Re­mem­ber­ing Ali Mazrui (II)

Daily Trust - - SPORT - with Jide­o­for Adibe (07058078841 SMS only)

Ob­vi­ously one can­not talk of the African with­out a prior conception of what Africa is all about. In the doc­u­men­tary, Africa: A Triple Her­itage, writ­ten and nar­rated by Ali Mazrui in the early 1980s Mazrui ar­gued that Africa (or Africa’s iden­tity as we know it) is formed by a triple her­itage - “an in­dige­nous her­itage borne out of time and cli­mate change”; the her­itage of euro­cen­tric cap­i­tal­ism forced on Africans by Euro­pean colo­nial­ism and the spread of Is­lam by both ji­had and evan­ge­lism.

In a paper ‘Who are Africans?’, which Mazrui pub­lished in a book I edited in 2009 en­ti­tled Who is an African? Iden­tity, Cit­i­zen­ship and the Mak­ing of the Africa-Na­tion, Mazrui wrote: “If Africa in­vented man in places like the Ol­du­vai Gorge and the Semitic in­vented God in Jerusalem, Mt. Si­nai and Mecca, Europe in­vented the world at the Green­wich Merid­ian. It was the Euro­peans who named all the great con­ti­nents of the world, all the great oceans, many of the great rivers and lakes and most of the coun­tries.”

He ar­gued that Europe cre­ated the African or con­scious­ness of be­ing African through two in­ter-re­lated pro­cesses the tri­umph of Euro­pean car­tog­ra­phy and map mak­ing and through racism and the re­lated im­pe­ri­al­ism and neoim­pe­ri­al­ism.

Fol­low­ing from the above, Mazrui be­lieved that what we call African iden­tity is largely a fiction as it was merely a cre­ation of Euro­pean map mak­ers, colo­nial­ism, racism and im­pe­ri­al­ism. The im­pli­ca­tion of this for Mazrui is that any at­tempt to de­fine Africa and by ex­ten­sion de­lin­eate the African will in­evitably bring one into the ten­sion be­tween Africa be­ing an “ac­ci­dent of his­tory” and “ge­o­graph­i­cal facts”.

While Mazrui might have been fac­tu­ally right about Africa be­ing a fiction, his no­tion of Africa in this sense is static. One could ar­gue that if Africa is a fiction, so also are sev­eral suc­cess­ful mod­ern na­tions like Ger­many and France which at dif­fer­ent points in their his­to­ries were made up of dif­fer­ent peo­ples and prin­ci­pal­i­ties. We can there­fore ar­gue that Mazrui’s no­tion of ‘Africa’ ap­pears to have os­si­fied his­tory in time and space be­cause sev­eral coun­tries that are to­day suc­cess­ful na­tion-states to­day were once di­verse, of­ten war­ring na­tion­al­i­ties and hence also fic­tions as na­tion-states.

Mazrui’s de­lin­eation of the African

From his the­o­retic no­tions of Africa and the African, Mazrui in an ar­ti­cle on ‘Com­par­a­tive African­ity: Blood, Soil and An­ces­try’, (pub­lished in the same book I edited in 2009), sought to move into the more em­piric ex­er­cise of how to de­lin­eate or iden­tify the African. He iden­ti­fied the fol­low­ing types of Africans:

a) Africans of the blood who are de­fined in “racial and ge­nealog­i­cal terms” and are iden­ti­fied with the Black race.

b) Africans of the soil who are de­fined in ge­o­graph­i­cal terms and are “iden­ti­fied with the African con­ti­nent in na­tion­al­ity and an­ces­tral lo­ca­tion.”

c) Mazrui re­garded White Africans such as F.W, de Klerk as “Africans of the soil by adop­tion”. He said this also ap­plied to East Africans of In­dian or Pak­istani an­ces­try.

d) Mazrui equally had an­other category of Africans: African-Amer­i­cans and Amer­i­can- Africans. He ar­gued that the ‘Amer­i­can African’, is “con­scious of his in­dige­nous African­ity, is aware of his im­me­di­ate con­ti­nen­tal an­ces­try, is in con­tact with rel­a­tives in Africa, is bilin­gual (speak­ing at least one African lan­guage) and is at home with much as­pects of in­dige­nous African cul­ture as cui­sine” while the “African Amer­i­cans are de­scen­dants of the Mid­dle Passage, are not in con­tact with rel­a­tives in Africa, are not na­tive speak­ers of the African lan­guage and are sel­dom so­cial­ized into African cuisines even when they are pan African.”

Fol­low­ing from the above Mazrui ar­gued that Bar­rack Obama, whose fa­ther was Kenya, has an in­ter­me­di­ate iden­tity be­tween be­ing an African Amer­i­can and Amer­i­can African.


Mazrui talked about the re­mark­able his­tory of con­ver­gence be­tween the Arab peo­ple and the African peo­ple. He ar­gued that there are to­day more than 100 mil­lion Arab Mus­lims in North Africa, which has cre­ated a new iden­tity he called ‘Afra­bi­ans’. He de­fined this group as “Africans of the soil in North Africa who are Arab with­out in­ter­mar­riage with Africans of the blood.” He had dif­fer­ent types of Afra­bi­ans:

Ge­o­graph­i­cal Afra­bi­ans - Africans of the soil in North Africa who are Arab with­out in­ter­mar­riage with Africans of the blood (black Africans).

Ge­nealog­i­cal Afra­bi­ans: who are prod­ucts of in­ter­mar­riage be­tween Arabs and Black Africans such as the ma­jor­ity of North­ern Su­danese, half of Mau­ri­ta­ni­ans and “Swahilized dy­nas­tic Afra­bian fam­i­lies like the Mazrui of Kenya.”

Ide­o­log­i­cal Afra­bi­ans: Mazrui de­fined this category as Africans who refuse to rec­og­nize the Sa­hara as a di­vide and in­sist that all peo­ple in­dige­nous to Africa (be they Arab or Black) are one peo­ple such as the late Kwame Nkrumah.

Cul­tural Afra­bi­ans - Th­ese are, ac­cord­ing to Mazrui, usu­ally Black Africans who have no Arab blood what­so­ever but are highly Ara­bized cul­tur­ally. He ar­gued that many Su­danese - both North­ern and South­ern-are deeply Ara­bized in speech and val­ues with­out be­ing Arab ge­nealog­i­cally.

Mazrui posed the ques­tion of where to lo­cate the Hausa and Hausa-Fu­lani of Nige­ria and an­swered it rhetor­i­cally: “In­deed, are not the ma­jor­ity of Is­lamized Africans of the blood (Black Mus­lims) au­to­mat­i­cally cul­tural Afra­bi­ans?”

Was Mazrui an African?

For some, the an­swer to this is ob­vi­ous: Mazrui is gen­er­ally re­garded as a lead­ing African in­tel­lec­tual. But there are sev­eral African­ist (such as our own Wole Soyinka and Chin­weizu) who ques­tioned Mazrui’s African­ness and even his com­mit­ment to Africa. Among the reasons for this were Mazrui’s Arab an­ces­try, his ex­cuse (if not de­fence) of Arab slav­ery of Africans (Trans-Sa­ha­ran slave trade), which he ar­gued was for do­mes­tic pur­poses while con­demn­ing Trans-At­lantic slave trade (which he ar­gued was for com­mer­cial pur­poses) and his strong con­dem­na­tion of na­tion­al­ism in Africa as a mask for dic­ta­tor­ship in the early years of his ca­reer. Many African­ists also did not for­give Mazrui for his crit­i­cal ar­ti­cle on Nkrumah shortly af­ter he was over­thrown as the Pres­i­dent of Ghana. The ar­ti­cle was en­ti­tled: ‘Nkrumah: The Lenin­ist Czar’. Mazrui was also said to have called for the re­col­o­niza­tion of some African coun­tries.

Does Mazrui see him­self as an African on the same level of African­ity with say, my hum­ble self? This brings us back to the ques­tion of whether iden­tity should be a choice or an im­po­si­tion - or both.

As we saw from the dis­cus­sion in the pre­ced­ing sec­tion, Mazrui iden­ti­fied his fam­ily and him­self as part of “ge­nealog­i­cal Afra­bi­ans” who are, ac­cord­ing to him, bridge builders be­tween Black Africans and Arab Africans. An in­ter­est­ing ques­tion is whether Mazrui’s ‘Afra­bian’ is a category in the hi­er­ar­chy of African­ness, and if so, where he placed him­self in re­la­tions to those he called Africans of the blood? Did Mazrui in­vent the Afra­bian ty­pol­ogy to show that as a bridge builder be­tween African Arabs and ‘Africans of the blood’ he was morally su­pe­rior to his crit­ics, who con­tin­ued to ques­tion to his death his African­ness or com­mit­ment to Africa?

Cri­tique of Mazrui’s de­lin­eation of the Africans

While Mazrui’s has suc­cess­fully called at­ten­tion to the in­ad­e­qua­cies of each of the tra­di­tional tax­onomies for defin­ing or de­lin­eat­ing the Africa - race, geog­ra­phy and con­scious­ness of be­ing an African his own no­tion of an African is also fraught with ma­jor weak­nesses. For in­stance the no­tion ap­pears so univer­sal­ist and elas­tic that vir­tu­ally any­one one can fit into one category or the other (or can stretch the elas­tic to cre­ate a new category for him­self or her­self - af­ter all Africa is the orig­i­nal home of man!).

In fact the elas­tic­ity of Mazrui’s no­tion of the African re­minds one of the ‘cos­mopoli­tans’ whom Jean-Jac­ques Rousseau, the Fran­co­phone Genevan philoso­pher, ac­cused of try­ing to “jus­tify their love of their coun­try by their love of the hu­man race and make a boast of lov­ing the en­tire world in or­der to en­joy the priv­i­lege of lov­ing no one.”

Re­lated to the above is that Mazrui’s cre­ation of Afra­bi­ans as a new category of ‘su­per Africans’ or ‘bridge builders’ be­tween ‘Africans of the soil’ and ‘Africans of the blood’ - could play into the hands of his crit­ics who ques­tioned his com­mit­ment to Africa. Given the oc­ca­sional ten­sion be­tween Pan African­ism and Pan Ara­bism in Africa, where would Mazrui pitch his tent if such con­flict ex­ploded and Mazrui was asked to take a bold stand? Neu­tral­ity may be im­pos­si­ble be­cause as they would say, be­hind ev­ery neu­tral­ity lies a hid­den choice.

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