Idi Amin: Death-Light of Africa

A few years ago, I read a handful of books about Uganda during the Idi Amin period for an article I was writing about representations of Amin in films like The Last King of Scotland (MacDonald, 2006) and Idi Amin Dada (Schroeder, 1974). Some of the books were histories and others were contemporary accounts. David Gwyn’s Idi Amin: Death-Light of Africa was my favourite out of all of them.

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Idi Amin was the president of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. Charismatic, egomaniacal and ruthless, he was a natural politician. As the Wikipedia article about him succinctly states, his rule was “characterised by human rights abuse, political repression, ethnic persecution, extrajudicial killings, nepotism, corruption, and gross economic mismanagement.”

Although this is hardly the best best way to do it, I chose my reading material by going to the local university library, taking out all the books they had about Uganda in the 1970s, and reading each one until I finished it or got too bored to continue. I ended up with five or six books and read all but one to the end. Of those, one was an excellent, albeit dry, account of Amin’s rise to power, his years as Ugandan leader, and his subsequent fall and life in exile, and the others, whether published in the late 1970s, early 1980s or more recently, were shallow rehashes of the same information with a personal element sometimes thrown in. And then there was David Gwyn.

I liked Gwyn’s book as soon as I picked it up because it had the compound noun “Death-Light” in the title. Here, I thought, is already evidence of creativity, a quality that many historians have as researchers and analysts, but that often escapes them once they start writing. (Death-light, incidentally, is quite rare as a compound noun. Google brings up a few hits, but “death light” is the more common hit.)

I discovered next that David Gwyn was the pseudonym of a British government worker who had been working in Uganda from before its independence in 1961 to at least the early years of Amin’s reign. The book’s publication date also fit into my burgeoning timeline. It was published in 1977, the same year that Britain broke its relations with Uganda and that Amin declared himself the conqueror of the British Empire, adding the title CBE to his name, and one year before the start of the events that ultimately brought Amin down. So here was a book by a man in the thick of it published at a time when it still hadn’t been decided. I read on with curiosity.

I knew that I wasn’t reading a historical analysis. Many of the facts were still unknown, and some of the events that newer books about Amin focus on hadn’t happened yet, but Idi Amin: Death-Light of Africa also wasn’t a personal story or a journalistic account. It was something that borrowed elements from all three: a polite but thorough and organised indictment of a regime by a witness from Uganda who wrote with the concise artfulness that I often associate with English authors like George Orwell and Graham Greene.

Today, there is little practical reason for anyone to read Gwyn’s book. A student interested in history will pick a newer monograph. A person looking for non-fiction will pick a more purely journalistic or “human” narrative.

Yet if you’re ever in the library, looking for books on a broad topic and you’re not really sure what to get, don’t ignore the old, the strange and the dusty. Open their covers and read a page or two. The words you’re reading—somebody wrote them. A person was alive and decided they had both something to say and a way to say it. Even if the information in the book is incomplete or inaccurate (although just because a book is old doesn’t make it inaccurate), there may still be plenty of value left among its sentences, arranged one after the other, awaiting communication…

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