By PAUL TIYAMBE ZELEZA
Prof Ali Mazrui, who died at the age of 81 on October 12, 2014, was one of Africa’s greatest intellectuals. He was a prominent architect of post-colonial scholarship, an indefatigable voice for Africa’s intellectual rebirth and empowerment. Mazrui’s stature rests on several extraordinary achievements, three of which can be singled out.
First, there was his prodigious volume of scholarship. He published more than 30 books, hundreds of essays, commentaries, and film documentaries. Second, the range, probity, and impact of his intellectual analyses, interventions, and debates were extraordinary. Mazrui was a towering intellectual who moved seamlessly between the classroom, conference circuit, popular media, and corporate boardroom, to the corridors of political power. He relished intellectual debate and combat because he believed in the power of ideas as a dynamic force in human history.
Third, his commitment to repositioning Africa’s global position and the place of African scholarship in global scholarship was unfaltering.
I first met Prof Mazrui in 1978 when he came as a guest speaker at my MA class at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Over the years, I got to know him personally through my friendship with his nephew, Alamin Mazrui, as well as through our encounters at the annual meetings of the US African Studies Association, and many other forums and contexts. He was a man my generation of African academics admired, a scholar we sought to emulate.
His contributions to African studies were intellectual, ideological, and institutional. Intellectually, against prevailing notions that sought to simplify and homogenise Africa, he insisted on the continent’s diversities, complexities, and contradictions of African histories and societies.
This was captured brilliantly in his BBC Reith Lectures, The African Condition, and most memorably in the 1986 television series and accompanying book, Africa: A Triple Heritage in which he built on Edward Blyden and Kwame Nkrumah’s ideas that Africa represented a complex confluence of three civilisational forces: the indigenous, Islamic, and Western.
His trenchant critiques of Eurocentrism remained a permanent feature of his work. A methodological subversion of Eurocentric historiography was most evident in two books, Nationalism and New States in Africa: From about 1935 to the Present published in 1984 and Vol. 8 of the Unesco General History of Africa that he edited and was published in 1993. In both books decolonisation and contemporary African history were dated to 1935, not 1945, to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia rather than the end of the Second World War.
His attack on the authoritarian propensities of nationalism, the assault on democratic aspirations and ideals of what has come to be called “the first independence” by the African post-colonial leaders was perceptively captured in a series of his early books on post-colonial African politics. They include two books he published in 1967, On Heroes and Uhuru-Worship: Essays on Independent Africa and Towards a Pax Africana: A Study of Ideology and Ambition.
Another major intellectual contribution centred on his work on Pan-Africanism to which he brought his multilayered analytical perspective. He distinguished between five versions of Pan-Africanism: the Trans-Atlantic, continental, sub-Saharan, Pan-Arab, and global. He underscored the complex interconnections between them as an essential part of understanding African liberation movements and ideologies.
Mazrui’s understanding of Pan-Africanism reflected and reinforced a broader conception of African diaspora that is evident in his later work, including The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities that he co-edited in 1999.
Equally remarkable is Mazrui’s work on the globalisation of Africa. He believed that Africa was a global civilisation, that it was central, not peripheral, to the development of world history, both as a victim and a player. This is powerfully articulated in a series of publications including his 1990 book, Cultural Forces in World Politics and Africa and other Civilizations: Conquest and Counter-Conquest, The Collected Essays of Ali A.Mazrui published in 2002.
Mazrui’s ideological contributions to African scholarship and politics are similarly broad and remarkable. He engaged in spirited attacks on both the rigidities of Marxism and African socialism. This was evident at the famous Dar es Salaam debate with Walter Rodney, the Guyanese Marxist scholar activist.
Mazrui’s relocation from Idi Amin’s Uganda to the US in the early 1970s refocused and sharpened his scholarship into an expansive humanism. His work was increasingly marked by a deep concern and commitment to human rights, agency, and freedom. He wrote copiously on struggles for social justice for marginalised communities based on race, gender, and religion. He became a fierce critic of post-colonial tyrannies, apartheid, and racial oppression in the diaspora, and of women’s exploitation, Islamic fundamentalist intolerance and Euroamerican demonisation of Muslims.
The eclectic works of Mazrui from the late 1970s to the time of his death reflect a mind increasingly agitated by oppression in all its forms. He ruffled many feathers among western intellectuals some of whom had lauded him while he was in Uganda as a paragon of liberalism. The National Endowment for the Humanities withdrew its name from the credits of his acclaimed television series.
He entered the fray of debate for reparations against slavery when he was appointed to the Eminent Persons Group by the OAU on the subject. In 2002, he published Black Reparations in the Era of Globalization. Writing on the African Renaissance, he argued that it needed three major revolutions in skills, values, and gender relations. Thus he saw women’s emancipation and empowerment as an ethical, cultural, political, and economic necessity.
Mazrui’s scholarship also increasingly focused on the ferocious debates about trends in Islam and the rising Islamophobic post-cold war West looking for a new eternal enemy. This is reflected in series of publications including Islam: Between Globalization & Counter-Terrorism published in 2006 and the co-edited collection Islam in Africa’s Experience published in 2008.
As for his institutional contributions, space only allows the listing of a few highlights. He was instrumental in the development of the field of African political science beginning at Makerere University where he became the first African professor of political science.
Mazrui was also an influential figure in the development of the field of African and African American studies, first as director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan from 1978 to 1981. Later when he relocated to Binghampton University he served as director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies. He was elected President of the US African Studies Association.
In addition, he left an indelible legacy on the development of African higher education. His scholarship include his two books Political Values and the Educated Class in Africa published in 1978 on the problematic colonial legacies of African universities and ambiguous identities of the educated class; and The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in the African Experience published in 1998 on the disempowering effects of the dominance of European languages in African scholarly knowledge production and governance
He also held a series of administrative and consultative positions. They include serving as chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology; member of the Pan-African Advisory Council to the United Nations’ Children’s Fund; vice-president, World Congress of Black Intellectuals; member of the United Nations Commission on Transnational Corporations; member of the World Bank’s Council of African Advisors; and vice-president, International African Institute.
For me Prof Mazrui was a giant of the first post-colonial generation of African scholars.
Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice Chancellor and Professor of the Humanities and the Social Sciences, USIU-Africa, Nairobi