Remembering Ali Mazrui (II)
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.