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Prof Ali Mazrui embodied the best in our intellectual development

By Anyang' Nyong'o | October 19th 2014

It is often said a prophet is not appreciated in his own home. For quite a long time this was true of Prof Ali Mazrui. Though a Kenyan, and the first to become a professor of political science in the then prestigious Makerere University, he rarely gave lectures in his own country.

When the political climate deteriorated in Uganda after Idi Amin’s coup in 1971, one would have thought that the University of Nairobi could have gone out of its way to seek out Mazrui “to come home” and help build that institution. This is how successful universities operate in the US. But that did not happen. Mazrui headed to the University of Michigan from where he was eventually snatched by the State University of New York at Binghamton. And the rest, as they say, is now history.

I first met Ali when I entered Makerere University College, Kampala, in June 1968. He was then chairman of the Department of Political Science, Professor of Political Science and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. In the department were young and dynamic lecturers and senior lecturers like Yash Tandon, Locksley Edmondson, Tony Gingnyera Pincwa, Ahmed Mohiddin and Apollo Nsibambi. But there was also the ever omnipresent tutorial fellow Okello Oculli, a man of the people.

What was unique about Ali was that he was always bubbling with new ideas which he tested on students, his colleagues and the public in general whether in the lecture hall, the Main Hall, academic journals or the columns of the Ugandan newspapers. A week never passed without some cyclostyled papers making their rounds in the halls of residence with Ali’s latest essay or speech given somewhere. Every now and again the Makerere Main Hall would be full of people waiting to listen to Ali yodelling away with some new controversial idea. Mazrui was never afraid to rub the powers that be on the wrong side.

In 1966 Milton Obote had abolished kingdoms in Uganda. This was never taken well by the Baganda as the Buganda Kingdom had actually threatened Obote’s government with expulsion from Buganda soil after the UPC government showed hostility to royalism. In essence, the Baganda royalists argued that there were two levels of government in Uganda then: the national one, led by Obote, and the local one led by Kabaka. Both governments needed to mutually respect each other: that, indeed, was their interpretation of what they regarded as the “social contract” at independence.

Mazrui always gave this example in teaching us social contract theories in his lectures on political theory. Those loyal to the UPC party or government did not take this kindly and argued that Mazrui was being partisan in the controversy that ensued from the abolition of the kingdoms. Picho Owiny and Akena Adoko, two of UPC’s most outspoken state intellectuals, very often took on Mazrui on such matters, and their debates in the Makerere Main Hall always attracted overflowing attendance.

Those were also the days of the famous journal Transition edited by Rajat Neogy with an editorial board comprising such literary giants like Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo and Ali Mazrui. It was in the columns of Transition that Mazrui’s two controversial essays on Ghana and Tanzania were first fiercely debated: “Tanzaphilia” and “Nkrumah the Leninist Tsar.” In the latter essay Mazrui discussed the “monarchical tendencies in African politics” pointing out that, notwithstanding his socialist radicalism (like Lenin), in his style of leadership (with chiefly symbols and a search for legitimacy in a royalist past) Nkrumah was much more like a Russian Tsar than a Marxist radical. For Pan- Africanists like us who believed fervently in Nkrumah’s almost saintly leadership of the African revolution, we did not take kindly to Mazrui’s exercise in comparative political theory. Some even branded Mazrui as “ an imperialist agent”.

But one of the most memorable debates at Makerere which still remains ingrained in the minds of many who were there in those days was the Mazrui, Rodney and Ouma Muga debate on “The Written Word and Mass Mobilisation in Uganda” in May 1970. Milton Obote’s government had just decided “to move to the left” in its national policies and adopt socialism as enshrined in the then famous “Common Man’s Charter”. Obote then decided to use university students to go to the country side and teach the “common man” about the move to the left. The question was: where literary levels were not high enough to enable the common man to read the Charter, how would they be mobilised by the students?

I was then President of the Makerere Students’ Guild, and my Vice President was Joshua Mugyenyi and my minister for National and Pan-African Affairs was Daudi Mulabya Taliwaku, both now deceased. With the help of Okello Oculli we invited Professor Walter Rodney from the University of Dar es Salaam to debate this issue in the Main Hall with Mazrui and Professor J.P.B.M. Ouma, then professor of alluvial geomorphology in the department of geography.

Mazrui began the debate by tracing the colonial origins of the written word in Africa, pointing out that although colonialism on the one hand oppressed and exploited Africans, on the other hand it brought such good things as education and the written word which were used positively for national liberation. Prof Ouma gave the comparative statistics on literacy in East Africa. When Rodney came to speak, he went for the jugular in Mazrui’s speech with words that were recited on campus for quite some time after that. Said Rodney: “Professor Mazrui has argued that colonialism was good; that on the one hand this and on the one hand that. Colonialism had only one hand: the hand of oppression, the hand of exploitation. Education was mainly a means to oppress and exploit African brothers and sisters!”

When Mazrui came back to reply, he played down the controversy on his usual swerve and Oxfordian—and almost aristocratic—manner. “Professor Rodney and I are not really in conflict over this issue: it is an issue where I am being faithful to historical facts while Walter is filial to the Marxist interpretation of history.”

When his chance to reply came up, in his characteristic shrill voice, Walter Rodney rebutted: “Prof Mazrui and I are not in conflict: we are not even in contact!”

The debate was televised live by Uganda Television whose Director then was Aggrey Awori. I was moderating the debate and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Not too long ago Mazrui invited me and my wife Dorothy for a visit to Binghamton. I was giving a lecture on recent developments in Kenyan politics and the democratisation process. We had a good time with him, his wife Pauline, the students and faculty. More recently we were together at the University of Nairobi at what was to be his last lecture in a university where he never sat on any professorial chair.

Seifudein Adem, his very able assistant, recently approached some of us to contribute to a book in appreciation of Ali’s work. The last date of submitting the chapters was September 30, 2014. I decided to write my chapter on “Literature and Politics in Africa: Ali Mazrui and Christopher Okigbo”. Very few people know Ali as a novelist. In 1971 Ali published a novel on “The Trial of Christopher Okigbo” in which he charged his friend, in the Hereafter, of having betrayed his role as an artist by becoming a Major in the Biafra Army during the Nigerian Civil War. The novel was prophetic, and perhaps Ali will now confront Okigbo in the Hereafter to sort out the matters arising in that novel. Rest in eternal peace Mwalimu.

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