Re­mem­ber­ing Ali A Mazrui (1)

Daily Trust - - SPORT -

How do you go about im­mor­tal­iz­ing a man whose works al­ready im­mor­tal­ized him while he was alive? That was pre­cisely what Twaweza Com­mu­ni­ca­tions of Kenya and Bing­ham­ton Uni­ver­sity of New York sought to do when they or­ga­nized a sym­po­sium en­ti­tled ‘Crit­i­cal Per­spec­tives on Cul­ture and Glob­al­iza­tion: The In­tel­lec­tual Legacy of Ali A Mazrui.’ The sym­po­sium, held in Nairobi, Kenya from July 14-17, at­tracted nearly 100 African­ists from all over the world. Those who hon­oured the in­vi­ta­tion in­cluded Prof Ho­race Camp­bell, who gave the key­note ad­dress, Mah­mood Mam­dani, Ki­mani Njogu and Sei­fudein Adem (who were among the con­ven­ers of the sym­po­sium) Hamdy A. Has­san, Chris Wan­jala, Peter Anyang’ Ny­ong’o, Macharia Munene, Alamin Mazrui, Cas­san­dra Veney, N’Dri Thérèse As­sié-Lu­mumba, Ti­mothy Shaw and Paul Zeleza, (the Vice Chan­cel­lor, United States In­ter­na­tional Uni­ver­sity, Nairobi). It was grat­i­fy­ing that among the in­vi­tees to the sym­po­sium were three Nige­ri­ans – em­i­nent Nige­rian po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist J Isawa Elaigwu, who chaired a ses­sion and also gave the con­clud­ing re­marks, Prof Adek­eye Ade­bajo, who pre­sented a pa­per on, ‘Who Killed Pax Africana?’ and my hum­ble self who also pre­sented a pa­per on, ‘Who is an African? Re­flec­tions on Mazrui’s no­tion of the African’.

Mazrui had a rich aca­demic life. With a Kenyan gov­ern­ment schol­ar­ship, he stud­ied at the Uni­ver­sity of Manch­ester, United King­dom and grad­u­ated with Distinc­tion in 1960. He sub­se­quently ob­tained an MA in 1961 from Columbia Uni­ver­sity, and a doc­tor­ate (DPhil), from Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity in 1966. He be­gan his aca­demic life at the Uni­ver­sity of Mak­erere, Uganda, where he quickly rose to be­come a pro­fes­sor. He left Mak­erere af­ter Idi Amin’s mil­i­tary coup and was in 1974 hired as a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence by the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, USA. In 1989, he ac­cepted the Al­bert Sch­weitzer pro­fes­sor­ship at the State Uni­ver­sity of New York, Bing­ham­ton where he be­came the found­ing di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Global Cul­tural Stud­ies. Mazrui has about 35 books and nu­mer­ous aca­demic ar­ti­cles to his name. He was also a renowned es­say­ist and polemi­cist. Mazrui was equally fa­mous for pro­duc­ing the TV doc­u­men­tary, The Africans: A Triple Her­itage, which was later also pub­lished as a book. Mwal­imu Mazrui tran­sited to the Here­after on Oc­to­ber 12 1914.

Who is an African?: On face value the above will seem like a stupid ques­tion. Cer­tainly all of us know who the African is, it would seem. How­ever, the an­swer to this ap­par­ently stupid or ele­men­tary ques­tion be­comes less ob­vi­ous once other prob­ing qual­i­fiers are added to the ques­tion. How is the African iden­tity con­structed in the face of the mo­saic of iden­ti­ties that peo­ple of African an­ces­try or peo­ple who live within the ge­o­graphic space called Africa bear? How does African iden­tity in­ter­face with other iden­ti­ties that peo­ple of African an­ces­try or those who live within the geo- graphic space called Africa bear? For in­stance is Barack Obama, the 44th Pres­i­dent of the United States, who had a Kenyan fa­ther but a white Amer­i­can mother, African? Is Jerry Rawl­ings, the for­mer mil­i­tary ruler and for­mer Pres­i­dent of Ghana whose fa­ther was Scot­tish and his mother a Black Ghana­ian, truly an African? Are peo­ple like Ho­race Camp­bell, Samir Amin, Wal­ter Rod­ney, Mah­mood Mam­dani and even Ali Mazrui who have done per­haps more than most schol­ars in ar­tic­u­lat­ing African per­spec­tives in global dis­courses, re­ally African? Are all who pro­claim them­selves Africans ac­cepted as such? And by the way who al­lots this ‘African­ness’ and why? The above are some of the ques­tions one in­evitably en­coun­ters when one tries to aca­dem­i­cally de­lin­eate who is an African and who is not. How did Mazrui try to grap­ple with these ques­tions?

My In­ter­est in Mazrui’s no­tion of the African:

As a young un­der­grad­u­ate at the Uni­ver­sity of Nige­ria, Nsukka in the 1980s, we were ex­posed to the works of Ali Mazrui. One of our lec­tur­ers, Pro­fes­sor Ok­wudiba Nnoli, was a lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of Dar es Salaam at the time Mazrui was teach­ing at Mak­erere. Pro­fes­sor Nnoli would tell us sto­ries about the epic de­bate be­tween Mazrui and the late Guyanese his­to­rian Wal­ter Rod­ney and how Rod­ney thor­oughly “messed Mazrui up”. Rod­ney was the au­thor of the fa­mous book, How Europe Un­derde­vel­oped Africa.

As an un­der­grad­u­ate, we ad­mired Pro­fes­sor Mazrui for his firm grasp of the English lan­guage and for the fact that it was im­pos­si­ble to read any of his works with­out com­ing out with sev­eral quotable quotes. One of my fond quotes from him in those days was his def­i­ni­tion of an ‘in­tel­lec­tual’ as some­one who was fas­ci­nated by ab­stract ideas and had ac­quired some ca­pac­ity, through for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, for han­dling such ideas. He also de­fined an ‘ex in­tel­lec­tual’ as an in­tel­lec­tual who has ceased to be fas­ci­nated by ab­stract ideas or has lost the ca­pac­ity for han­dling such ideas. We would of­ten la­bel aca­demics who went into gov­ern­ment and be­gan talk­ing in sound bites like pro­fes­sional politi­cians as ‘ex in­tel­lec­tu­als’.

While we ad­mired Mazrui, many of our lec­tur­ers were very crit­i­cal of his works. They crit­i­cized his weak­nesses in the­ory con­struc­tion and his ap­par­ent in­abil­ity to re­main fo­cused on a re­search theme to ma­ture with the con­ver­sa­tions in the field. Other crit­ics ac­cused him of be­ing ex­ces­sively de­fen­sive of the Arabs, in­clud­ing their role in the trans-Sa­ha­ran slave trade. Sev­eral African aca­demics ques­tioned his African­ness. Mazrui had Arab an­ces­try.

I later found that while non-aca­demics and non-po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists were fas­ci­nated by Mazrui’s works, sev­eral po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and African­ists were dis­mis­sive of him as at best an aloof polemi­cist with ques­tion­able com­mit­ment to Africa. What­ever the crit­i­cism, no one de­nied that Mazrui had a big voice in global af­fairs. You may dis­agree with him but it will be dif­fi­cult to ig­nore him.

My in­ter­est in Mazrui’s no­tion of the African:

I had the first di­rect con­tact with Ali Mazrui in 2005. I had founded the pub­lish­ing com­pany Ado­nis & Abbey pub­lish­ers (www.ado­nis-abbey.com) in Lon­don in 2003. The fol­low­ing year, I also founded the theme-based jour­nal, African Re­nais­sance. Our maiden edi­tion was on ‘AfroArab Re­la­tions: Co-op­er­a­tion or Con­flict’. We had as­sem­bled an ar­ray of African­ists – Ga­mal Nkrumah (Nkrumah’s son), Mammo Muchie, Helmi Sharawi, Kwesi Prah and oth­ers as con­trib­u­tors. The Ethiopian scholar Mammo Muchie gave me Pro­fes­sor Mazrui’s num­ber and sug­gested he might be in­ter­ested in the sort of in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ments we were pur­su­ing.

Given his global stature, I wasn’t ex­actly full of con­fi­dence that an ob­scure scholar like me who had set up a non­de­script pub­lish­ing com­pany and an un­known jour­nal would get much of his at­ten­tion. Sur­pris­ingly when I called ex­pect­ing that he would be so busy that he wouldn’t give me more than a few sec­onds, he was quite gen­er­ous with his time.

I told him of his books I had read and proudly re­cited some of the quotes I mem­o­rized from some of those books. How­ever rather ir­rev­er­ently I told him that I didn’t like his al­le­gor­i­cal work – The Trial of Christo­pher Okigbo (1972). I told him that I threw it away in dis­gust af­ter read­ing it. Mazrui was silent for a while and then asked me if I thought I was old enough to un­der­stand the mes­sage of the book since I said I read it as an un­der­grad­u­ate when I was still a teenager. I ar­gued that it was wrong for Okigbo to be found guilty in the Here­after ap­par­ently for sub­or­di­nat­ing his art as a poet to his com­mu­nity (Bi­afra). I ar­gued that a writer’s com­mu­nity pre­ceded his art and that a writer who sub­or­di­nates his art to his com­mu­nity is only cel­e­brat­ing art for art’s sake.

There was a long si­lence through which my pound­ing heart told me I had blown the op­por­tu­nity. When Mazrui fi­nally spoke, it was to give me his home tele­phone num­ber and ask me to call at my con­ve­nience. This was quin­tes­sen­tial Mazrui – hum­ble and tol­er­ant of crit­i­cisms in a way his crit­ics never were.

Mazrui later be­came the Ed­i­to­rial Ad­viser to African Re­nais­sance. Our pub­lish­ing com­pany, Ado­nis & Abbey Pub­lish­ers, also be­came one of his Euro­pean pub­lish­ers. Ad­di­tion­ally Mazrui in­tro­duced me to his for­mer stu­dent, em­i­nent Nige­rian po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist J Isawa Elaigwu, who, when I fi­nally re­lo­cated to Nige­ria in 2011 found a Uni­ver­sity teach­ing job for me. In 2009, Pro­fes­sor Mazrui con­trib­uted three chap­ters to a book I edited en­ti­tled: Who is an African? Iden­tity, Ci­ti­zen­shp and the Mak­ing of the Africa-Na­tion. Next week I will in­ter­ro­gate Mazrui’s no­tion of the African based on those three con­tri­bu­tions. I will also raise the ques­tion of whether Mazrui should re­ally be called an African.

A Gi­ant Tree Has Fallen: Trib­utes to Ali A Mazrui - a col­lec­tion of the trib­utes paid to Mazrui glob­ally from Pres­i­dents, Prime Min­is­ters, pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als and fam­ily mem­bers to aca­demics and jour­nal­ists - will be pub­lished by African Per­spec­tives Pub­lish­ers ( Jo­han­nes­burg, SA) in Septem­ber 2016. It is edited by Sei­fudein Adem, Jide­o­for Adibe, Ab­dul Karim Ban­gura and Ab­dul Samed Be­math

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