2. Saluting a giant African

The Star Late Edition 30 May 2017

THE word “tribute” is described by Oxford Dictionaries as “an act, statement or gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect or admiration”.

Well, the book A Giant Tree Has Fallen: Tributes to Ali Al’amin Mazrui (African Perspectives) might have been conceptualised to show gratitude, respect or admiration to the revered Kenyan-born academic, but it is actually a tribute to African intellectualism.

The late professor Mazrui authored over 40 books and hundreds of scholarly articles and book chapters. He had an illustrious academic career that spanned half a century and traversed four continents, and he founded the Institute of Global Cultural Studies in 1989 at Binghamton University, State University of New York, which he headed until his retirement in September, 2014. When the professor died a month after his retirement, tributes from around the world came pouring in from distinguished academics, broadcasters, political leaders and others – complementing the tributes Mazrui received from his family.

Some of the tributes were collated and edited by four of Africa’s luminaries in academic research – Seifudein Adem (Ethiopia), Jideofor Adibe (Nigeria), Abdul Karim Bangura (Sierra Leone) and Abdul Samed Bemath (South Africa) – making it an acclamation of the often understated gift African post-colonial literature bestowed to modern history. The book shows how the professor’s death gave some of those honouring him an opportunity to critically reflect on what they believed to be the precarious state of present-day African society.

An apt example is the letter written by Nigeria-born academic Tobi Oshadi, who, while lauding Mazrui for his bravado “to say what he believed” and that the professor “didn’t fail to justify the reasons for his position”, launched into a rebuke of the issues he felt were hindering the continent’s development. “It will be naïve to lie that some of the challenges in Africa are not pathetic and dehumanising. A few suffice: Africans continue to run away from their countries travelling on rickety boats to Europe motivated by the thought that life is better on the other side. Even as hundreds die on these perilous voyages, others are in the process of jumping into similar boats,” Oshadi said. “Famished African faces still remain the mainstay of depicting poverty in international media. African leaders steal, mobilise their pauperised citizens along ethnic lines and grow fat while their followers are on the floor but are being systematically kicked on the tummy for still being alive.”

Oshadi added in his tribute that Mazrui called for an “abnormal situation” – known as “benign colonisation” – where African states intervened in sister countries that were going through turmoil, rather than European countries handling the continent’s challenges on its behalf. “But Mazrui’s belief in the possibility of some states in Africa providing leadership to end some of the pathetic situation is continuously floored by the visionlessness of a good number of such leaders. Mazrui did not make African post-colonial leaders visionless; nor did he make the condition that would have led to calls for an inter-African recolonisation.”

Born in Mombasa in 1933, Mazrui wrote in an essay – tilted Growing up in a Shrinking World – that his politics and cultural experiences were “internationalised” from an early age, because he grew up in a colonial situation that was inherently international. “One country (Great Britain) was dominating another (Kenya). The city in which I grew up was multicultural. For centuries Mombasa, a seaport, had experienced the winds and smells of other civilisations – initially from Africa, Arabia and Asia, and later from the West,” he wrote. This led him to coin the term “the triple heritage”, which refers to the three main influences on the continent – indigenous, Islamic and Western cultures. The book’s editors write that the professor encouraged three books to be published in the Mazrui and His Critics Series, saying Mazrui was not averse to criticism of his work and believed “good manners are not necessarily good scholarship”.

Writing the tribute book’s foreword, the world-renowned Tanzanian diplomat Salim Ahmed Salim said of the editors: “The editors have been privileged to work closely with the late professor, observing as many streams of his ideas evolve and blossom; reading, listening, occasionally sparring with him in intricate exchange; while all the time preserving those gems of memories.” Salim added: “Being entrusted by the many colleagues and friends who held professor Mazrui in high esteem to collate their reminiscences and integrate their account of what this great man was to them, attests to the vantage position the four editors occupied in the intellectual life of the late professor.” For me, what is instructive about the luminary that is Professor Mazrui, was the manner in which he was fearless in voicing his views at what he felt was tyrannical rule on the continent.

This is perfectly encapsulated by the tribute written by the esteemed Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani, who details how Mazrui arrived at Ugandan’s Makerere University in the early 1970s, shortly after the country attained its independence and embarked on a nationalist trajectory. According to Mamdani, Mazrui was a beneficiary of this nationalism as the newly independent Uganda wanted to have an African professor at the university. However, Mamdani added, Mazrui was not “dazzled” by nationalism. “He was, indeed, the first to recognise the Janus-faced (twofaced) power of nationalism, in particular its tendency to ride roughshod over both minorities – ethnic and religious – and dissidents in the majority,” Mamdani said.

He added that Mazrui’s abhorrence of nationalist and autocratic power extended to his fearlessly criticising Idi Amin, who he felt was pursuing a tyrannical agenda by expelling Asians from Uganda. “On the morrow of Idi Amin’s 1972 Asian expulsion, Mazrui distributed a signed pamphlet at Makerere. It was titled ‘When Spain Expelled Jews’. He did not wait to register his opposition after the event; he took the risk of voicing it when the risk of doing so was immense… He was a public intellectual in the finest sense of the word,” said Mamdani. There was a great deal of Indophobia – or the fear or hatred of Indians – when Amin rose to power and he exploited it for his own nefarious deeds. The dictator accused the Asian minority of not being loyal to Uganda and of commercial malpractice. Therefore, Amin had to “give Uganda back” to the ethnic Ugandans.

This nonsensical reasoning was the same one used by Spain’s 15th century Catholic rulers who expelled Spanish Jews and Muslims, ostensibly under the guise of the two ethnic groups not wanting to convert to Christianity.

Mazrui distributed that pamphlet because, in my view, he wanted to alert Ugandans to the absurdity of Amin’s expulsion – likening it to Spain’s equally absurd expulsions.

Speaking to The Star about Mazrui, director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, Professor Adekeye Adebajo, argued that, except for Mamdani, there weren’t any public intellectuals on the continent with the same stature that Mazrui had around the world. “I would say that we have a lot more work to do if we’re going to achieve what Ali Mazrui described as ‘counter-penetration’, which is getting African ideas and discourses to be part of mainstream global thinking and making sure that we influence thinking on Africa in the West by producing work by Africans that is read in the West. I think we still have some way to go if we are going to achieve that,” he said. And this is why I believe this book to be a tribute to African intellectualism. Mazrui managed to propagate his unashamedly pan-African discourse to the rest of the world, reaching global audiences at the same time.

As the celebrated author and Mazrui’s countryman, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, so succinctly put it in his tribute: “We leave it to political scientists to assess Mazrui’s intellectual legacy. But for me, taking this output as whole, he more than lived up to the description of the global African. He made Kenya and Africa visible in the highest echelons of intellectual production.”