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Prof. Ali Mazrui: Remembering the giant mind of Africa

By Dr. Jude Kagoro

Prof. Ali Mazrui: Remembering the giant mind of Africa

On October 13, the world woke up to the news that the life of Prof. Ali Mazrui, the eminent intellectual, had come to an end at the age of 81. The Kenyan, also a de facto Ugandan in many ways, had been fragile for some time. Though his human lifespan has ended, Mazrui’s intellectual legacy will be immortal. At 81 years and with his immeasurable achievements, Mazrui cannot be mourned but celebrated. And so I am reminded of the commemoration of Prof. Mazrui’s 80th birthday at Binghamton University, New York in 2013, where I was privileged to be one of the guests—I will come back to this recollection in a moment. First, I will describe another kind of encounter I had, at its center, a scholarly debate I unintentionally generated by citing Prof. Mazrui’s work.

In April/May 2010, I was invited by renowned Professor of Anthropology, Jean Comaroff, to present a paper at an international conference on “Politics in Africa.” The conference was hosted by the Center for Contemporary Theory and the Committee on African Studies at the University of Chicago. In the course of presenting the paper titled “Politics, Military and Society in Uganda,” I read out a citation from Ali Mazrui’s 1975 thesis, “Soldiers and Kinsmen in Uganda: The Making of a Military Ethnocracy.” The citation goes as follows: “Statehood has so far been the final consolidation of the marriage between politicisation and militarisation and that what we have now is a basic transition from the warfare state to the welfare state.

This welfare state has been marked by a paradoxical process of attempting to divorce the military, which contributed so much to the rise of the modern state, from politics in the state.” At the end of my presentation, one American professor made a comment to the effect that I should not have quoted Mazrui because in his perspective, Mazrui was a “journalist” and not an academic.

For some minutes, I was disoriented because Mazrui’s thesis was central to my paper. Before I could react an argument ensued among senior professors in the room. Many thought that Mazrui was too big a name to ignore and that though a number of his ideas were considered eccentric in some American circles, his ability to generate academic debate was unquestionable. Of course, I had quoted several other scholars in that paper, but the fact that Mazrui turned out to be the principle focus of the debate was in itself telling of what an icon he was in the intellectual milieu. In fact, another professor at the same occasion inferred that any academic work on the socio-politics of Uganda and Africa as a continent cannot be considered complete if Mazrui is not cited. Indeed, Mazrui has been recognised by many as one of the world’s most proficient and provocative authors on Africa and beyond.

Perhaps one may excuse the professor’s description of Mazrui as a “journalist” but not the additional comment “not an academic.” For instance, in 1962, Mazrui was a political analyst for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and he additionally did some writing and broadcasting for Radio Uganda and Radio Tanzania in the 1960s. Mazrui also wrote several articles in Kenyan, Ugandan, and South African newspapers including The Nation and The Standard (Kenya), The Monitor (Uganda) and The City Press (South Africa). One of Mazrui’s main strengths was his ability to creatively simplify heavy academic texts for the interest of non-academics.

Ultimately, in 1986, Mazrui’s legendary reputation travelled beyond academia when he authored and hosted the nine-part television series, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage.” This masterpiece was aired on the BBC in England, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States and subsequently on several television stations in Africa, including Uganda. In the series, Mazrui accurately put it that the modern African identity has been formulated at the Islamic, indigenous and Western civilization nexus. Additionally, Mazrui was a consultant and on-screen respondent on other TV documentaries such as “A History Denied”, in the television series on “Lost Civilizations” aired on National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the United States among others.

The Extraordinary Intellectual

Mazrui’s academic curriculum vita (CV) is surely larger than life. Not that it was all a walk in the park. Just starting out into academia and feeling somewhat uninspired, Mazrui failed his Cambridge Certificate Exams with grades that would not allow him entry into any university, including Makerere. Mazrui soon recaptured his intellectual direction, attaining his B.A at Manchester University in England in 1960, an M.A at Columbia University in New York in 1961, and a PhD at Oxford University in England in 1966.

Traditionally, academic excellence is gauged by the number of publications one has with reputable publishing houses and journals. Mazrui’s publication credentials are, in fact, unassailable. Between 1967 and the time of his death (October 2014) Mazrui had published over 30 books and hundreds of essays in reputable journals. Interestingly, he published his first three books in a single year, 1967, and a further three books between 1970 and 1972. By all means, any academic will tell you of how gruelling it can be to nurture a book from an idea to being accepted by a reputable publishing house thus making my admiration for the prolific Mazrui even greater.

Besides his publications, Mazrui held several intellectual positions at different times of his life. Makerere University holds a proud record of having given Mazrui a platform to blossom and his first high profile appointments in the intellectual world. He joined “the Hill” as a political science lecturer in 1963, before becoming Head of Department of Political Science and later the first African Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. During his time at Makerere, the incumbent Chancellor of the University, Prof. John Ddumba-Ssentamu writes, Mazrui laid a firm foundation for Political Science studies including the introduction of courses in International Relations and Law, which have since gone a long way in making the Department more relevant for both local and international issues.

Prof. Ddumba-Ssentamu adds that Mazrui was an outstanding keynote speaker whose addresses and lectures were always looked forward to and attended to maximum capacity at the university’s historic Main Hall. He nurtured the culture of debate and critical thinking skills at the university and his products include Hon. John Ken Lukyamuzi (MP for Rubaga South), and Prof Augustus Nuwagaba among others. Fittingly, in Mazrui’s honour, Makerere University initiated the Mazrui Endowment Chair and the East African Ali Mazrui Centre for Global Studies in 2009.

Prof. Mazrui stayed at Makerere University until 1973 when he was forced into exile by the excesses of the Idi Amin regime. Ironically, when Amin took over power through a coup in 1971, Mazrui was, for a short while, one of his favorite intellectuals. Noteworthy, Mazrui had the reputation of somebody courageous enough to concurrently critique both Idi Amin and Jomo Kenyatta’s (in Kenya) regimes, eventually choosing the US as his exile destination.

Meanwhile, following the completion of his PhD in 1966, Mazrui regularly held visiting professor positions at several prestigious universities including, Chicago, Harvard, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Oxford, Leeds, Nairobi, Teheran, Denver, London, Baghdad, and Sussex amongst others. Similarly, he was voted to numerous positions including as the President of the African Studies Association (ASA), Vice-President of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) and the International Sociology Association (ISA).

After fleeing Uganda in 1973 Mazrui worked for the University of Michigan for 18 years. In 1989, he went on to become Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies (IGCS) at the Binghamton University, New York. Mazrui also held three simultaneous appointments as Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large at the University of Jos in Nigeria, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University and Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University in Kenya. It is thus not surprising that Mazrui was ranked as the 73rd topmost intellectual in the world by both Prospect Magazine in the United Kingdom and Foreign Policy Magazine in the United States.

Attending Mazrui’s 80th Birthday Celebration

In April 2013, I was most honored to be invited by the New York African Studies Association (NYASA) to attend and give a paper at its 38th annual conference held at Binghamton University, New York. The conference with the theme, “Global Africa, Triple Heritage and Pax Africana: Looking Back and Looking Forward,” was one of the most stimulating academic events. The organisers purposely synchronised the conference with the grand celebration of Prof. Mazrui’s 80th birthday as well as the 50th year of his publishing career. The conference guests included celebrated African scholars and Mazrui’s contemporaries such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ousseina Alidou, Adekeye Adebajo, and even politicians like former Nigerian military ruler, Gen. Yakubu Gowan among others. Sadly, another iconic intellectual on the guest list, Chinua Achebe, died a few days to the event.

The conference/celebrations exemplified Mazrui’s love for Makerere University and Uganda in general. Makerere had a special exhibition stand and was represented by a large delegation led by the Vice Chancellor Prof. Ddumba-Ssentamu. Uganda had the largest number of invitees, though most did not attend. Just imagine a list comprising of personalities like the Kabaka of Buganda, Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro, Prof. Apollo Nsibambi, Prof. Mondo Kagonyera, Hon. Ken Lukyamuzi, Dr. Ssimba Kayunga, Al Hajji Habib Kajimu, Prof. Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, Sir. Gordon Wavamunno, Prof. Edward Kirumira, Dr. Charles Bwana and Hon. Jessica Alupo. At the function, Prof. Mazrui personally spoke highly of Makerere University and referred to Uganda as home, just like Kenya.

Despite his already fragile health, Prof. Mazrui attended several presentations (including mine), actively discussed papers, freely interacted with his guests and found time to individually encourage young scholars in their academic endeavours. He was humorous and refreshingly down-to-earth, a true inspiration. Indeed the iconic figure lived an exemplary life and has left shoes too big to fill.


Prof. Ali Al’amin Mazrui may your soul rest in peace.

Dr. Jude Kagoro is a Postdoc Fellow of the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen, Germany.

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