Ali Mazrui, the controversial titan of academia

John Otim


Kenyan born Ali Mazrui of the University of Binghamton in the United States of America who has died at the age of 81 was one of those academics every campus could do with. At every campus in which he taught Mazrui was the glue that held together at the level of intellect and intellectual life the diverse and divergent community typical of academia.  Whatever your research area and in whichever discipline, you found a certain commonalty in something the professor just wrote, just said or did.

This was nowhere more evident than in the public lectures he often gave and loved to give to packed audiences from diverse backgrounds. In this regard he traveled the world over lecturing and debating in whatever venue he could find. And wherever he went he was generally well received for he had a touch of the magician. No matter his theme for the day Mazrui was bound to thrill just as he was also bound to irritate. There were those who walked away from his lectures convinced that they had just witnessed the performance of a master mind. There were others who scoffed at the fool they had just endured while they could have done something worthwhile.

Regardless Mazrui had the flair for words and he had within him the gift to find meaning in seemingly the most absurd or the most abstract of topics. He once wrote a novel set in what he called the African Afterlife, about the poet and Biafran war hero, Christopher Okigbo. In the novel Mazrui had the poet put on trial and condemned to death for betraying his  poetic calling and wasting his talents in something as mundane as ethnic warfare. Imagine a dead man being condemned to death. For those who may not be familiar with the history, Christopher Okigbo was alongside Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, the brilliant young and rising star of postcolonial literature, who died in battle in 1967 in the bloody Nigerian civil war while fighting on the Biafrian side.

At public lectures the more outlandish his topic was the more Mazrui warmed to his theme. At such moments Mazrui was never so much at ease as when under fire. Those who followed his career and knew him well, remember that the only occasion he ever lost his cool was at a debate with Walter Rodney the famous author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. On that occasion, Rodney refused to swallow Mazrui’s customary bait, which was to lure his interlocutor into frontal engagement with him before an audience he had already softens through the magic of his oratory.  This time however, Rodney side stepped the bait. In the process he skillfully implied that, concerning the colonial issue which was the topic of their debate, Mazrui was at best a daydreamer and at worst a collaborator. There was no commonality of interests between the colonizer and the colonized, Rodney said. Mazrui who prided himself on his African and nationalist credentials was suddenly stung. Worse of all it was before his home audience at Makerere University.

Over his long career as a top intellectual Mazrui ranged across disciplines, roamed the entire world, and was not afraid to walk where Angels fear to trade. Colorful and flamboyant, always courting controversy, he refused to accept the difference between fiction and reality that most men might take for granted. To him Cesar of Julius Cesar was just as alive and breathing as the next political leader. He saw in many living political leaders, especially Africans, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Milton’s Satan. His animation of these literary heroes and literary villains enriched his political and philosophical theorizing. At Makerere in Kampala he often dared Milton Obote to arrest him. Obote was the president of Uganda.

Ali Mazrui had many followers around the Globe but he also had many detractors who found his works verbose and lightweight based as most of them were on secondary sources. His BBC series The Africans, watched by millions around the world, won him many admirers in Nigeria where I was teaching at the time, but they also won him enemies who accused him of being nothing more than a propagandist for a religious cause.

Perhaps it is inevitable or even fitting that such a versatile and creative mind should have provoked such contrasting responses to his works. Witness his many quarrels with other big names in academia, not least of which was Wole Soyinka the literature Nobel, and professor Gates of Harvard University. But now that Ali Mazrui is dead, one thing is certain; this irrepressible and charismatic man of academia will be greatly missed throughout the world. At Makerere where Mazrui taught for ten years, they turned the brick house where he once lived into a museum.

  • John Otim is the Editor of Nile Journal, the online Out of Africa Magazine