ALI Al-min Mazrui, renowned scholar who died at the age of 81 will be remembered not only for his brilliance and scholarly works but also as one who strove to make pride in Africanness, the identity of any African. For that, he compelled a better view of not only an African scholar but that of the average African. Mazrui, who was the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies (IGCS) at State University of New York at Binghamton, passed on during a brief illness in New York, thus ending his earthly journey, which began in 1933 at the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa. He was an eminent scholar, one of the very few who put Africa on the global map of scholarship having been nurtured in the intellectual environment and élan of East Africa with Makerere University as the epicenter.
In death, Mazrui will for long be celebrated for his intellectual prowess both as a scholar and public intellectual. His voyage began at Huddersfield College in Manchester where he took his A’ Levels and later studied government at the University of Manchester. He went further to do a Masters at Columbia in New York and crowned his education with a doctorate from Nuffield College, Oxford. He held various academic positions including visiting professorships across several institutions of learning globally. In the early days of his academic career, he taught at Makerere, Stanford, and Michigan Universities. He was Andrew White Professor-at-large at Cornell as well as Albert Luthuli Professor-at-large at the University of Jos, Nigeria. Also, he was Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
As a scholar, he authored many books and scholarly essays such as Black Reparations in the Era of Globalisation, Islam: Between Globalization and Counter Terrorism, Cultural Forces in World Politics and The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, Barrel of Gun and Barrel of Oil and Africa Since 1935. Arguably, The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986) shot him into public consciousness on a global scale. The nine-part innovative television documentary co-produced with the BBC and the US Public Broadcasting Service in association with the Nigerian Television Authority, looked at African culture and society and its interface with other influences, namely, indigenous African culture, Islam and Christianity.
He was a controversial public intellectual who welcomed polemical debates on any issue he was passionate about. He once dismissed the late Ghanaian nationalist and President, Kwame Nkrumah as a “Leninist Czar” and Nigeria’s Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka as a victim of “poetic hallucinations”. While Nkrumah remarked that Mazrui’s writing about him was one executed with a “colonial mindset”, Soyinka was to describe him as “a scion of Arab slave drivers”. In The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, Mazrui pilloried the great poet, Okigbo for allegedly straying into the narrow-minded agenda of his Igbo ethnic stock instead of a steadfast pursuit of his poetic vocation.
His analytical assessments however never removed from his respect for these persons. He also squared with the radical scholar, Walter Rodney and went in opposite direction against the imperialist reading of the liberation struggles in the continent. It was to his credit, Horace Campbell of Syracuse University observed that he grew and perhaps through critical inquiry embraced Nkrumah’s vision of African unity and Rodney’s anti-imperialist viewpoint.
Mazrui served the African continent in many capacities. Within the Global Pan African movement, Mazrui championed the full unification of the peoples of Africa and of their transformation from oppressive conditions. He served in the Eminent Persons Group on Reparations set up by the Organisation of African Unity at the proddy of the late Moshood K. O. Abiola, alongside Nigerian historian J. F. Ade-Ajayi; Prof. Samir Amin of Egypt.; U.S. Congressman R. Dellums; Prof. Josef Ki-Zerbo of Burkina Faso; Mme Cracha Machel, formerly First Lady of Mozambique ; the musical star Miriam Makeba ; Prof. M. M’Bow, former Director-General of UNESCO; former President A. Pereira of Cape Verde; Ambassador Alex Quaison-Sackey, former Foreign Minister of Ghana; and the Jamaican lawyer/diplomat Dudley S. Thompson. He also served as a patron of the Committee for the memorialisation of Walter Rodney.
Mazrui was a humanist par excellence, a humanism based on the dignity of all human beings irrespective of race, religion, region and gender. It was a mark of his humanism that he opposed war and militarism. He stood vehemently against interventions in Iraq in 2003 and the invasion of Libya by the United States and its allies and the consequent assassination of Mouammar Gaddafi. Mazrui wrote very early about the racism and discrimination that existed in the capitalist world and was one of the first to explore the theme of global Apartheid. In the context of the post 9/11 terrorism security challenges he was detained and questioned by American security authorities on suspicion of terrorist connections while returning from a lecture tour of Trinidad and Tobago in 2003.
In Mazrui, Africa has lost another great son. In the raging battle against neoliberal evasion of welfare values and popular empowerment of the peoples of Africa, Mazrui will be sorely missed. May Allah forgive his sins.