A Tribute to Professor Ali Al’Amin Mazrui By Dr. Abdul Rahman Lamin- Social and Human Sciences SpecialistUNESCO Regional Office for Eastern Africa Nairobi, Kenya Delivered at Mombasa, Kenya, 19 October, 2014
Today, I want to pay tribute to the late Professor Ali Mazrui at two levels. First, I want to do so as a student-scholar who has closely studied the late professor’s extensive intellectual contributions in the social sciences and humanities, and in doing so, had the good fortune of meeting and interacting with the good professor on numerous occasions, both in the United States of America, and here in Africa. The second level of my tribute will be the reflection of an international civil servant who is fortunate to work for a United Nations Agency to which the late Professor Mazrui made a significant contribution. I’m referring here to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
As a graduate student in the United States of America, in the mid-1990s, I encountered Professor Ali Mazrui in the classroom, in libraries and in public lecture halls in some of America’s well known institutions of higher education. I should note that prior to arriving in America in 1993, I had watched Mazrui’s famed BBC-PBS Documentary, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, while still an undergraduate student at Fourah Bay College in my native Sierra Leone. It was therefore a rare, but certainly an opportunity, to finally meet the man we had so adored growing up, when in 1994, the African Studies Center at The Ohio State University (OSU) invited Professor Mazrui to deliver a public lecture at its main campus in Columbus, Ohio. The lecture attracted audiences from other universities in the state of Ohio, including Ohio University (OU), in Athens, where I was at the time studying for a Masters’ degree in International Affairs. A number of us, graduate students at OU, car pooled and took the hour and half-long drive to Columbus, to hear our icon speak. Needless to say, that we were not disappointed. The lecture, which was an historical and contemporary appraisal of Africa in world order, was delivered in classical Mazruian style, and I have to confess that it personally had a significant impact on me as a young African student studying in post-cold war America, with a keen interest in global affairs.
Years later, I was again fortunate to encounter Mazrui during my years as a doctoral student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In addition to reading his books and other scholarly works, including the authoritative, Pax Africana and The Power of Babel, which he co-authored with his nephew, Professor Alamin Mazrui, I got to meet and interact with him personally on numerous occasions, through my own mentor and professor, the Gambian born scholar, Sulayman Nyang, himself a revered student of Islam, Africa and Christianity in the tradition of Mazrui. Through my association with Professor Sulayman Nyang, I had numerous opportunities to personally interact with Mazrui, and tap into his wise brain on a range of subject matters. Beyond the powerful intellectual force that Mazrui was, I also got to learn that he was indeed a great humanist. Soft spoken, and always wise in his discourses, Mazrui was genuinely passionate about the condition of oppressed people, no matter where they lived in the world.
In 2004, our paths crossed again, this time in South Africa, where I had moved in 2003, and became an academic at University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg. In my undergraduate and postgraduate classes, I introduced my students to Mazrui’s scholarly works, just as I had been, by my own professors, more than a decade earlier. In 2004, at the invitation of the South African Government, Mazrui visited the Rainbow Nation to celebrate the 10th anniversary of South Africa’s independence from apartheid. Reflecting on the state of inequality in the country, a decade after independence, Mazrui asserted, during his keynote address at the 10th Anniversary conference organized by the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) in Pretoria, that, “the political crown was merely transferred to oppressed, while the economic jewel was kept by the oppressor,” in clear reference to the political settlement between the anti-apartheid liberation forces and the white regime, that perpetuated minority rule for more than a century. He concluded his lecture by warning that unless measures are put in place to bridge the divide that existed in post-apartheid South Africa society, the future of the Rainbow Nation will be imperiled in the long term, with reverberating consequences for the rest of Africa.
Let me now briefly share some thoughts on Mazrui from the perspective of an international civil servant, employed by a UN Agency, UNESCO, to which Mazrui has contributed significantly. In more than six decades since its establishment, one of UNESCO’s most important contribution to Africa, is the facilitation of a process that led to the publication of eight volumes of historical material, that meticulously documents Africa’s history, from pre-colonial to the post-colonial era, and done so by and through the lenses of African and Africanist scholars. Professor Mazrui is the editor of the eighth volume of the UNESCO General History of Africa, Series. Together with his fellow Kenyan, and intellectual colleague, Professor Bethuel Ogot, who served as the President of the International Scientific Committee that presided over the research, documentation and publication of the General History of Africa series, Mazrui will go down in the annals as one of Africa’s most noble sons. It is my hope that the Africa Union Declaration which calls for conversation of those history volumes into pedagogical materials to be introduced, as part of the school curricular, at all levels of the educational system in Africa, will come to pass, in the near future.
I want to close, by acknowledging, like others before me, that Mazrui’s death has robbed Africa, and indeed the world, of one of the brightest minds and sharpest thinkers that ever lived in the past century. We know that you’re now safe in the hands of the ancestors, Professor. Go well, and sleep peacefully Mwalimu Mazrui, till we meet again. Your place in history is well secured. Our task now to uphold and protect the rich legacy you have left behind.
I thank you very much for your attention.