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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 12   01-15 November 2014

Ali Mazrui (1933-2014)

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Professor Ali Mazrui, a leading Africanist and a widely-known scholar and public intellectual, passed away on October 12, 2014 at the age of 81 at his home in Vestal, New York. His body was brought to his hometown Mombasa, where he was buried at the Mazrui family’s cemetery.

Ali Al’Amin Mazrui was born on February 24, 1933 in Mombasa, Kenya. His father was an eminent scholar and jurist and the Chief Qadi of Kenya. The Mazrui clan was politically powerful and had ruled Mombasa for more than a century until 1837. Mazrui’s father passed away when he was 14.

Mazrui was awarded a scholarship by the Kenyan government to pursue secondary education in Britain in 1955, which he completed two years later. He stayed on in England to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the University of Manchester in 1960. He won a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to study for the Master’s degree at Columbia University in New York (1960-61). Mazrui came to Uganda in 1963, where he was appointed a lecturer in political science at Makerere University College. He returned to England a couple of years later to work on his doctorate. He was awarded a D. Phil by Oxford University in 1966. He then returned to Makerere and was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Mazrui stayed in Uganda for about ten years (1963-73). This period was marked by momentous and tumultuous developments in Uganda’s recent history. The country gained independence from Britain in 1962 and Milton Obote became independent Uganda’s first prime minister. However, the country was soon engulfed in political uncertainty and chaos. Taking advantage of the prevailing atmosphere of confusion and political instability, Idi Amin seized power in a military coup in 1971. Idi Amin’s rule (1971-79) was marked by widespread political repression, extrajudicial executions, rampant corruption and suppression of human rights and civil liberties. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 500,000 Ugandans lost their lives during Idi Amin’s brutal reign.

From the beginning of his academic career, Mazrui evinced a keen interest in contemporary political issues and concerns in Uganda, Kenya and other African nations. In addition to teaching at Makerere University, he frequently wrote for local newspapers and engaged in public debates on the legacy of European colonialism and the trials and tribulations of nation-building in Africa in the wake of decolonisation. Idi Amin invited Mazrui to be his political advisor on international affairs. Mazrui, who considered freedom and democracy as the key to Africa’s progress and development and looked askance at Idi Amin’s thinly-disguised actions, declined the offer and fled to the United States in 1973 to escape his wrathful revenge.

Mazrui took up a teaching position at the University of Michigan. In 1989 he accepted an appointment as Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in New York. The Institute of Global Cultural Studies, founded by Mazrui at Binghamton University, is aimed at developing new multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of the culture and cultural influences in the contemporary world. Mazrui also held simultaneous appointments as Albert Luthli Professor-at-Large at the University of Jos in Nigeria, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, and Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya. He held visiting professorships at several universities in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia, including Harvard, Chicago, Oxford and the universities of California, Leeds, Nairobi, Tehran, Denver, London and Sussex.

Mazrui was a prolific writer. In the course of his academic career which spanned nearly five decades, he wrote more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, essays and reviews. His writings encompassed a wide range of themes, including the African condition, globalisation, democracy, international relations, human rights and inter-cultural understanding. His major works include Towards a Pax Africana (1967), A World Federation of Cultures: An African Perspective (1976), Africa’s International Relations (1977), The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986) and Black Reparations in the Era of Globalisation (2002). Most of his writings were animated by a deep concern with public issues. Mazrui wrote hundreds of articles, which were published in reputed academic journals as well as local newspapers in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. He was a political analyst for the BBC. His speeches were often aired on Radio Uganda and Radio Tanzania in the 1960s.

The crowning glory of Mazrui’s academic career, which earned him international acclaim, was “The Africans: A Triple Heritage,” which he wrote and narrated in 1986. The nine-part television series, co-produced by the BBC and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), sought to focus on Africa’s social, cultural and political legacy in a historical as well as contemporary perspective. The series dealt at considerable length with the exploitation of the continent by the European colonial rulers, the agony and ecstasy experienced by Africans in the wake of decolonization and the problems and challenges faced by the continent. The documentary was filmed in 16 African countries and England, France and the United States. Mazrui emphasized that Africa’s social, cultural and political legacy lay at the confluence and intersection of three distinct streams: the indigenous heritage, Islam and the West.

The series generated a good deal of interest as well as controversy, particularly in the US. The National Endowment for the Humanities, which had contributed $600,000 to the production costs, demanded the removal of its name from the credits, and the organisation’s then chair Lynne Cheney dismissed the series as an “anti-Western diatribe” that blamed “all the moral, economic and technological problems of Africa on the West.”

From the beginning of his academic career, Mazrui had a penchant for public debates and for espousing ideas and views that were often contested and controversial. “My life is one long debate,” he once wrote. He had no hesitation in proposing that Africa should have nuclear weapons. “I want black Africa to have the bomb to frighten the system as a whole,” he wrote.

Mazrui received many honours during his long and eventful academic career. He served as President of African Studies Association, Vice-President of the International Political Science Association and Vice-President of the International Sociology Association. He also served as President of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists of North America. He was invited to deliver the prestigious Reith Lectures titled “The African Condition” by the BBC. Mazrui served as a special advisor to the United Nations and the World Bank. In 2009 Makerere University instituted the Mazrui Endowment Chair and the East African Mazrui Centre for Global Studies.

A valuable insight offered by a perspective in sociology, known as sociology of knowledge, is that ideas, ideological orientations and theories are better understood and appreciated in their social and political contexts and in light of the prevailing climate of opinion at a given point of time. Mazrui once said, “I myself am an example of Africa’s triple heritage.” The statement reflects an amazing amalgamation of self-reflection and intellectual orientation. Mazrui’s upbringing, his academic career and contributions, his role as a public intellectual, his personality and the views he espoused reflect the enduring imprint and influence of the Islamic milieu in which he was born and raised, the indigenous African culture that he inherited, and Western education and intellectual tradition which he imbibed. Mazrui emphasized the central role of Islam and Arab culture in shaping Africa’s historical, social and political trajectory. He enunciated the idea of “Afrabia” – the merging of Africa and the Arab world. He believed that the principles of Islamic Shariah were broadly compatible with the ethos of democracy. He took a keen interest in processes of social change and in social and political movements in the Muslim world and expressed his views without fear or favour. He was the first commentator to liken the inhuman treatment of the Palestinians by Israel to South Africa’s apartheid system. He unequivocally condemned the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In the past few years there has been an alarming rise in intolerance, extremism and militancy in a section of Muslim youth, who are on the fringes of Muslim societies. This is manifested in the proliferation of global terrorist networks aimed at carrying out acts of violence and destruction, in the repressive and misguided policies of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the violence perpetrated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and in the increasingly violent methods adopted by al-Shabab in Somalia, Ansar Deine in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Since 2002 the northern part of Nigeria has been in the grip of reckless violence perpetrated by a fanatical and militant movement called Boko Haram. In the Hausa language, Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden.” The basic goal of Boko Haram is to overthrow the present government in Nigeria and to establish an Islamic caliphate governed by Shariah. It considers any kind of association with the West, including modern education, Western culture and democracy, forbidden and unlawful. The violence perpetrated by Boko Haram has been directed against government buildings, police stations, infrastructure and public services, politicians, churches, schools and Muslims who disapprove of its ideology. In 2009, it carried out a spate of violent attacks on police stations and other government buildings in Maiduguri, in which hundreds were killed and thousands of civilians fled the city. Between 2002 and 2013, bomb attacks and shootings by Boko Haram militants have resulted in at least 4,000 deaths. Boko Haram militants killed some 70 teachers and more than 100 students in northern Nigeria in 2013. More than 100 schools in the region were either forcibly closed down or burned. Thousands of students have been forced out of school. On April 14, 2014, about 300 Nigerian girls, including Muslims and Christians, were kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters. The fate of the kidnapped girls remains unknown.

The reckless violence and destruction carried out by Boko Haram fighters has created an atmosphere of fear and insecurity across the country and has widened the gulf between Muslims and Christians. Many Muslims have stopped sending their daughters to schools due to fears that they may be targeted by Boko Haram. Prominent Muslim scholars and Muslim organizations, including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, have unequivocally condemned the violence unleashed by Boko Haram. Nigeria’s Muslim scholars have questioned Boko Haram leader Abu Bakar Shekau’s understanding and interpretation of Islam. The Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’adu Abubakar, a widely respected spiritual leader of Nigerian Muslims, has described Boko Haram un-Islamic and an embarrassment to Islam.

Mazrui condemned the bigotry and fanaticism of Boko Haram and said that their actions are manifestly contrary to the teachings and principles of Islam.

Mazrui’s life-long academic and personal preoccupation was the African condition, the continent’s colonial legacy and its predicament. He devoted himself heart and soul to espousing Africa’s causes. This was evidently manifested in his writings, particularly in the television series “The Africans: A Triple Heritage.” Significantly, Mazrui described the series as a “view from the inside.”

Colonialism generally refers to a period of history from the late 15th to the mid-20th century, when almost the whole of Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, all of North and South America and Australia were conquered and occupied by the European colonial powers, including the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, French and Italian colonial empires. The colonization of Africa began in the 1880s and by 1914 nearly 90 per cent of the continent was under the control of the European colonial powers. Colonialism had a whole set of adverse and insidious consequences for the colonized peoples in Africa and Asia, including the massive plunder and exploitation of natural and human resources, the ruthless massacre of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, the impoverishment of indigenous industries and crafts, enslavement and diseases. Nineteenth-century Europe, which was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, needed vast quantities of raw materials, especially those which were not available on the continent, for its burgeoning industries and rising trade. The colonized territories were looked upon as extremely valuable sources for abundant and cheap raw materials, as strategic trade routes and as a huge and lucrative market for the sale of European goods and commodities. The scramble for Africa in the 19th century was propelled by the easy availability of valuable raw materials and mineral resources such as copper, cotton, palm oil, cocoa, tea, tin and diamonds, and the potential acquisition of military and naval bases for strategic purposes.

The colonizers often set up plantations and farms in which cheap labour from the colonies was employed and in which control as well as profits remained in their hands. In many cases, large tracts of land were taken over by force or deceit. The cultivation of exotic, export-oriented produce at the expense of food grain impoverished the local peasantry and undermined the country’s ability to sustain itself in respect of food grain. Traditional industries and crafts were systematically impoverished and destroyed. The map of dozens of countries in Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia was systematically drawn and redrawn by the European colonial powers. In most of the independent nation-states in Africa, the political boundaries were arbitrarily drawn at the instance of the colonial rulers. Many of these national borders divided groups of people and ethnic communities that had lived together for centuries. This added to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the continent and fuelled inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts.

Colonial conquest and the ideology of colonialism were justified in terms of white supremacy and the self-styled moral obligation of European civilization to carry the torch of enlightenment and culture to the dark races of mankind. The common belief in Europe in the colonial era was that only the civilized Christian Europeans could be regarded as truly human, and all other men were rated as sub-human animals, monsters, damned souls, or the product of a separate creation. The structure of the colonial state was suffused with racism, which was reflected in the sharp distinction drawn by the colonial rulers between the white ruling class and the non-white subjects. From the time of the arrival of the French colonizers in Algeria in 1830, the violent imposition of colonial rule over the country was justified in terms of a “civilizing mission” -- the introduction of republican, secular, universal values in a society assumed to be steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness.

Mazrui wrote extensively on Africa’s colonial legacy, its calamitous impact on the continent and the reverberations of the colonial legacy in the wake of decolonization. In one of his major works “Towards a Pax Africana,” he emphasized that the key to Africa’s empowerment and progress lay in its disengagement with the colonial legacy, which has continued to cast a long shadow over the continent even after the end of the colonial era. Most of the African countries in the postcolonial era have been modeled on the colonial state. This is particularly reflected in the appropriation of political institutions, including the constitution, judiciary, government, bureaucracy, military and the police. Even after its former colonies in Africa gained independence, France continued to set its eyes on their rich and abundant natural resources, particularly oil, gas, gold and uranium. In Africa the French government followed a policy that came to be known as Francafrique, according to which it supported authoritarian and unpopular leaders in order to protect and consolidate its economic interests. The policy of Francafrique involved payment of huge bribes and corruption, rigging of elections, and military operations and coups. The educated, Westernised elite who attended educational institutions created by the colonial rulers or European universities played a key role in the consolidation of postcolonial states. In most cases the ruling class was drawn from the ranks of the educated elite, who also exerted control over parliament, courts, bureaucracy, educational institutions and political parties.

Mazrui argued that European colonialism had inflicted an incalculable damage on the economy, politics, culture and self-respect of the African people and the least the European ex-colonial nations could do to make amends for the historical wrong is to pay reparations to African countries. Mazrui was a member of the Eminent Persons Group on Reparations, set up by the Organisation of African Unity.

There are several precedents for paying reparations to states or people to compensate for historical wrongs. In 2008 Italy paid Libya $5 billion as compensation for its 30-year occupation of the country, which ended in 1943. In 2013 Germany agreed to pay $1 billion as reparations to the survivors of the Holocaust. In 2013 Britain agreed to pay compensation to 5,000 elderly veterans of the Mau Mau nationalist uprising in Kenya, which was brutally suppressed by the British government in the 1950s. In the crackdown on the movement, nearly 90,000 Kenyans were killed or maimed and 160,000 detained, tortured and raped. In 2013, 14 Caribbean nations sued Britain, the Netherland and France for reparations for the Atlantic slave trade.

Following the end of the colonial era in the 1960s, a section of Africa’s intellectual and political elite was drawn to Marxism and socialism. They believed that the socialist model of state would be a potent instrument in the nation-building project and would ensure the continent’s progress and development. Mazrui was highly critical of rapacious, predatory capitalism as well as all variants of Marxism and socialism. He persuasively argued that socialism, being an alien import to Africa, would undermine the continent’s progress and development. He advocated a liberal, humane kind of capitalism, suffused with African values, egalitarianism and democracy.

Mazrui was deeply committed to the vision of Pan-Africanism. The Africa of his dreams was a continent of huge natural and human resources and potentialities and inhabited by people of different racial stocks, ethnicities, religious affiliations and identities, who would be united in pursuit of peaceful coexistence, inclusive and participatory democracy, human rights and development.

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