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The creation of both Uganda and its banknotes are relatively recent constructs and this explains why most issues can be obtained at modest prices. Further, in the mid- seventies, the Bank of Uganda sold off many obsolete notes (some were in top grades and others were not). So, even today, many denominations cannot fetch twenty pounds and several more are below two pounds fifty pence.

The early issues, including those of the East African Currency board, were impeccably printed (in English & Swahili) by Thomas de la Rue while the later notes were from a competent Swedish printer, ensuring the banknotes are of high quality with considered designs and balanced colours.

The infamous Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times!” might seem apt for Uganda. The country was formed around the Kingdom of Buganda, (on Lake Victoria) by the paternalistic British in 1893, becoming a Republic seventy years later under the Presidency of the Kabake of Buganda, Mutese II (1924-69).

After less than three years the “roof fell in” and Mutese II was arrested. The
un-orthodox structure of the state was, surely, to blame. The Bugandans were operating as a separate state within Uganda, leaving others tribal groups feeling they were treated as outsiders and second or third class citizens. The continued friction produced the heat to make the tribes fractious, resurrecting the old tribal jealousies.

The arrest warrant itself was issued by the young and ambitious, Milton Obote (born 1924 and died 2005). As to be expected, this caused bad feeling and unrest occurred. Civil wars are wont to be harsh with a bitter randomness and this war unerringly conformed to that pattern.

The only winners seemed to be Milton Obote, who became Prime Minister (and then President) and his supporters. Obote’s motif was a ‘hand’ which appears as the watermark of many of the banknotes issued when he was President.

So, the early days were harsh with much rioting and unrest. Very soon Obote started to line his pockets and became distracted so he was not ready for the coup led by the charismatically cheerful Idi Dada Amin, whose past history included storing some of the body parts of his ‘enemies’. Amin was born in Kopolo in 1925 and, by 1966 was Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

Initially the western press saw Amin as a harmless eccentric, and they focussed on the fact that he was a cheerful ex-heavyweight boxing champion, but, as information trickled through regarding Idi’s excesses, it became apparent that despite his warm chuckle, that he sought only to please his base constituency, the Bugandan population.

The British had found, many years before their independence, that few Africans felt called to become civil servants. Accordingly, the British imported, from Asia, these vital servants of the modern government. The Asians prospered, becoming an integral part of Ugandan Government with ‘white collar’ wages whilst the Africans learnt to resent being in ‘third place’ in their own country.

So, at a time when Amin was falling out with even his natural supporters, he made all Asians leave Uganda for the UK which caused a great uproar.

The skilled Asians were humiliated. Amin refused to redeem their Ugandan paper money (the first series was still in circulation). Nevertheless the Asians soon found their feet in the U K whilst Amin failed to find skilled civil servants of similar calibre. Thus it was that the Ugandan Civil Service became much less efficient.

Amin, who had the Archbishop of Kampala killed for opposing him, was in turn, physically ejected from office by a re-energised Milton Obote who had won Tanzanian backing. Amin was forced to flee to Arab sympathisers who kept him on the tightest leash until his death.

Obote failed to discern Uganda’s economic weakness and once again was far too free with the country’s revenues. He believed in a bottomless pit of money and for this belief he was deposed, in turn, by Military coup in 1985.

The leader of the Army coup was Yoweri Museveni (1944-present date). He is a much less colourful personality but, as he rose to power via the army, has a stronger powerbase by far. He has now been Dictator for 22 years.

Museveni was thought to be a great improvement over previous African leaders; urbane and educated, he was considered by many eager Western and Asian donors as one of a new generation of African leaders but, at the end of 2005, Museveni used the army to prevent Kizza Besigye from challenging for the Presidency of Uganda. Besigye was put on trial on charges, including rape, and was taken to the highest Court in the land.

At his trial, alongside his main supporters and associates, the highest Judge in the land offered all the defendants bail which each in his turn refused! The refusal was stimulated by the knowledge that the court room was surrounded by tight-lipped ‘heavies’ in civilian clothes, carrying loaded machine guns. Bail did not look too healthy to the defendants.

The Judge was outraged by this show of force and asked who these men might be and an Army spokesman claimed these men were from the anti-terrorist unit. At the next hearing, however, these same men were dressed in their customary police uniforms leaving the Judge to gauge just how little respect they had for the power of his Court. The brave Judge complained that this equated to the worst excesses of the Amin era and that press freedom was dying (as the press had failed to mention any irregularities). This judge certainly did not lack courage. Museveni was helped by the World Bank who feared that if he fell, Uganda could descend into chaos, a chaos which could infect immediate neighbours and beyond.

The Kabake, Mutesi II did not last long enough to have a banknote issue of his own and the old East African Currency board notes had to suffice. Milton Obote had the pleasure of having the first Ugandan issue, with the watermark bearing his logo of the ‘hand’.

It was an elaborate and tasteful design from Thomas de la Rue with each denomination having a totally different style of border which could have looked disjointed but had just enough to tie each note together. The notes therefore would not be confused with each other easily.

The five shillings blue, ten shillings brown and the twenty shillings purple all carry the Ugandan shield; the hundred shillings green favoured the crowned crane with an engraving of the Bank of Uganda on the reverse.

These notes were followed by the notes portraying a uniformed Amin on the front. The five shillings, pink and blue, portrayed a girl picking coffee beans, the ten shillings beige and brown with Ugandan animals portrayed against high plateaus, the twenty shillings darker brown with a different view of the Bank of Uganda, and the hundred shillings note sporting a view of water and fields.

The 1979 issues were under Milton Obote’s second leadership so, in order to speed up the notes’ production, the reverses were kept as under Amin and the front had an engraving of the bank building instead of Idi Amin.

In 1982, new issues with different colours were printed with the map of Uganda, overlaid with the Ugandan Coat of Arms. The denominations were five shillings green, ten shillings purple and the twenty shillings green, crimson and multicoloured. The new fifty shillings was now coloured orange, brown and multicoloured and the one hundred shillings was red, violet and multicoloured (the last two carried signature variations).

It could not have been a complete surprise to the higher echelons of Ugandan society who witnessed Obote’s profligacy, that additionally, the five hundred blue, the thousand shillings red and the five thousand shillings were introduced, in a large size. The watermark was once again his ‘hand’.
The 1986 issue under Museveni replaced Obote’s portrait with the national shield and the watermark with that of the crested crane to cover the period until the new notes could be ordered. This was fulfilled with the arrival of the smaller African 1987 series which ran up to 200 shillings as the highest note. These all feature animals or the bank, the high court, a large granary or the Owen Falls dam, a major hydroelectric plant.

In 1991, two necessary denominations of 500 hundred and 1,000 shillings emerged to replace the 1986 notes which were far too large. The first carries a magnificent bull elephant and the second portrays farmers.

The 1993 series are similar but have an ascending serial number at the left and run from 500 shillings up to 10,000 shillings in 2003.

In 1999/2002 they added extra security features on the 1000, 5000, & 10,000 shillings as the inflationary pressures grow and access to colour photocopiers to fraudsters increased. The 2003-5 initial notes were the 1,000, 5,000, 1,000, 20,000 and 50,000 shillings which is probably a signal that another issue of “new shillings” will soon emerge. These new notes carry the ‘Crowned crane’ et cetera but with even tougher security features.

So, as you can see, Uganda has a very colourful past and banknotes to match which makes it a very interesting Country to collect indeed.

View some notes from Uganda on the site here:


Kate Gibson

Last updated 27/04/2008