Ali Mazrui: Scholar of Africa

Posted on October 20, 2014  /  0 Comments

Professor Ali Mazrui, originally of Makarere University in East Africa, has passed away. Eulogies are coming out fast and furious, among them this:

There is one crucial similarity between prophets on the one hand and public intellectuals on the other. Both seek to define the terms of the debate in an argument. But the terms of a debate cannot be defined alone; this endeavor requires a worthy adversary. It is in this sense that Mazrui and Rodney defined the terms of the debate in the 1960s. Sooner or later, all of us realised that we did not have to agree with Mazrui to be influenced by him.

The debate is about what is more significant: forces within a country, such as the government, or external forces, such as “imperialism,” the World Bank, the IMF? This is a debate that runs through everything we at LIRNEasia do. It was defined by Mazrui-Rodney for some; by Cardoso-Frank for others such as myself.

I was on a panel with Professors Mazrui and Johan Galtung at Ohio State in the early 1990s, when Mazrui was spending some time there as a Distinguished Visiting Professor. The topic was communication, but the panel discussion moved toward the central question of who the most significant actors/decision makers are. Galtung, being the peace studies guru, emphasized the international/external. I, being the contrarian and follower of Cardoso, went after him hard emphasizing the responsibility of our governments for whatever ills we suffered.

In his conciliatory comments, Mazrui tried to find a balance. Years of exile in the US had caused Mazrui to shift emphasis more and more toward the external, because those were the levers of power he could see from where he stood. If he, like Cardoso, had been able to return to his own country, he would have stayed true to his original, liberal and pragmatic position and not started pursuing chimeras like repatriations for slavery.

To my ear then, he was just another Third Worldist stuck in a rut. Little did I know that in his kindly comments to me both during and after the panel, he would have seen in me, himself in his youth. Wiser now, I salute Ali Mazrui, public intellectual.

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