board to provide guidance and oversight.
  • National Records and Archives Policy (2014): This policy serves as a roadmap for effective records and archives management across the country. It emphasizes integrating records management into administrative processes, promoting digital preservation, and ensuring access to information for accountability and transparency.

Despite these efforts, Uganda's history has seen instances where valuable records were deliberately destroyed during transitions of power. For instance: During Idi Amin's regime (1971-1979), widespread human rights abuses and political repression led to the intentional destruction of many records to suppress evidence and hinder potential future accountability. Similarly, Milton Obote's regime (1980-1985) saw the targeted destruction of records related to human rights abuses and corruption following the 1985 coup to protect the regime’s interests and prevent exposure of perpetrators of wrongdoing. In the post-conflict transitions after the over two-decade-long Lord's Resistance Army insurgency in northern Uganda, records documenting human rights violations, forced displacements, and mass killings remained at risk of destruction in order to obfuscate and erase evidence of atrocities and hinder truth-telling and justice processes.

To address these challenges, providing an enabling environment for existing and new archives and records management institutions is crucial. Preservation efforts remain essential for safeguarding historical information, preserving cultural heritage, maintaining authenticity, ensuring long-term accessibility, supporting sustainable knowledge management, and mitigating against potential loss and destruction of valuable evidence and records for building a common future of hope that transform communities in Uganda. By prioritizing preservation, archives fulfill their mission of preserving the past, deliberately protecting memories, enabling truth-telling, promoting accountability, and facilitating the understanding of our shared history and construction of a promising future of peaceful coexistence.

In recognition of these needs, the Refugee Law Project successfully launched Uganda's first digital archive on International Human Rights Day in 2021. The RLP Digital Archive, soon to be opened for public access, aims to create a platform for sharing experiences and testimonies regarding the past legacies of conflicts in Uganda. This archive platform is expected to make significant contributions to the national transitional justice agenda. Uganda's National Transitional Justice Policy (NTJP), passed in June 2019, highlights the importance of building and maintaining archives, emphasizing their roles in in the following ways:

Archives play a critical role in preserving collective memory by providing comprehensive and authentic accounts of historical events, enabling societies to confront their past, acknowledge injustices, and foster national healing and reconciliation. They support truth-telling and justice by serving as crucial evidence in truth commissions, trials, and mechanisms addressing human rights violations, thereby allowing victims to seek justice and holding perpetrators accountable. Access to archival records enhances transparency and good governance, as studying past records helps citizens and policymakers make informed decisions and manage public resources responsibly. Additionally, archives assist in healing and trauma recovery by offering personal testimonies, documents, and photographs related to traumatic events, validating personal narratives, and helping individuals process their experiences. Moreover, archives house primary source materials essential for in-depth research, allowing researchers to gain firsthand insights into historical events, social conditions, and individual experiences.

Despite the numerous challenges Uganda's archives and records management system faces, including inadequate funding, limited support from the state, insufficient infrastructure, lack of trained personnel, and intentional destruction of records, the country has embarked on reforms to strengthen these practices. Indeed, the introduction of the Records and Archives Act in 2001 marked a significant milestone, providing a legal framework for managing archives and records in both the public and private sectors.

Archives play a vital role in Uganda’s truth-seeking and truth-telling and accountability efforts. The country’s archives and records management policies reflect Uganda’s commitment to preserving historical and spiritual heritage and promoting illuminating freedom. By recognizing the importance of archives in truth-telling, Uganda takes significant steps toward healing, reconciliation, and promoting a more transparent and accountable society that true community of enlightened people that deepen the participatory experience of human solidarity and dignity of every human being.

Innocent Oling is the focal point person for our Digital Archiving and the Field Office Coordinator for RLPs Gulu Office

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