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 2014.

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 geographic 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 ‘Afro-Arab 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

Written by Jideofor Adibe.

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