Ali Mazrui, the global African

Colonial critic Ali Mazrui. (Supplied)

Colonial critic Ali Mazrui. (Supplied)

One of Africa’s top post-colonial scholars and a doyen of African studies, Ali Mazrui, has died in the United States aged 81.

He published more than 20 books and hundreds of articles, both academic and popular, and advised governments and international bodies.

Born in Mombasa, Kenya, the son of the grand imam of the city, Mazrui studied there and at Manchester University, Columbia, and Oxford (where he received his doctorate). He returned to Africa to teach at Makerere University in Uganda, where, at 35, he became one of its youngest professors.

Mazrui fell foul of the Milton Obote regime and, later, that of Idi Amin. He left Uganda in 1973 for the US.

Mazrui had already critiqued colonial and post-colonial policies in Africa in early works such as On Heroes and Uhuru-Worship: Essays on Independent Africa, published in 1967 and swiftly followed the same year by Towards a Pax Africana: A Study of Ideology and Ambition.

In 1971, Cultural Engineering and Nation-Building in East Africa was accompanied by his innovative novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo.
Using the figure of the Nigerian poet who died during the Biafran War, Mazrui imagined an African afterlife in which Okigbo is put on trial for his politics and whether he betrayed the humanistic values of his poetry.

Mazrui opposed colonialism and the Western exploitation of Africa, but also opposed socialist and Marxist solutions to Africa’s problems, preferring to promote “African liberalism”.

His later works included World Culture and the Black Experience (1973) and Political Values and the Educated Class in Africa (1978).

His Reith Lectures were broadcast by the BBC and his television series The Africans: The Triple Heritage (1986) brought his ideas to a large audience.

His essays were collected in two volumes, Africanity Redefined and Africa and Other Civilizations: Conquest and Counter-Conquest (both 2002).

He became increasingly interested in Islam as a force in Africa.

Mazrui was criticised by Nigerian poet and activist Molara Ogundipe-Leslie for his treatment of gender in The Africans, and was accused of being an Islamic jihadist and an anti-Semite by the American right.

Mazrui’s 60th birthday was celebrated by the publication of The Global African: A Portrait of Ali A Mazrui, a collection of essays edited by Omari Kokole, and other occasions celebrating “the prodigious body of scholarship affectionately dubbed Mazruiana”.

As modest as he was defiant

The late Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem used to fondly recall a meeting with a radical Muslim group in Trinidad.

One of the convenors, Ali Mazrui, turned to him to lead the prayers to open the occasion. Abdul-Raheem protested, arguing that such an honour was reserved for an elder – and, in any case, he confessed that he wished to hit a popular beer joint after the sober ritual was over.

Mazrui indicated he wouldn’t want to be excluded from that jaunt either.

For a famous man, Mazrui had a great modesty, simplicity and ease.

When he was teaching at Makerere University, Mazrui built an invisible fan club by answering letters from schoolchildren who wrote to ask him for money to buy pens.

His secretary would write back on official Makerere University paper, and Mazrui would sign it with his full academic credentials, ending with “D Phil (Oxon)”. He would later expend much energy on his fans, the readers of his numerous writings, and he charmed listeners at his lectures.

In Uganda, Mazrui’s celebrity status increased the punch of his public lectures and earned him the dislike of then prime minister Milton Obote’s circle.

He accused Obote’s hero, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, of being a dictator, and said that the “African socialism” of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in Tanzania frustrated the “gifted individuals” who could spearhead development.

Idi Amin, who deposed Obote, believed Mazrui was an ally of British and American interests. On Amin’s first meeting with assembled Makerere staff soon after he seized power, Mazrui urged him to reverse an unpopular policy. After this, military trucks were parked in front of Mazrui’s home daily at sunset. He left for the United States.

He was already a policy advisor to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the US Council on Foreign Relations. Yet he was noted for breaking a Ramadan fast at the White House. – Professor Okello Oculi, Ugandan novelist, poet and chronicler of African village life

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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