By SEIFUDEIN ADEM
Ali A. Mazrui was legendary for the fertility of his mind. The global icon Nelson Mandela saw Mazrui
as “an outstanding educationist”. Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the UN referred to Mazrui
as “Africa’s gift to the world”. Salim Ahmed Salim, former secretary-general of the Organization of
African Unity and Prime Minister of Tanzania exalted Mazrui’s “eloquence [and the] clarity of [his]
ideas while all the time maintaining the highest degree of humility, respect for fellow human beings,
and an unflagging commitment to justice”.
Mazrui’s compatriot and distinguished author Ngugi wa Thiong’o called him “the global Kenyan”.
Even Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Mazrui’s erstwhile intellectual adversary, wrote warmly, albeit
after his death, about “the intellectual industry of scholars such as Ali Mazrui”. Soyinka said: “I
already feel his absence, and miss him”. An avatar of controversy, Mazrui also had more than his
share of critics. After his nine-hour TV documentary 'The Africans: A Triple Heritage" was released in
1986, the American conservative intellectual Charles Krauthammer said it was “historically ambitious
[and] technically superb,” before dismissing it as a “visually arresting political tendentiousness”.
Soyinka depicted the documentary negatively as Mazrui’s “triple tropes of trickery”. But what upset
Mazrui even more was Soyinka’s insinuation that Mazrui was not black enough. Mazrui’s response:
“My African identity is not for you to bestow or withhold—dear Mr Soyinka”.
It was also at this juncture that Edward Said decided to intervene and chastise Soyinka for being “a
nativist”, and for “attacking a man for not being black enough!” Some post-colonial scholars saw
Mazrui’s proximity to the corridors of power as the Achilles heel of his scholarship.
Mazrui’s response was that he could be a member of the status quo and its critic at the same time.
Mazrui once observed: “Obote was sometimes tempted to detain me or expel me; Idi Amin
eventually wished he had eliminated me; and Julius Nyerere was in recurrent debates with me. Moi
does not know what to do with me”. Mazrui’s critics in the West especially decried the “antiWestern
underlay” of “The Africans”.
But, remarkably, it was John Kerry, then US Senator from Massachusetts and the current Secretary
of State, among others, who came forward to defend the showing of Mazrui’s TV series, "The
Africans", to the American audience.
On the floor of the US Senate, Kerry thus summed up his view about the documentary: “It is a series
that has sparked a great deal of discussion and controversy. While I cannot endorse all of the
conclusions…its showing has provided the American people with an-all-too-rare look at Africa from
an African perspective”.
If Mazrui saw himself as primarily a voice of Africa in the first half of his career, he became a sort of
defender of Islam, or Islamic values, in the second. But Mazrui approached Islam from a cultural
rather than theological angle.
Mazrui’s Islamic sensitivity seemed to have reached an acute level in the last decade after America
invaded and occupied two Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. His public position on this issue
also drew sharp critiques.
In 2005, an article in a student newspaper at Binghamton University titled “Terror in the Ivory
Tower” claimed that Mazrui had links with terrorist organisations. In his “The Younger Face of
Bigotry: The New 87 (8) McCarthyites,” Mazrui thus responded: “I have no connection with any
‘terrorist organisation’—unless you regard the present government of the United States [led by
George W. Bush] as such [an] organisation”.
But how did Mazrui, the champion of Pax Africana, become a spokesperson for Islam in the West?
The shift in Mazrui’s emphasis was neither unexpected nor sudden. Mazrui’s TV documentary had
played a part in his transformation from an Africanist to Islamicist. He had said: “In the TV series I
drew attention to Islam as a major part of the African condition. This became a major turning point
in my career. Instead of my being viewed exclusively as an Africanist and political scientist, I began to
be viewed also as someone who had important and distinctive things to say about Islam”.
Mazrui explored a wide range of issues with uncommon verve and flair; in his contributions to
scholarship and policy debates, it is safe to say, he had simply no peers in Africa.
One thing is therefore certain: Mazrui’s stimulating and substantial intellectual outputs would be put
in the limelight of greater scholarly scrutiny in the future. And that is a good thing for Kenya, for
Africa, and for the world.
Kimani Njogu is director, Twaweza Communications in Kenya. Seifudein Adem is associate director,
Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in the US and associate research
professor of political science at the same university.
Courtesy: Daily Nation