The rivalry between William Ochieng and Ali Mazrui
By Maurice Amutabi
Some scholars regard William Ochieng and Ali Mazrui as rivals, but I do not think they can be categorized as such. I have always been amused and excited by the adversarial academic exchanges between William Ochieng and Ali Mazrui. I have followed their debates over the years. I have however been disappointed by the fact that the two have never debated on one platform. It has always followed their debates through newspaper columns. I have also enjoyed Ali Mazrui’s exchanges with Wole Soyinka, whom I regard as real rival to Ali Mazrui. Although Wole Soyinka comes across as a bitter rival to Ali Mazrui, Ochieng comes across as an admirer and even student of Mazrui more than an adversary. After all if William Ochieng had attended Makerere University as an undergraduate, Ali Mazrui would have taught him.
I have always suspected that William Ochieng would have really loved to be like Ali Mazrui, a global mega scholar who is a proper globe trotter. Mazrui’s speaking engagement fee of between $5,000 and $10,000 per session makes him one of the most highly paid and highly sought after speakers internationally. In Africa, only Wangari Maathai commands similar attention on the speaking circuit. With that figure, many African universities cannot afford to host Ali Mazrui, although I know he has had all his engagements in Africa for free.
William Ocheing writes well, and so does Ali Mazrui. I have listened to Ali Mazrui talk at tens of events, as a keynote speaker, chief guest or a panelist and each time I listen to him, I always come out with a new idea. He is one of the most brilliant speakers that I have ever listened to. You always want to hear more because he is such an arresting speaker. I have also listened to William Ochieng, especially at the Historical Association of Kenya (HAK) conferences. Ochieng comes across as hard while Mazrui comes across as soft. Ochieng likes to read his papers, while Mazrui talks to his papers. Ochieng comes across as arrogant and even presumptuous, while Mazrui appears humble, simple and ordinary. Mazrui’s sagacity is unmatched by many scholars of his stature.
Personally, I have presented academic papers before both Ochieng and Mazrui. In 1992, at a HAK conference at Gulfstream hotel at Kisumu, Ochieng asked me why I had not cited some of the leading authorities on Mau Mau in my paper. He is one of the authorities I had left out because he regards Mau Mau as a peasant revolt, a position that I do not agree with. I had cited his rivals like E.S Atieno Odhiambo, Maina wa Kinyatti and Mukaru Ng’ang’a. He told me afterwards that Mukaru Ng’ang’a was not a professional historian (Mukaru Ng’ang’a did not have a Ph.D in history which Ocheing regards as a prerequisite for one to be regarded as a professional in any social science discipline). At the same conference, Ochieng told a subdued presenter (and chair of the department of history at Maseno University for which Ocheing was the principal at the time) that he had no paper.
In 1995 at a UNECO conference at Kericho Tea Hotel at Kericho, Ochieng asked me why I thought federalism was a better system of government compared to the unitary system. At the time, Ochieng was one of the blue–eyed boys of the KANU system and giving an answer that contradicted his position portended danger for a young lecturer at a public university (I was a lecturer at Moi University at the time). His mentor and teacher B.A Ogot saw my predicament and answered the question for me, while asking me a more innocent question. I sensed that he knew his student can be a bully at times, and came to my rescue.
In 2002, I presented a paper at Binghamton University, New York at a conference organized by Ali Mazrui. He attended my presentation and asked me a very insightful question on an issue I know he has more expertise than myself, but the way he framed the question made me feel comfortable and confident.
Mazrui is crafty, creative and progressive. Ochieng, like traditional historians of days of yore is event and fact-oriented, which can really be tricky for one without natural appeal. That is why I have always found B.A Ogot a better presenter and in terms of academic charisma, comparable in many ways to Mazrui. Ogot, like Mazrui embraces emergent new knowledge forms and theories such as postmodernism. In 2001, in Houston at the African Studies Association conference I was fascinated to see Ogot engage Michel Foucault, Edward Said, V.M Mudibe, among others in a very postmodern approach. He received a standing ovation. Ogot is engaging and unassuming, and always kind to lesser mortals around him. Ochieng does not care.
What I admire more about Mazrui is his capacity to coin words and phrases. He coined words like Pax-Africana; which he juxtaposed to Pax-Britanica and Pax-Americana. Mazrui referred to Nkrumah as a Leninist-Czar. Putting Lenin and Czar was creative because Lenin helped in overthrowing the Czar, and according to Mazrui, Nkrumah represented the two. There are immediate terms or concepts that come to mind, which William Ochieng has coined, which one would regard as cutting edge or exceptional.
I know that the word Ruothdom (equivalent to chiefdom) has been used by Ochieng in many of his early articles and it is possible that he coined the term. However, it is just an Anglicization of a Luo word, similar to what Gidigidi Majimaji did by coining ‘unbwogable’ by corrupting a Luo word. You do not find such intellectual laziness in Mazrui’s works. Mazrui also coined the phrase Africa’s triple heritage, which has attracted a lot of following and enjoys wide usage. Mazrui is therefore a more creative and versatile writer and scholar.
Ali Mazrui has also written fiction. His novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo has enjoyed fervent reviews in academic circles over the years. Ochieng has not written any fiction but his column in a local Kenyan newspaper, Ochieng’s View was very popular and I have always enjoyed reading the selected essays that he compiled out of the column. He published them into three books, the First Word, The Second Word, and The Third Word, published by Kenya Literature Bureau.
Ali Mazrui has always remained polite and scholarly in his responses to Ochieng, but Ochieng has not been as courteous. In 1992, at the height of the success of multiparty forces, Ali Mazrui was invited to speak at Taifa Hall at the University of Nairobi. I attended the forum and so did William Ochieng. What surprised was the report that William Ochieng produced on Ali Mazrui’s talk the following Sunday. He went personal. In 1992, Ochieng wrote that during his presentation, Mazrui looked frail, a bit tired and sometimes appeared disoriented. In 2009, Ochieng penned an article on Ali Mazrui, marking his retirement as Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, in which he wrote, “Today the professor [Mazrui] looks exhausted, frail and aged; but he still retains his bold and critical character.” This is not a compliment, if it begins with a negative comment. I know that in the recent past, it is clear that age is clearly catching up with Mazrui, but his intellectual energy and production has not waned.
Mazrui is still active at conferences and still writes insightfully. His forums at the African Studies Association annual conferences still overflow, with curious budding scholars seeking to listen to and have glimpse of the famous scholar. After Mazrui’s presentations, people jostle to take pictures with him. I have taken a dozen such pictures with him. Age does not matter. In the recent past, Ochieng looks a bit overweight, but who cares about such things? Should we begin to question his recent slowing down and lack of academic productivity as being caused by his physical corpulence? No, is my answer, for I know that he is still the fine historian that we have always known despite the new body size.
I am a strong admirer of both William Ochieng and Ali Mazrui. At the end of the day, the two, as well as Bethuel Ogot, will go down in history as some of the greatest intellectuals that Kenya has ever produced. For a long time, William Ochieng was the most prolific Kenyan historian and transformed the Kenya Historical Association (HAK) into one of the most dynamic professional organizations in the country, with B.A Ogot as chairman. I do not regard Mazrui and Ochieng as rivals. To me the academic rivals of Ochieng include Chris Wanjala, Mwangi wa Githumo, Taban Liyong, H.S. K Mwaniki, among others, with whom I seen him sparring with at conferences and newspaper columns. Ali Mazrui’s rival in Africa is only Wole Soyinka.
Prof. Maurice Amutabi (Ph.D) teaches history at Central Washington University