In Summary
  • Ali Mazrui explored a wide range of issues with uncommon verve and flair.
  • 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.

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 “anti-Western 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.

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