THE LATE PROF. ALI A. MAZRUI’S IMPACT ON OUR GENERATION OF SCHOLARS
This lecture, “THE LATE PROF. ALI A. MAZRUI’S IMPACT ON OUR GENERATION OF SCHOLARS”, was delivered by Professor Mohamed Bakari, Vice-Chancellor RAF International University, in Mombasa, 7th November 2019 at the launch of “Sauti Ya Haki: Maisha Na Mawazo Ya Sheikh Muhammad Kasim Mazrui”.
On the eve of Kenya’s Independence in 1963, the country was blessed with a crop of very talented and relatively educated leadership, in politics, public administration and to a certain extent in academia. Just before independence, there had been a rush to educate young Kenyans to assume positions of leadership in key areas of national life. There were then only a handful of high schools in the country, schools that had been set up largely through missionary efforts, a few set up by the colonial government, but the graduates were not sufficient enough to meet the needs of a new and ambitious nation. Already the famous American airlift of students to study in American high schools through the goodwill of individual Americans mobilized by the late Kenyan politician Thomas Joseph Mboya was already underway.
This was also the beginnings of the Cold War race to garner influence among the new and emergent independent African nations, and the Soviets were not left behind. Their point man at the time was the fiery Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who espoused left-leaning politics at the time of the struggle for independence. Odinga, through his political influence in Russia, managed to send his own group of students there, in the hope that, when they came back, they will be able to influence policies in favour of their former benefactors. Before the airlifts themselves, there had been an earlier generation of Africans who were instrumental in the struggle for independence, and many of whom had spent many years lobbying or agitating for independence. This group comprised African, African-American, and Caribbean political activists who resided or studied in Britain, Europe and the United States of America, and who formed a pan-African organization to canvass for African independence. This was a motley crowd of lawyers, doctors, social scientists, novelists and journalists, and students, among many others. They were mostly resident in London and Paris, where they organized themselves as a pressure group and worked with progressive and liberal elements in the metropolitan centres to strategize for political liberation. Many of these black activists were later to become legendary household names on the African continent, many of them leading their countries to independence and holding leadership positions in the newly fangled political parties, with some even becoming presidents and prime ministers of their newly independent countries. Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Ngwazi Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore, were among others, members of the new constellation of African intellectual, political and cultural stars in the African firmament.
Some led the struggle from within their own countries. Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Sekou Toure, were among those who suffered political detention when they were struggling within. Others like Kenyatta, Nkrumah and Banda, were incarcerated upon their return to their countries to challenge the colonial state. These individuals stood out for their audacity, courage and sacrifice.
Those students who completed their studies in foreign countries, as the first generation of university graduates, came back to fill key positions in the bureaucracy, education system, the judiciary and the armed forces. A smaller number went to join foreign faculty in the then University colleges of Nairobi, Makerere, and later, Dar es Salaam, since this required much longer periods of academic study and research. The faculty comprised white expatriates from Britain and the US. The then University of East Africa was modelled on the University of London and offered external undergraduate degrees of this university, and there was virtually no postgraduate training until when the University of East Africa was dissolved, and the constituent colleges became autonomous universities of Nairobi, Makerere and Dar es Salaam. A few East Africans came back with doctoral degrees, mostly in the humanities and social sciences, but the faculty still remained expatriate. It was a time when many a mere master’s degree was enough to lend one a full lectureship. That was how Mwai Kibaki, Duncan Ndegwa, and a few others managed to find lectureships at Makerere. By the late sixties, a lot of Africans had acquired their doctorates and had been appointed to headships of university departments at a relatively young age, with only a few publications to their credit. It was a period of rapid Africanization and universities were not spared the process. No wonder then, Ali Mazrui, then in his early thirties, had already been appointed to a full professor, at the recommendation of Colin Leys, a prominent British political scientist, once he saw Ali’s passion, rare intelligence, and proven academic abilities.
It was a time when many a mere master’s degree was enough to lend one a full lectureship. That was how Mwai Kibaki, Duncan Ndegwa, and a few others managed to find lectureships at Makerere.
Makerere was then a vibrant academic institution that was to supply East Africa its educated cadres of economists, administrators and policy makers and future professional politicians. Many of the African academic staff were plucked off their academic positions and offered plum jobs as ministerial heads, heads of diplomatic missions abroad, and as international civil servants in the various institutions of the United Nations.
Only the dedicated academics, like Ali Mazrui, remained to teach in universities and generate new knowledge. Ali Mazrui was one of the luckiest academics in his institution, in that African countries had no experience of large-scale governance as required by modern states, and the new rulers, many of them fashioned themselves as philosopher-kings in the manner prescribed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his famous utopian text, Republic.
Ali Mazrui had studied under the best political theorists of their time, at both Manchester and Oxford Universities. He had read extensively and reflected deeply on what it meant to be a political thinker in the contemporary world, especially in the African world where large scale societies had only come with colonialism. Like jazz musicians, African politicians improvised as they went along, and manipulated constitutional instruments to outwit, outflank and wrestle down their political opponents, by using the colonial laws that kept political opponents and dissidents under wraps or out of the political fray and limelight. A number of them set themselves up as political theorists who were determined to socially engineer their societies towards utopias of their imagination, just as Plato had conceived them, and Lenin had ominously implemented, as a totalitarian state with absolute centralized apparatus, to coerce everyone into ideological conformity. Nyerere, Nkrumah, Obote, and later Cabral and Sankara, Agostino Nato and Samora Machel, imagined themselves as African Lenins, Maos, Ho Chin Mins, and Castros. Needless to say, these projects ran aground. It was the rare iconoclasts like Ali Mazrui, courageous and intrepid who spoke truth to power and pointed the folly of taking the socialist road. These utopias were already castigated by the naturalized British/Austrian political economist, Fredrick Hayek, in his The Road to Serfdom, and by the philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, in two combative volumes The Open Society and its Enemies. The volumes critiqued robustly the ideas leading to the disastrous attempts to transform societies through social engineering, deriving from the work of Plato himself to Marx and Engels. Popper later taught George Soros, at the London School of Economics, a constituent college of the University of London, and later, inspired by the work of his professor, set up the Soros Foundation, which in turn, set up The Open Society Foundations to oversee the project of spreading the culture of democracy and general democratization. Incidentally, both Kenyatta and Kibaki were alumni of LSE.
Nyerere, Nkrumah, Obote, and later Cabral and Sankara, Agostino Nato and Samora Machel, imagined themselves as African Lenins, Maos, Ho Chin Mins, and Castros. Needless to say, these projects ran aground
One of the ways of keeping the Ali Mazrui memory alive is by looking back at his contribution to African political thought. A social democrat by inclination and education, he became such a perceptive and profound thinker that he came to be seen by many as the “political scientists’ political scientist”. It is astonishing, by rereading his work, as I had done in preparation for this lecture, how his analyses and insights are relevant to today’s Kenya. Because of the constraint of time, I will only address some aspects of his writing, under the following rubrics:
- His writing style and the pleasure of reading his work.
- Favorite themes: On the impact of corruption on governance, on dictators and dictatorship.
To fully appreciate Ali Mazrui’s popularity with both fellow practitioners of political science and the general readership, one has to take into account his educational background. Unlike his contemporaries, he was a voracious reader, who read extensively in many areas of the social sciences, but especially the humanities. As a product of the British education system he went through the “O” and “A” Level curricula that provided him with an opportunity to traverse a wide are of scholarship, spanning history, English literature, economics and social studies in general. His wide reading in English literature enabled him to draw easily from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yates, Kipling, Dickens, among many other writers of Anglo-Irish backgrounds. In this regard, he had a lot in common with his generation of African novelists, dramatists, essays, and poets who easily drew allusions from the works of these British writers. By reading so much of these writers, he internalized essentially British English syntax, lexicon and understatements, innuendo, and a sense of humor. He invariably used British idioms, expressions and stylistic tics that set him apart from his contemporaries who had wholly American education. It appears that, although he spent a short period earning a Master’s degree in political science at Columbia University, one of the most prestigious state institutions in the US, counting among its alumni, the distinguished American president, Barack Obama, American education does not seem to have left a lasting impression on him. Rather, he left a huge impact on it, through his teaching, lecturing and publishing, by educating Americans about the African world, and later, about the Islamic world.
As a product of the British education system he went through the “O” and “A” Level curricula that provided him with an opportunity to traverse a wide are of scholarship, spanning history, English literature, economics and social studies in general. His wide reading in English literature enabled him to draw easily from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yates, Kipling, Dickens, among many other writers of Anglo-Irish backgrounds
Ali Mazrui never affected an American accent, but seemed rather comfortable with his Swahili accented English, even when he was addressing global audiences in his very successful BBC series entitled The African condition, that still attract wide audiences on YouTube. In the course of reading and rereading his work, I could not trace a single Americanism or American expression, in either his writing or public lectures. His Kenyan and British education at the University of Manchester and at Nuffield College, Oxford, seem to have impacted on him even more. As noted, there is not a single trace of American idiom in his whole oeuvre, yet, his writing is replete with very English syntactic constructions, expressions and word use. For example, you cannot find expressions like “role back”, “give me a break”, “fleabag”, “he is a thorn-bush”, if it aint broke, don’t fix it.
Ali Mazrui had the facility for English because of wide-reading, unlike his contemporaries who generally read trade journals, which influenced their writing style, which ended up being too cardboard, stifled and laboured, and jargon-ridden, without Mazrui’s signature sprightliness. Vintage Mazrui prose appeared in serious journals like Foreign Affairs, World Politics, British Journal of Political Science, among many others. But the in-your-face and provocative Transition Magazine had the lion’s share of his earliest writing. Transition was cosmopolitan but had a humorous edge to it, where very serious issues were discussed with all earnestness, but with literary panache. It was a magazine that attracted the best and the brightest in the world of politics, aesthetics and activism. Many writers broke their teeth in this magazine, some like Paul Theroux, becoming world best-selling writers, writing mostly fiction, essays and travel writing. Incidentally, Theroux imitated and lampooned Ali Mazrui’s style and its tendency to use paradox and analogy, as his default mode in his political discourses. It was this overuse of the paradox and word-play that denied his essays the possibility of being reprinted in the well- known series of anthologies on best writing in American journals and magazines, The Best American Essays. A number of those whose writing appeared in Transition also appeared in these annual anthologies, among them were the likes of James Baldwin, Paul Theroux, V.S Naipaul. But without doubt, Ali Mazrui’s prose stood out among African political scientists, historians and legal scholars; it was easily recognizable because of its literary technique, which combined a serious treatment of profound issues with a touch of humor, cynicism and outright criticism. Some of the essays were a sheer joy to read, in terms of their style, argumentation and originality. Those that stood out include Nkrumah, the Leninist Czar, Tanzaphilia, Phallic Symbols in Politics and War.
A number of those whose writing appeared in Transition also appeared in these annual anthologies, among them were the likes of James Baldwin, Paul Theroux, V.S Naipaul. But without doubt, Ali Mazrui’s prose stood out among African political scientists, historians and legal scholars;
The Most perceptive essays that interrogated the new politics of power in Africa included The Monarchical Tendency in African Political Culture (The British Journal of Sociology. Vol. 18 (1967), pp 231-250); On Heroes and Uhuru-Worship.
In article after article Ali Mazrui argued about the role of culture in the shaping of political culture in society. He moved away from the tendency of model building by the use of quantitative methods in trying to understand political phenomena, and instead adopted a qualitative approach to interpretation and explanation. I remember him snidely remarking that modern political science, especially American political science, looked more like Algebra, with its obsession for modelling, complete with graphs and statistics! In his unique way, his style attracted a popular interest in the discipline of political science, at least in Africa and the third-world. His style spilt from university lecture-rooms to public fora where he engaged professional politicians in debating pressing issues of the day.
It was through this transformation that he engaged in heated debates with fellow academics like Walter Rodney and politicians like Julius Nyerere, Milton Obote and Akena-Odoka, the intellectual head of Obote’s dreaded intelligence outfit. Later, he was adopted, ominously by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who wanted to use Ali Mazrui’s “strength” as a Muslim to mock the racist pretensions of his international detractors like those from Apartheid South Africa, who looked down upon Africans as imbeciles, by trying to co-opt Ali Mazrui as a specimen of a thinking African who could beat the white man in his argumentative games and in their own language.
Mazrui was, of course, his own man and could never allow himself to be manipulated to serve any form of ideology other that of truth. He always strove to speak the truth, both publicly and in his public engagements, fearless and courageous, even at the cost of personal harassment and physical risk. His fidelity to the truth paid. His employers always stood with him in critical moments because they knew him as a man of unassailable probity and personal integrity. Often times, like the proverbial boy who pointed at the king’s nakedness, when all around people pretended he was wearing invisible clothes, he said in style that the king was indeed naked when he made a fool of himself in public. Africa was never short of deluded politicians drunk with power, like Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the madman of the Central African Republic who paid visits to his prisons to clobber convicts with marungu, or the putative cruelty of Idi Amin, who taunted his enemies. With this generation of absolutist dictators and strongmen, who used the Machiavellian tools of bribery, intimidation and physical elimination to maintain themselves in power, Ali Mazrui had a field day observing these almost medieval rulers. To Ali Mazrui, it was necessary someone stood up to these continental tyrants, and he did exactly that. This was of course the genesis of his eventual political exile in the United States. Ali Mazrui’s brilliant mind, oratorical skills and intellectual charisma attracted attention within American academia and was offered dream salaries in great American universities like the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and eventually finishing his long career at the University of Binghamton, part of the complex of colleges comprising New York University. In the meanwhile, he went as a Visiting Professor to all distinguished continental universities, in Europe, Africa and Asia. Among the institutions he lectured were Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Oxford, Ankara, and Sehir University in Istanbul. He traversed Australia and New Zealand, Nairobi University. He was arguably the most travelled African academic.
Because of his controversial political stances, it was hard for him to find his niche in Kenyan universities. The political class here were jittery about his outspokenness. It was only after President Mwai Kibaki came to power was he given the opportunity to serve his beloved country.
Africa was never short of deluded politicians drunk with power, like Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the madman of the Central African Republic who paid visits to his prisons to clobber convicts with marungu, or the putative cruelty of Idi Amin, who taunted his enemies.
President Kibaki offered Ali Mazrui two options: Vice-Chancellorship of the University of Nairobi, which was then through direct presidential appointment, and so was the Chancellorship of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. When he received an invitation to pick his choice, he wrote me an email to seek my advice on these two appointments. I wrote back that, unless he had a big tribe of his own, he would be frustrated and would not be able to discharge his duties as an administrator effectively since tribalism is very much part of modus operandi in Kenyan institutions of higher learning. I suggested that he take up the Chancellorship, since that was merely a ceremonial position, and would little involve him in ethnic bickering. He wrote back to thank me for this advice and told me that his nephew, Prof. Alamin M.K. Mazrui, himself a distinguished scholar in his own right, and a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey had advised him exactly the way I had myself! And that informed his final decision. The University of Nairobi, my own alma mater, had over the years metamorphosed into a national behemoth, with the two famous ethnic groups busking in the culture of entitlement and privilege, cultivated for over five decades, became an impossible place to administer without a network of listening posts from where the CEO would gather information to pre-empt those eyeing that well-paying position and those listening posts were manned by fellow brahmins. That was the foundation story of the institution from Jomo Kenyatta’s regime through Moi’s divisive politics. The 2010 constitution has changed all that, in terms of gender and ethnicity, through the balancing of diversity; but the ethnic factor still plays a large role in survival in that hot seat. Of course, Ali Mazrui never played by those rules. He had been an efficient, effective and well-liked administrator at Makerere for well over a decade. But Nairobi was not Makerere. It was, and it still is, a different ball-game.
The University of Nairobi, my own alma mater, had over the years metamorphosed into a national behemoth, with the two famous ethnic groups busking in the culture of entitlement and privilege, cultivated for over five decades, became an impossible place to administer without a network of listening posts from where the CEO would gather information to pre-empt those eyeing that well-paying position and those listening posts were manned by fellow brahmins.
Our generation of scholars learned from Ali intellectual integrity, humility, and the culture of conscientiousness in discharging our academic and administrative duties. His academic leadership inspired us and coming into contact with him always left a permanent impression on all of us. It was not for nothing that one of his festschrifts was entitled The Global African. He loomed large in the area of African Studies. The best homage paid him was an intellectual biography by a brilliant Oromo Ethiopian scholar, Seifudien Adem, entitled Paradigm Lost, Paradigm Regained, in which Professor Ali Mazrui’s originality and brilliance as a towering thinker in International Relations theory is in full display. Again, because he did not attach himself to any particular school of international relations, although acknowledged as an original thinker, was not able to gain full recognition because he was rarely a networks man, but a lone thinker, like Rodin’s sculpture of a thinking man. As Seifudien Adem notes, international relations theory was dominated by Jewish intellectuals like Morgenthau and others whose followers dominated universities that had strong international relations studies. Ali was undaunted by this marginalization and continued doing his own thing, of speaking truth to power and being ever productive until the last month of his life.
This interview is published here with Professor Mohamed Bakari’s consent.
Ali Mazrui, British, capitalism, George Soros, Idi Amin, Karl Marx, Lenin, Makerere, Nyerere, Obote, Open Society Foundations. Nkurumah, Pan-Africanism, Plato, Seifudien Adem, socialist, Transition Magazine, V.S Naipaul, Walter Rodney