Mourning Ali Mazrui, Africa’s Leading Public Intellectual and Mega Professor
By Maurice N. Amutabi
The death of Prof. Ali A Mazrui has robbed Africa one of its priciest and most prominent scholar, thinker and philosopher. He pursued multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarship at a time when many scholars were still cocooned in their little disciplines. From the 1960s, Mazrui wrote about literally anything under the sun. He wrote widely on issues such as politics, culture, history, gender, education, religion and social movements. He was one of the few scholars in the world to rise from lecturer to professor, skipping two ranks of senior lecturer and associate professor at Makerere University, thereby making history. The interviewing panel at Makerere University was mesmerised by the great scholarly achievements of young Mazrui and recommended that he gets promoted to the position of full professor, instead of senior lecturer. He was only 34 at the time.
In 2002 at a conference in Savannah, Georgia, Prof. Abdul Bangura loudly confessed to Prof. Ali A Mazrui that “Mwalimu Mazrui, we have admired you, plagiarised you and continue to hold you with great esteem as the greatest scholar from the African soil residing in America today.” Prof. Mazrui was admired by many, from far and wide. I was a great admirer of Ali Mazrui and have posed for pictures with him at over twenty conferences outside Kenya. At one point he told me that I was perhaps one of his greatest admirers given the amount of energy I took to take pictures with him, whenever the opportunity presented itself. Mazrui came from humble background and defied social mobility obstacles created by Cambridge School certificate to become a professor. When he got Third Division in his form four exams, he defied great odds and pursued higher education, which landed him at Oxford where he received his doctoral degree.
Like many public intellectuals, Prof. Ali Mazrui loved and courted controversy. He was a vicious and great critic of system or status quo scholars who acted as court pages (blue eyed boys) and cheering squads. He was witty and creative and often left his critics unable to exact damaging academic punches similar to his. One of his vicious critics in the American academy was Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr (Skippy) and Prof. Cornel West. Some racist scholars often accused Mazrui for being an ‘academic Al Qaeda’ because of his fervent defence of Islam. In Africa, his academic critics included Kwame Anthony Appiah and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. In Kenya, his academic arch-rival was the late Prof. William Robert Ochieng. Ochieng and Mazrui did not see eye to eye, largely because of their different opinions on various issues. There are many journal articles that have looked at the genesis and tensions of the Mazrui-Ochieng disagreements and many had always hoped for a public debate between the two iconic scholars, but which will never take place.
Prof. Mazrui was easily one of the most eloquent public speakers and perhaps one of the most meticulous writers. He wrote well and used exciting phrases, which were uniquely Mazruian. I first met Prof. Ali A Mazrui by chance in 1986 at the University of Nairobi. He was supposed to give a public lecture at Taifa Hall, which was cancelled at the eleventh hour. Despite the cancelation, the good professor appeared at the University of Nairobi bookstore, where we mobbed him, begging him to address us. He addressed us briefly, before we were asked to disperse by a university official. I later met Prof. Mazrui when I was pursuing a fellowship at the University of Florida in 1994, when he gave an eloquent public lecture on “Coup-Prone and Coup-Proof Countries in Africa” using past events to arrive at his conclusions. Over ten of the countries that he described as coup-prone experienced coups by late 1990 and one of them became the first failed state in Africa. He listed Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe among coup-proof countries arguing that they did not have strategic resources such as oil and therefore less fighting, and that they did not have a single ethnic group that had more than 50% of the population, and therefore, capacity to dominate others.
Prof. Mazrui’s inaugural lecture as full professor in 1966 remains perhaps one of the most cited inaugural lectures in Africa. The lecture was entitled “Ancient Greece in African Political Thought: An Inaugural Lecture” delivered on 25th August 1966, at the then Makerere University College. The lecture has been cited in many intellectual debates and has been the model of many inaugural lecturers, which have plagiarised Mazrui’s style and pattern of argument-development. He liked intellectual discourses that quoted and paraphrased great scholars and intellectuals. Karl Marx and Vladmir Lenin were some of his most admired authors. His book, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo provides one of Mazrui’s stylistic superiority that scholars will admire for many years to come.
Love him or hate him, Prof. Ali Mazrui was iconic figure that did not entertain propaganda and misrepresentations by hirelings of political bigwigs. He told it as it is, plain, simple and clear. He was truly Africa’s leading intellectual and one of Africa’s top three mega professors, who was perhaps the most widely cited. He wrote with passion and great conviction, which left readers glued to his articles. He was an opinion shaper and had great following. When he wrote in any of Kenya’s dailies, his articles would be discussed with great interest until he wrote the next. He coined many words such as the reference to Kwame Nkrumah as Leninist-Tsar (combining Vladmir Lenin’s liberalism and benevolent dictatorship with Tsar Nicholas II’s conservative and monarchical dictatorship). He coined words such as Pax-Africana (from Pax-Americana and Pax-Britanica) and Africa’s triple heritage.
Prof. Mazrui hated and defied African dictators. While working at Makerere University, he told Dictator Idi Amin off many times. He was the only intellectual to debate the Ugandan buffoon and nincompoop at Makerere University, a debate which Amin declared himself the winner but the audience declared Mazrui the winner by their hearts. In one of his famous keynote speeches which he presented in my presence in Georgia at a conference organized by the Association of Third Scholars in 2002, Mazrui spent two hours discussing the nature of Warrior Presidents in America, and pointed out that no American president has ever been re-elected when the country is not at war, and which he argued had made American presidents to become Warrior Presidents who declared war on other states in order to win elections.
Many scholars would remember with nostalgia the TV series produced by Prof. Ali A Mazrui under the BBC banner, entitled “Africa, A Triple Heritage.” The TV series remains one of the most successful and authentic rendering of African history on film. The series demonstrated how Africa had been at the centre of many discoveries and innovations across the world. It credited Africa with many inventions and celebrated African past, which had been appropriated or falsified by white racist scholars. The success of the series prompted white conservatives to commission Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr, the African-American apologist to the white world, to produce “Wonders of the African World,” which was unsuccessful and failed to dislodge Mazrui’s series in popularity in the world. Gates Jr spent a of money marketing his dubious series without much success, only managing to get praises from conservative African scholars such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, while majority of African scholars such as Pau Tiyambe Zeleza, Toyin Falola and Ngugi wa Thiong’o praised ‘Africa, a Triple Heritage’ for its genius and creativity. To date, Mazrui’s remains the most successful and authentic documentary on Africa’s past.
For sure, Prof. Ali Mazrui was courageous. To be analogue in America is hard, but Prof. Mazrui was never able to master the skills of using a computer and wrote his works by his beautiful cursive handwriting. He said writing allowed him to think clearly and without interruption. He confessed to me how he refused to learn how to use a computer because he believed something else would come that would most likely render the typing on the computer obsolete. He was right, because ten years ago, there emerged technology that allows writing on a tablet using an electronic pen, and which words can be converted to word or any other computer presentation. Smart boards operate on the same concept. There are also all kinds of software that can transcribe spoken words into written words, and one does not need to type them.
Some people think that driving a car is one of the world’s greatest pleasures, but not for Prof. Mazrui who lived in a First World where you have to drive in order to move around. Surprisingly, Prof. Mazrui was not able to drive his cars. He simply refused to learn how to drive. Prof. Ali Mazrui lived in America for over thirty years and in 2001, when I picked from the airport when he was visiting the University where I was working in the USA, confessed to me that he was never able to master the skill of driving. He blamed his personal assistants, wives and children for making him not know how to drive.
For his creative energy and sharp mind, Prof. Mazrui was admired and hated in equal measure. He received scathing attacks from Kenyan scholars such as Chris Wanjala and William Robert Ochieng in ways that generated a lot of intellectual debate. I always turned over pages of weekend dailies looking for his articles and whenever he wrote, he left one yearning for me. We shall remember the great guru for coining of phrases and unique words for which he will be remembered forever.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Student Affairs), Kisii University. Amutabi@yahoo.com