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Book Reviews

Book Review: Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency

altMuch about the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram is shrouded in mystery. Last week the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, claimed Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, was no longer the group’s leader and the man now in command was open to talks. Then day’s later Shekau released a recording saying he has not been replaced, helping further build the mystery.

Around 15,000 people have been killed in Boko Haram’s campaign of armed attacks, bombings, and kidnappings launched in 2003.

Virginia Comolli, a Research Fellow of the International Institute of Security Studies in London, gives a sound account of the rise of militant Islam in West Africa. Boko Haram is part of a long history of violent radical Islam in northern Nigeria that dates back to the jihad of Usman Dan Fodio. He began his holy war in 1804 and five years later established the Sokoto Caliphate, the most powerful West African state at the time. This is a considerable legacy on which jihadi groups can build inspiration.

The British governed through traditional rulers and permitted Sharia law, thereby helping defuse jihadi inspiration. But the seeds for jihadi mobilisation remained, and the Maitatsine uprising of the late 1970s and early 1980s was the first sizeable post-colonial confrontation of the Nigerian state with radical Islam.

Ideology and inspiration from the past combine with the splintering of Islamic groups, often driven by sheer charisma and the desire to gain political influence, to keep the strong jihadi tradition alive. Comolli casts doubt on the role of Islamic schools as an overwhelming driver, but does see the region’s rapid population growth rate and high youth unemployment, as well as the popular feeling that the North has been undermined by the South as key factors behind Boko Haram's growth.

Comolli also points out that the delayed campaign of the Nigerian security forces, which has often heavily relied on detention and torture, has contributed to the loss of hearts and minds.

Founded in 1995 at the University of Maiduguri, Boko Haram was initially a peaceful group, but new leadership seized control and put it onto a violent path in 2003. There are signs of splintering, with Ansaru, another jihadi group, being one known breakaway from Boko Haram.

Comolli admits she faced challenges in researching her topic. She was barred from talking to Boko Haram prisoners by the Nigerian authorities and had to rely heavily on government officials, NGOs, and academic research as sources. Interviews with present or past Boko Haram supporters, rather than relying so heavily on officials and heaps of academic research, would have made the book a gem.

Her book came out before a Northerner, General Muhammadu Buhari, was elected President, and promised to deal with the Boko Haram threat. Nevertheless she sees the campaign, as a long and difficult one, requiring a more subtle approach and close cooperation between Nigeria and its neighbours that share the threat - Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.

Her conclusion may well be sadly realistic – even if Boko Haram is crushed, a new version will rise to feed on grievances and inequality.

Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Hurst; 1 edition (June 1, 2015)
ISBN-10: 1849044910
ISBN-13: 978-1849044912


Book Review: Raising The Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa

Raising the Bar - Hope and Renewal in South Africa. Raising the Bar is Songezo Zibi’s first book and seeks to provide a thorough, accurate analysis on the different issues preventing South Africa from moving forward.

Zibi’s writing explores aspects of South African society by identifying challenges to the country’s development and examining possible solutions which would manage and eliminate these challenges.

The book’s focus is divided across a broad range of topics such as race, education, ethics, leadership, politics, government, violence, the role of women and social taboos within South African society.

Throughout the book Zibi makes reference to instances in his own personal life, grounding his writing. In examining race relations in South Africa he makes interesting observations, in some cases based on his personal experiences. He examines the notion of “blackness”, a hotly contested subject in South Africa and argues that the term is intellectually dead and must be rethought. Definition renewal should be sought by examining key ethical and social values within black society which should give rise to an autonomous term rather than one dependent on “what whites do or do not do”.

Zibi also argues for ethics-based transformation where he states that transformation should address social justice, rather than focus purely on race. He presents various examples in illustrating his view; one is that of a black chauvinistic man hired into a senior position, a move which does not represent transformation because our constitution is built on gender equality.

In a critical review of South Africa’s politics he argues that the country’s leaders have destroyed any trust the public had for them as a result of high levels of corruption and tax evasion. There is also a dire need for more formal education within the country’s leadership, an element which is severely lacking. Until leaders can emerge who are trustworthy, well-educated and have real vision the country will continue to face a crisis of leadership, he believes.

The author’s views on violence, women and taboos within South African society are fascinating; again, many of his arguments are grounded in his own memories growing up. He shows how South Africa’s violent society is in many ways grounded in a history of violence. Zibi examines this while also incorporating the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s views on objective violence and subjective violence. In South Africa for instance, the physical strike action of miners represents objective violence, however there is this consistent failure in engaging with the subjective violence of the story, namely the conditions in which they work. As South African society is also one of entrenched patriarchy there must be a directed attempt towards eradicating the belief that many men have regarding their superiority to women, Zibi says.

When it comes to cultural beliefs and taboos the book highlights how South Africans shy away from uncomfortable societal truths, such as how religious beliefs conflict with the constitution, truthful conversations about behaviour during the armed struggle and discussions on white privilege as a result of apartheid. The author believes that these kinds of taboo topics have to be addressed if we are to move the country forward.

Raising the Bar is an intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking book which seeks to answer the question: how can South Africa move forward? In his analysis Zibi provides insightful and strong arguments as to the country’s problems and how we can fix them. A great read for those wanting to expand their knowledge on making South Africa better and furthering the country’s development.


Sporting Soldiers: South African troops at play during World War I

Sporting Soldiers.For soldiers in the First World War, sport was a way for them to escape the horrors of the battlefield or the monotony and dreadful conditions of prison camps. Sport was a part of soldiers’ lives, yet it is a subject not often touched upon in the various accounts of the Great War.

Endgame: Book Review

Endgame is yet another addition to the growing number of titles exploring aspects of one of the seduction efforts that eventually led to the conception of a democratic South Africa.

Written by noted academic, Professor Willie Esterhuyse, who himself was one of the band of influential Afrikaner South Africans who had clandestine meetings with top ANC representatives in the early nineties, Endgame is well worth the read as well as one of the must haves when it comes to bookshelves on the hows and whys of the democracy South Africa is today.

Starting back in 1987 he takes the reader on a journey involving South African politicians of that time as well as what was to many, the shadowy National Intelligence Service.

To this reviewer the involvement of the then South African government’s security apparatus is telling in that there were people, even then, who realised the writing was on the wall for apartheid and its separate development policies.

Esterhuyse takes the reader through meetings at various sites in England where top Afrikaner academics and businessmen met “the enemy” and realised they simply had to put their backs into it if South Africa was not to drift into civil war with the resultant economic disaster.

From genteel country lodges in the English countryside through to the conviviality that is English pubs there is personal insight into just how the opposing factions got to know each other, gradually building up trust to the stage where all were on the same side in agreeing apartheid must go to be replaced by a constitutional democracy.

Discussions about the release of political prisoners, notably Nelson Mandela, lifting the sports boycott and many others are dealt with in depth, but never in a boring manner.

All the ANC heavyweights are frequently mentioned and quoted as are some of the pillars of Afrikaner academia and business. It’s fascinating.

Whet this reviewer found even more fascinating, taking into account Endgame was only published last year, is how Esterhuyse reflects on the current status of the ANC.

Food for thought comes from this quote: “It is a tragic reality, but indisputably a clearly recognisable face of our country: the ANC government has failed to get direct and structural violence in the country under control.

“We have democracy and freedom, but not safety.

“The kind of violence we experience and the brutality that accompanies it even seems to be getting worse.

“Socio-economic inequalities, in other words, structured violence, have reached grotesque proportions. It contrasts with the obscene forms of materialism and self-enrichment promoted by the ANC leadership.

“What we are experiencing in the so-called post-apartheid era illustrates that freedom does not necessarily establish a culture of peace, nor does it automatically foster reconciliation.”

A comprehensive index as well as detailed notes add extra value for the scholar and Endgame should be required reading for political science students as well as for those with more than a passing interest in how South Africa got to where it is today.

Endgame: secret talks and the end of apartheid
Willie Esterhuyse
Tafelberg, an imprint of NB Publishers


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