Some events demand a monument

Amin was said to keep the heads of his victims fresh in a fridge to be brought out so he could scold

Luxury hotels have been springing up like mushrooms since Uganda's capital was picked to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting from 23-25 November, in preparation for the VIPs and hangers-on such get-togethers attract. None is more lavish than the vast Serena, whose sand-coloured hulk sprawls across a hillside in central Kampala. The 152-room monster, decorated with mosaics, ironwork and carved wooden panels, is actually a $30m refurbishment of a 30-year-old building, though the revamp has been so extensive that it's hard to reconcile this waterfall-dotted, palm tree-garlanded extravaganza with what went before.

The Nile Hotel was a starker building, with a stark past - as Idi Amin's living quarters in the 1970s. The dictator was said to keep the heads of his victims fresh in a fridge there, to be brought out so he could scold them while he dined. In the 1980s, under Milton Obote, Amin's even more brutal successor, it remained a place of horror. The opposition leader Kizza Besigye spent two months being tortured in Room 211. Unlike many of the hotel's "guests" of that era, he survived.

Staying there in the 1990s was a slightly creepy experience - probably why the Nile's rooms were so affordable. You wondered what had happened in your room, and whether the carpet stains were everyday grubbiness or something more sinister. Elderly Ugandans raised an eyebrow when I mentioned where I was staying, confessing they couldn't walk past the hotel without a shudder.

All that has been obliterated in favour of "an in spi rational blend of five-star polish and pan-African panache", says the gushy Serena website, "drawing its architectural inspiration from the abundance of Uganda's lakes and rivers".

You can understand why no one felt like saving the tatty old Nile; the violence felt very recent, very raw. But the commercial potential of this prime real estate was too lip-smacking to ignore. Yet a historic opportunity has been missed. The Nile could have been turned into a memorial to those who died in Amin's and Obote's ravages. Just as Rwanda has turned the schools and churches where its genocide took place in 1994 into museums and shrines, Uganda could have made the Nile part of a national attempt to come to terms with a largely unmarked past.

The same failure to mark recent history is seen across the continent, sometimes for obvious political reasons. History is written by the victors, and when that reality jars with the victors' vision of events, it tends not to get written up at all. But that explanation doesn't always apply. It would surely be in the Namibian government's interest to remind its citizens and foreign visitors of the Herero and Nama genocide of 1904-07. Instead, it is content to let the statues and museums built by the Germans tell their mendacious story. You would think Uganda's current president, Yoweri Museveni, widely criticised for failing to exit the political stage, would seize an opportunity to remind his citizens of just how dreadful life got under his predecessors. But no.

Even when there is political capital to be made, Africans rarely go in for plaques, museums, statues and commemorative sites. Maybe the traumas of the past hundred years are still too fresh. Maybe the leadership is too busy coping with the challenges of the present. Probably these artefacts simply feel, on a continent where history was traditionally relayed orally, like very western methods of passing on human experience.

It is a shame, though, because however alien such forms of commemoration remain, African schools and colleges will always require places to tour with their bright-eyed pupils, and aspirational African parents somewhere to take their brood on a rainy Sunday afternoon. As the profit motive quietly erases sites such as the Nile Hotel from the map, what remains will be monuments left by colonial authorities, or those designed by well-meaning outsiders second-guessing what an African audience wants to see.

The latter point was brought home at a spirited meeting of the Kenya Museum Society. Nairobi Museum had closed for refurbishment and the society was debating a proposed redesign. One member slammed it as "Mussolinian"; another found it bland - almost everyone felt it lacked feeling for the country's history and culture. Surreally, the agonising came from an audience comprised overwhelmingly of whites and Ken yan Asians. The society, like many such organisations, struggles to attract black members.

The new-look museum was due to reopen this month, but there's been a hold-up. The glass for the display cases has not been delivered. Nairobi is also in the throes of a frenzied building boom, and developers get first dibs on supplies. Once again, capitalism triumphs over conservation.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China