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Mazrui: Icon who never feared speaking his mind

By Makau Mutua | September 4th 2016

In mid-July, Kenyan and global intellectuals gathered in Nairobi to commemorate the scholarly legacy of the late Prof Ali A Mazrui, a pioneer, an intellectual pugilist like no other, and one of the proudest Africans to ever walk the face of the earth. The intellectual soiree was organised by Prof Kimani Njogu with the support of Maurice Makoloo of the Ford Foundation. For me, growing up as an African kid with intellectual ambitions of my own, Prof Mazrui was a towering figure, a mugumo tree that awed and wowed me. I first heard him in 1982 give a public lecture when I was an exiled Kenyan student at the University of Dar es Salaam. I will never forget the impression he left with all of us in a packed Nkrumah Hall.

Prof Mazrui was a role for all of us who yearned to toil in the vineyards of the academy. The Mazrui commemoration was addressed by leading thinkers including former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, Prof Mahmood Mamdani of Makerere, Prof Horace Campbell of Syracuse University, Senator Anyang' Nyong'o, USIU President Paul Zeleza, Dr Adekeye Adebajo of South Africa’s Centre for Conflict Resolution, Prof Sam Makinda, and Prof Chris Wanjala of Kenya. Each agreed that Prof Mazrui bestrode the earth like an intellectual colossus. In my talk, I focused on four themes which touch on Prof Mazrui’s legacy as a thinker, thought-leader, African extraordinaire, and a critiquer of society.

First, Prof Mazrui repudiated the narrative that Africa is a consumer of ideas of others because it doesn’t produce its own. He set to debunk the centuries-old racist canard that Africa is an intellectual wasteland, barren of the labor of the mind. It’s a theme that marked his signature work: The Africans: A triple Heritage. His 1967 books (Pax Africana, On Heroes and Uhuru Worship, and the Anglo-African Commonwealth) foretold a controversial penmanship. Prof Mazrui opened up a new intellectual canvas written on his own terms to confront the West and stake a claim to how Africa and its relationship with the rest of the world would be viewed

The second theme of Prof Mazrui’s legacy concerns his ambivalent – one might say – tortured relationship with the Africa post-colonial state. I remember a panel with him at the OAU where he almost despaired about the spiral of the post-colonial state, and predicted – painfully – that the African post-colonial state may have to be washed clean with buckets of African blood. He called for a reconstitution – both normative and cartographical – of the African state. Some of these positions led to hot spats between Prof Mazrui and other African academics. One notable debate pitted him against Archie Mafeje, the South African academic, who accused him of advocating the recolonisation of Africa.

That slugfest was vintage Mazrui as an intellectual who courted – and cherished – the vigorous and volatile debates. He was unafraid to provoke controversy – in fact, he relished it. His critiques of the African state included many broadsides against African intellectuals he felt weren’t engaging the project of national project in the right way. In the Trial of Christopher Okigbo, he critiqued the Nigerian writer for allegedly betraying the larger Nigerian project and art by joining the civil war on Biafra’s side.

While he defended African states from the predations of imperialism, he excoriated them for their unimaginative and undemocratic political classes.

Thirdly, he argued the Global South could embrace the liberal project while stretching the limits of its liberatory potential. Thinkers like Prof Mazrui – men of their era – were generally forced by history to choose which side of the political divide to inhabit. For an African like Prof Mazrui, the pressure was intense to join the Marxist column in vogue throughout sectors of the African intelligentsia during the 1960s-1980s. One’s bona fides as a true African patriot depended on what side of the fence one fell. Liberal ideologues were mocked as “capitalist running dogs.” Even worse, they were viewed as traitors to the cause of full African liberation from the West.

Prof Mazrui, one of the first Africans truly steeped in the literature of the West and its politics, did not accept this easy schism. He thought the dichotomy demagogued the complexity of the African condition. The East African circles in which he started his career were dominated by leftist academics, many of them expressing an openly Marxist/Maoist/Leninist view of the world. Prof But Mazrui never ceded ground to them. He eschewed most forms of fundamentalism — his worldview was decidedly liberal, although he remained throughout his life a critic of the West.

Finally, Prof Mazrui rejected the Darwinist project of history that is built on the narrative of the hierarchy of cultures. He spent his entire life fighting for the recognition of the intellectual and civilisational contributions of the Global South. While he acknowledged the dysfunction and dystopia of many an African state, he refused to succumb to Afro-pessimism or the lazy projection on state failure and fragility on an innate African incapacity.

He explained these malaise in terms of epochal changes in power dynamics between societies and states. Ultimately, Prof Mazrui recognised the victimisation of Africa by the West but refused to assign it to the hegemonist and racist narratives of the day.

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