The most recent read for the Pacific Council’s Virtual Book Club was A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo (AMSS). Okeowo, who is staff writer for The New Yorker and a wonderful storyteller, narrates the social climate of her interviewees in a personal, illuminating way. In doing so, she shares with readers a 21st century depiction of Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Somalia—a depiction that is often graphic, difficult, and disturbing. The task of conflict resolution, however, is an ongoing pursuit to be taken on by international relations practitioners with persistence, innovation and optimism (that is, some hope).
The following is a political and historical look at each of those countries in correlation to what is happening in the book.
Civil war and regional conflict: Republic of Uganda
What we gather from AMSS are the repercussions of Joseph Kony's delusional religious agenda on the human condition and the lengths that people will go and decisions they will make when faced with inconceivable challenges. Okeowo gives a vivid account of what it is like to experience a community that is attacked by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and, if one is lucky enough to escape with their life, what it often looks like following a deeply-embedded personal and social trauma.
The Ugandan Bush War of the 1980s emerged in opposition to the Yoweri Museveni regime, and in its course became breeding place for rogue groups like the LRA. Civil unrest and extreme violence against the community continued throughout the 1990s. In August 2006, the LRA and Ugandan government signed a truce, but following Operation Lightning Thunder (a joint offensive by Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], Uganda, and South Sudan on an LRA camp in northeastern DRC in 2008-09) the LRA reintroduced its campaign of pillaging, murder, and kidnapping in retaliation.
What we gather from AMSS are the repercussions of Joseph Kony's delusional religious agenda on the human condition and the lengths that people will go and decisions they will make when faced with inconceivable challenges.
In March 2012, Uganda announced the formation of the African Union military task force, comprised of Uganda, the Central African Republic, DRC, and South Sudan. Political instability, governmental corruptibility, lack of security, and fraught societal conditions led to accounts like those of Eunice and Bosco in A Moonless, Starless Sky, and those of child soldiers and other victims of the mass atrocities that persist throughout the region.
An ancient, cultural phenomenon: Islamic Republic of Mauritania
What we glean from AMSS in the case of Mauritania is the psychological aspect of a modern-day culture of slavery and how liberating the Haratin pepole gives them a new hope. Though it is largely historical and ethnographic in its foundations, slavery in Mauritania’s pervading nature into the 21st century shows that the issue runs much deeper than strict cost-benefit.
Mauritania is a nation settled by the ancient Berbers. In the 11th century, the Western Sahara was populated with Arab-Amazigh peoples, who form the Moorish culture—of White Moors and Black Moors—and the foundation of what is the country’s case of modern-day slavery. Okeowo interviewed renowned abolitionist Biram Dah Abeid, founder of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in Mauritania. Before its creation in 2008, slavery in Mauritania was abolished only by presidential decree in 1981 by then-head of state Mohamed Khouna Ould Haidalla. It was the last country in the world to do so.
Though it is largely historical and ethnographic in its foundations, slavery in Mauritania’s pervading nature into the 21st century shows that the issue runs much deeper than strict cost-benefit.
The Council of Ministers passed a new anti-slavery law in 2014 that would officially criminalize slavery and in 2015, a landmark African Union case ruled in favor of two formerly enslaved brothers, Said and Yarg Ould Salem. The case and continued pressure to abolish slavery proved to be a step forward for Mauritania, whose manner of slavery is indeed a phenomena engrained in the religious and social fabric of the country. Biram Dah Abeid, recipient of the United Nations’ Human Rights Prize, ran in Mauritania’s 2014 presidential election, and according to Okeowo and others, plans to run again in June 2019.
Oil economy and religious extremism: Federal Republic of Nigeria
What we witness concerning Nigeria through AMSS is the reality of a political environment where rebel factions emerge, take root, and wreak havoc on society with impunity, the unfortunate antithesis of government accountability, rule of law, law and order, predictability, and social responsibility. Okeowo offers a most sympathetic and endearing view of a young girl captured by Boko Haram; who, escaping shortly after, attempts to live a normal life, though it is amidst internal displacement and the constant wariness of the rebel group’s continued operation.
In 2010, following the end of martial law in June 1998, Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as president of Nigeria. Around the same time that the International Court of Justice ruled the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula was Cameroonian territory rather than Nigerian, the rebel group and radical Islamic sect Boko Haram was formed. In 2014, the kidnappings of approximately 275 schoolgirls by the group gained international attention, sparking the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.
Okeowo offers a most sympathetic and endearing view of a young girl captured by Boko Haram; who, escaping shortly after, attempts to live a normal life, though it is amidst internal displacement and the constant wariness of the rebel group’s continued operation.
The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Boko Haram the same year, and in March 2015 President Jonathan named it a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, in Borno State, and as read in A Moonless, Starless Sky, a group recognized politically as a volunteer organization called the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) took on the responsibility of taking up arms against Boko Haram. The CJTF physically resisted the havoc wreaked on the people of Nigeria to the best of their ability and condemned the disorder caused by the terrorist organization, a group that refutes Western ideals and institutions in favor of Sharia law.
Violent agendas and political unrest: Somali Democratic Republic, or Somalia
In AMSS, Okeowo illuminates the luxury of what we easily take for granted: sports. And specifically, women's sports. She immerses herself within a group of aspiring professional women basketball players and their attempts to pursue their passion amidst viable death threats. This phenomena undoubtedly carries over into other social issues and is juxtaposed with Somalia's unyielding and often violent political climate. The book takes a hard look at the antiquated views of women, women in society, and the abuse and misuse of religion.
Civil war between ethnic clans resulted in the political instability in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. The Somali National Movement declared the northern area of Somaliland independent—the Republic of Somaliland—in 1991. In December 1992, the United States led a multinational intervention as part of a UN peacekeeping mission to quell the rift created between northern and southern Somalia. In 2002, a transitional government largely backed by the international community was formed, leading to the election of President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed.
These continuous shifts in political power and power vacuums created in Somalia’s capital made it an easy target, ripe for extremist attacks, and thus, further instability.
However, his power was usurped by the self-named Supreme Islamic Courts Council, advocates of Sharia law, in 2006. As Okeowo purports, these continuous shifts in political power and power vacuums created in the country’s capital made it an easy target, ripe for extremist attacks, and thus, further instability. The rights and lives of women were particularly insufferable under these conditions. Somalia did, however, achieve political success in 2017 in its execution of an electoral process for the parliamentary election of its current President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed.
Civil war is not new, and neither are political violence, mass displacement, or human migration. In each of these country profiles there is the apparent need for political legitimacy and confidence in the rule of law en masse. That pinnacle necessity is a task that takes engagement from the international community with state actors and non-governmental organizations—entities doing the hard work toward peaceable, healthy governance, and toward social agreement and assured longevity for humanity.
The point of A Moonless, Starless Sky is not only to make note of terrible occurrences and events, but to display how affected people, just by carrying on, defy extremism.
Many thanks to Alexis Okeowo for the difficult task of journalism in threatening environments like the ones in which she writes, and to the Pacific Council’s Virtual Book Club for offering an interesting and thought-provoking discussion.
Encyclopedia Brittanica, 2019.
Okeowo, Alexis. A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa. Hachette Books: New York, 2017.
Kareena Kirlew is a Pacific Council member, writer, and entrepreneur.
Learn more about the Pacific Council's Virtual Book Club. The club's current book selection is The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy by Anna Clark.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.