A Great Wonder of the African World: A Tribute to Ali A. Mazrui (1933-2014) By Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jnr., Ph.D.

Keame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jnr., Ph.D.
Keame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jnr., Ph.D.

In its obituary piece of October 20, 2014, the New York Times described Prof. Ali A. Mazrui as a “Scholar of Africa Who Divided U.S. Audiences.” That was actually the caption of the rather modest article that announced his death. He had been dead for barely a week and was shortly to be buried in a family cemetery on the island city of Mombasa, overlooking the mainland of Kenya.

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Controversy and all, Prof. Mazrui had held the august Albert Schweitzer Chair of the Humanities, named for the famous Swiss-German humanitarian missionary whom the chair holder once paradoxically described as “a benevolent racist,” on the sprawling Binghamton campus of the State University of New York, the largest public institution of its kind in the northeastern United States (comprising of some sixty colleges and universities), for some fifteen years.

And so it goes without saying that Prof. Mazrui was a scholar’s scholar, a giant among giants in his pet field of expertise – the political history of Contemporary Africa. The author of the brilliantly executed retrospective novel The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, had he forged a career as a novelist or literary artist, Prof. Mazrui may well have won the Nobel Prize for Literature at some point in his career. As a historian, he was probably equalled in both the volume and quality of his output by only one other scholar, the Bristol (UK)-born Africanist Mr. Basil Davidson (1914-2010). But Davidson was more of a cultural historian than a political historian. What inextricably and intimately linked Messrs. Mazrui and Davidson together was their unquestionable passion and staunch intellectual devotion to the African people and their continent, as well as their dignity and humanity.

Mazrui was also “controversial” because he was not afraid to bluntly tell the authentic story of Africa without any fear of contradiction. And, by the way, he was controversial among both African and Western scholars and so he must have been doing something quite nonesuch and/or uniquely Mazruian. The preceding notwithstanding, the controversy swirling around his scholarship and personality that the New York Times obituary alluded to, had primarily to do with his nine-part television documentary series titled The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986).

In the latter documentary series, Prof. Mazrui, feeding ravenously off the profound scholarship of pioneering Afro-Caribbean Africanist Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, later of Liberia and Sierra Leone, posited the quite interesting thesis of the modern African personality having been remarkably shaped temperamentally by a trifecta of Indigenous African, Western and Islamic cultural, political, scientific and ideological influences. Those fairly equally distinguished African and Africanist intellectuals and scholars who vehemently disagreed with Prof. Mazrui, including Nigeria’s Nobel Literature Prize Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka, almost invariably did so primarily on account of the rather slippery, and treacherous, question of whether, indeed, the great Kenyan scholar had inordinately appropriated his maternal identity as a Ki-Swahili African in the mischievous promotion of his Omani-Arab paternal ancestral heritage.

But here also, ought to be squarely borne in mind the quite inescapable fact that like his contemporaries, Prof. Mazrui was the veritable product of Western colonial imperialist subjugation and sociocultural and political degradation, and might naturally have sought the sort of apparent, albeit hardly remarkably, mitigating shield or refuge that leaning heavily towards the Arabic side of his lineage must have seemingly promised.

Now, that was a tough and nigh impossible, if also patently unfair, burden that some of his most inveterate detractors and ardent rivals and critics of the man had rabidly attempted to impose on Prof. Mazrui, including a former avuncular academic friend of mine and author of one of the finest treatises on the African peopling and the creation of the civilization of the Western Diaspora, who was two years the senior of the future Prof. Mazrui at Uganda’s Makerere University in the late 1950s.

Incidentally, this avuncular friend who parted ways with me, on account of my generally unfavorable view of the role and significance of Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah, as contained in my book titled Dr. J. B. Danquah: Architect of Modern Ghana (2005), as well as another collection of short essays and articles dedicated to him and tilted Ghana Today, was once married to a Kenyan woman, recently deceased, who bore the couple’s three, or so, male sons. This former friend, who speaks fluent Hausa and Ki-Swahili, is himself of northern-Nigerian birth but of Efik or Ijaw, or southern-Nigerian, descent.

But guess what? Interestingly, Prof. Mazrui stoically bore his burden of bi-raciality with poise and inimitable dignity. In the end, Uncle Ali more than creditably acquitted himself as a bona fide, and front-row, African in ways that both shamed and put paid to the jaundiced schemes of those who sought to flagrantly invalidate his inviolable and unmistakable Africanity. Indeed, it has been extremely painful, on a quite personal level, for me to come around to composing this tribute, because this most significant aspect of the epic battle that Prof. Mazrui had to fight among his own fellow Africans has been conspicuously either deliberately ignored or conveniently overlooked by most of the tributes composed and published in the wake of the epochal passing of the man.

In the main, several of the cut-and-paste write-ups parading many a cyberspace highway as tributes to Prof. Mazrui have actually cavalierly attempted to devalue the phenomenal significance of the man, by presuming to bunch him up with barely passable intellectuals grossly mischaracterized as scholars, thereby heretically reducing Prof. Mazrui to the morbidly unenviable status of just another run-of-the-mill African and/or Africanist academic.

The fact of the matter, though, is that in death, Prof. Mazrui is apt to tower to an even greater altitude than that which Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta appears to have had in mind when, in the wake of Prof. Mazrui’s glorious passing, the son of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta described his globally distinguished countryman as “a towering academician whose intellectual contributions played a major role in shaping African scholarship.

Well, I have had the great and rare privilege of having met, shaken hands, exchanged pleasantries and even chatted with Prof. Mazrui on several occasions. I have also had occasion to present him with a copy or two autographed collections of my poetry, which the great and erudite Prof. Mazrui graciously accepted with unrehearsed geniality. And even once, when a Prof. Horace Campbell attempted to impugn the common sense and integrity of the continental African academic community here in the United States, under the false pretext of our deafening silence on the Amadou Diallo NYPD overkill, when in reality it all had to do with Prof. Campbell’s personal professional run-in with Kenya’s Prof. Micere Mugo, the renowned playwright and longtime Ngugi wa Thiong’O associate, I promptly set the at once rambunctious and inordinately exuberant Guyanese upstart aright.

My latter riposte to Prof. Campbell, during a Q-&-A conference session, got Prof. Mazrui off his feet (Prof. Ousseynou Traore was also present) with a hearty handshake and a sunny beam of pride for me. Prof. Campbell had gratuitously accused continental African-born professors of having introduced “Tribalism” into the Black Studies Departments of American colleges and universities. This was at one of the New York African Studies Association (NYASA) conferences on the Cortland campus of the State University of New York.

“Where are you from, by the way?” Prof. Mazrui asked me on our way out of the conference session. “I am from Ghana, where I first me you in 1984 at the British Council Hall in Accra. You had just finished giving a lecture titled ‘The Social Responsibility of Scholarship’.”