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Book Reviews

Book review: Recce: Small Team Missions Behind Enemy Lines

Recce by Koos Stadler.Professional soldier Koos Stadler has written a remarkable book chronicling his experiences as a special forces small reconnaissance team member operating behind enemy lines during the Border War period in Angola, South West Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

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.

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