Collection of tributes lets Mazrui live again
Colleagues and fellow Africans appraise the prolific work of the late public intellectual from Kenya
A Giant Tree Has Fallen
Edited by Seifudein Adem, Jideofor Adibe, Abdul Karim Bangura, Abdul Samed Bemath
African Perspectives Publishing
When one of Africa’s most prolific public intellectuals died in 2014, there was an avalanche of appreciation. Globally, renowned professor Ali Mazrui was indeed a gigantic tree.
Glowing tributes came from people who had known him; those who had not met the top academic but had been profoundly touched by his work; those he had helped financially; former colleagues from secretaries to top academics; adversaries and admirers.
His body of work comprised more than 35 books that he authored or co-wrote and more than 100 academic papers. This repository of knowledge was produced in the 50 years that Mazrui worked as an academic at institutions in Africa, the US, Europe and Asia.
He was a true public intellectual who connected easily with the ordinary and the elite — including presidents and royalty — and yet he remained humble and grounded as an African scholar of superior knowledge.
Now, through a coup of sorts in local publishing, African Perspectives owned by Rose Francis negotiated the rights with Mazrui’s family and the authors of the tributes, to produce a book that reads like a complete biography of this giant of letters.
The book’s 500 pages leave one with a sense that you too had all along been part of the professor’s life, even if you had not read a single word he had written in his lifetime.
Mazrui gifted the world with his immense intellectual insights on issues as widespread as the African condition, its problems and potential, north-south relations, global politics, culture, slavery and the need for reparations, and Islam and its uncomfortable relationships with other civilisations.
SOYINKA ACCUSED MAZRUI OF AN ISLAMOPHILE SLANT, BERATING HIM FOR UNDERPLAYING THE ARAB SLAVE TRADE.
The tributes paint a picture of a cool head facing the complex issues afflicting the world. Mazrui mixed sometimes confusing and contradictory dogmas and ideologies, like the excellent academic that he was, and was able to clinically analyse issues — even using television documentaries and film to get his message across.
He attracted admirers and critics. Some were irritated by his fearlessness on issues the world did not universally accept, as in his take on Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, the need for reparations for African slavery, the Palestine-Israel conflict, capitalism, socialism, and almost every subject.
His scholarship was interdisciplinary, a point made by Burjor Avari, a fellow Kenyan who met Mazrui at Manchester University, where they were undergraduate students from 1957 to 1960.
Mazrui graduated with a BA degree before proceeding to Columbia University, where he completed an MA in political studies in 1961. He then got a doctorate in political studies at Oxford University in 1965.
"Ali is essentially a political philosopher, and his scholarly books and articles engage with a variety of theoretical perspectives in the field of political philosophy," writes Avari.
"In his works, he deals with issues concerning political leadership, violence and warfare, resolution of conflict, ethnic and linguistic differences, institutions of world order, human rights, the role of culture in politics, and many other themes in line with the works of many other political philosophers."
Mazrui was born in Mombasa, Kenya in 1933 to a prominent Muslim family, part Arab and part African. His father was chief justice of Kenya’s Islamic Court. His grandfather was a prominent Muslim scholar.
Committed to Islam but progressive, the young Mazrui had other ideas when his family wanted him to become a Muslim scholar. He loved the arts, and first dabbled in journalism in Mombasa when he failed to gain entrance to study at Makerere University in Uganda.
He worked at a technical college, where the governor of colonial Kenya noticed his command of English and offered him a scholarship to the UK, where he completed his A-levels and proceeded to Manchester University.
After completing his doctorate, he became the youngest professor of politics in Africa when he joined Makerere University at the age of 32.
Mazrui excelled at Makerere for 10 years. His lectures attracted crowds from outside the university. This did not sit well with the authorities. Former Ugandan president Milton Obote reportedly summoned the young professor to his office and asked him: "Do you know the difference between a professor of politics and a politician?"
When Obote was deposed in a coup by Idi Amin, there was initially a curiously cosy relationship between the professor and the dictator before it soured, forcing Mazrui into exile in the US, where he taught at prestigious universities including the University of Michigan. He had just retired from Binghamton University when he died.
Mazrui’s only work of fiction, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, published in 1971, is an allegorical tale about the Nigerian poet. The friend of Mazrui was slain for his defence of the quest for Biafran independence.
His seminal book, Towards a Pax Africana, was a critique of postindependence Africa in which he famously asked: "Now that the Imperial Order is coming to an end, who is coming to keep the peace in Africa?"
It is perhaps the television series The Africans: A Triple Heritage, financed by the BBC and the Public Broadcast Service in the US, that made Mazrui’s work known worldwide. A book with the same title was published in 1986.
The series was lauded, but also criticised by fellow academics, notably Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka, who argued that Mazrui’s series tended to elevate Arabic culture above indigenous cultures. The acrimony between the two professors degenerated into an ugly public spat in 1991.
"Soyinka effectively accused Mazrui of an Islamophile slant, berating him for underplaying the damage of the Arab slave trade and for trivialising and misrepresenting African indigenous culture, shockingly questioning the authenticity of the author as an Arab to make an authentic documentary about Africa and parochially asking that the story be retold from a black African perspective," writes Adekeye Adebayo in his tribute in the book.
However, in line with the African culture of respecting the dead, Soyinka wrote a glowing tribute to his former academic adversary on his death.
"The ranks keep thinning, bringing sadness both for the individual loss and for the inevitable receding of an era whose seizure owed so much to the intellectual industry of scholars such as Ali Mazrui," Soyinka reflects poetically in A Giant Tree Has Fallen, a compelling read for those seeking intellectual nourishment.