Prof Ali Mazrui is one of the world’s most prolific and respected thought leader in African and Islamic affairs. He is also the Director and Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities/Professor in Political Science, African Studies and Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture.
In 2005 the American journal, Foreign Policy (Washington, DC), and the British Journal, Prospect (London), nominated Ali Mazrui among the top 100 public intellectuals alive in the world as a whole. Foreign Policy is published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, New York. Mazrui was earlier elected an Icon of the Twentieth Century by Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, USA. In 2007 he was nominated for the Living Legends Award by the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS] and the African Communications Association.
His more than thirty books include Towards a Pax Africana (1967), and The Political Sociology of the English Language (1975). He has also published a novel entitled The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971). His research interests include African politics, international political culture, political Islam, and North-South relations.
In the interview below, he shares his thoughts on his early life, career and the African Continent and its current place in the world with CP-Africa’s Nmachi Jidenma.
On his early life
I was born and grew up in a British colony. Up to age 21, I was in Kenya and then after that, I went to Great Britain for my studies. For many African countries, this is about the period when they were celebrating their 50th Anniversary. So for my generation, we got very interested in political issues. My generation was probably extra- political in experience.
In my own case, I was working initially on the possibility of becoming a lawyer rather than a political scientist but then things changed and I became increasingly fascinated by Africa as a subject of study and not simply Africa as a continent of my birth. That enchantment or romance still continues in spite of disappointments about how my own generation performed during those 50 years of Independence where the post-colonial generation went wrong.
On watching African countries gain their independence
The worst performance of the post-colonial generation was with the inherited power. At the time, (of Independence), it was absolutely euphoric. We were all very excited about the idea of our continent consisting of sovereign countries trying to formulate their own place in world affairs and then we started witnessing missteps; governments, leaders taking the wrong direction. It was fairly bad for a while in the sense that governments became increasingly dictatorial. The military intervened in some African countries and took over power. Other African countries pretended that you could outlaw rival political parties and still be democratic. We had a one- party system which excluded other parties. We experimented with the wrong things for a while.
But then, I am glad that I have lived long enough to see the beginning of change as many countries which were previously under dictatorship are slightly more transparent. My own country, Kenya which was a one-party state and then the neighbouring Tanzania, another one-party state- are no longer one-party states. Uganda too used to be a subject of military coups.
When I was born, it was inconceivable that European powers would no longer be controlling Africa on a day-to-day basis. I lived to see Independence from one African country after another. I saw the end of political apartheid in South Africa. Then, many people thought it won’t happen for a long time. I remember predicting that it would happen in the 20th Century. I was contradicted by people who said that apartheid would be there long after the 20th Century has ended. They were wrong and I was right. At least, political apartheid collapsed in the 1990s although some would say that economic apartheid- inequality in income and ownership through races- has not ended yet.
Political independence has been won but economic independence has been very elusive, to some extent, because we are not economically sufficiently strong and autonomous. We are subject to influence by external powers.
When I was growing up, the United States was a powerful country but not a major factor in African affairs. Then, Africa was overwhelmingly a European sphere of influence. But since then, European presence has declined considerably while the United States has increased its presence not just economically but also militarily. They have one form of military presence or another in several dozens Africa countries, some overt and some, not so obvious.
Then, there is the new factor of China. China was an ally against colonial rule and provided weapons for African liberation movements in Southern Africa. Now, the Chinese are playing a slightly different role. They are much more fascinated by African resources, especially energy resources. They are trying their best to be friends of Africa but in exchange for privileges within Africa. Some people say the Chinese are a new colonial power. Sometimes, people use the old term, the ‘Yellow pearl’ which the Europeans invented when they were afraid of an alliance between Japan and China. I am not yet worried about Chinese intentions. I think they genuinely want to trade with Africa and buy some of our resources, especially energy resources.
On his lifelong career as an African Scholar
In colonial Kenya, I practised writing for magazines about African affairs. I used to write features in the newspaper called Mombasa Times. I wrote for local magazines in Kiswahili Language, I used to write short stories for broadcast on radios. There were a lot of radio stations that were interested in my stories. It turned out a good training. All that time I didn’t know I was going to use communication in an academic setting. I also got invitations to do radio talk. I did short stories in my mother tongue, Swahili. It was fairly popular that time in my hometown. I tried not to use jargons and had a large audience that understood me.
I was invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for radio talks. The BBC had and has a very prestigious radio talk, Reith Lectures which was named after the founding Director-General of BBC. Once every year, the BBC invited somebody notable to give six radio lectures. It was broadcast worldwide and each lecture ran for half an hour. So, I was a Reith lecturer for the BBC. It was one of the milestones in my career because we reached millions of people. Reith Lectures stood out at that time much more so than now that they are in competition with others. The BBC was sufficiently impressed with my radio talks and they asked me if I would do the TV equivalent. By that time I had moved to the United States and I told them we could talk about it.
They came to the University of Michigan where I was and we negotiated for 8-hour an episode which I entitled, “The Africans-A Triple Heritage,” The radio Reith talk title was agreed by all. Before African Heritage, a decade before, we couldn’t make up our mind what to call it. One day during a telephone conversation I used the expression, ‘ …In the African Condition of today…’ and he interjected, ‘That’s it! That was how we came about “African Condition” as the title of my Reith Lectures. Most of my TV and Radio lectures have books to accompany them. Most fortunately, they are available in prints and electron.
On becoming an academic and an African thought leader
My story is a story of getting a second chance in life which may be relevant especially for young people whose first opportunities were wasted for some reasons. When I was growing up, there was what was called, ‘Cambridge School Certificate.’ You went to school in the British colony and at the end of your secondary education, you took the Cambridge School Certificate Examination and that determined what else happened to you. For those of us who are in East Africa, if you finish your Cambridge School Certificate and you got either a first class or second class upper, then you went to the equivalent of a university. There was an institution in Uganda called Makerere University. It was the first university-level institution in English speaking East Africa. So, all English- speaking young people from Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Kenya and British Somaliland aspired to get into Makerere University.
I messed up with the first opportunity and nearly failed. I got a third grade which was a little short of fail but still got a certificate. Under normal circumstances (during the post-colonial period) that would have been it – You got a minor job either as a clerk in a bank or as a primary school teacher . I was not satisfied with that prospect.
I kept on applying for a scholarship because the Makerere University institution wouldn’t have me as a student because I wasn’t qualified. So, I applied for Indian, Pakistani possibilities. I tried British and American universities. My fate seemed almost sealed that I would never have a chance to go further. I had a job which I accepted initially without pay until there was a vacancy. I was a teenager in a newly established technology school in Mombasa, Kenya, which was a child of the imagination of the British Governor who felt sorry for Muslims and wanted them to catch up with the 20th Century. He persuaded the British Government and others to put in money and established the school and hired engineers from Britain to come and teach in the school. I was neither a student nor a teacher. I was not qualified for either but they hired me as a minor clerk and later on, as a ‘budding supervisor.’ I was in charge of residential arrangement for the students. I was a teenager when it happened, so, I was more or less the same age as the students.
So, one day, the Governor of Kenya (an equivalent of today’s President of Kenya), the highest British ranking officer came to the school. It was a Muslim event -to celebrate the birth of Prophet Mohammed. None of the teachers was a Muslim. All the teachers were English. The Governor, of course, was an English man. I was supposed to give a minor speech for the celebration of the Birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. I didn’t realise the speech was to change my life forever. I gave the speech with the Governor, teachers and everybody in attendance.
The next day, my boss who was an Englishman, called me and said, “’You made an impression on the Governor. He said that he has never seen a speech on the subject better done ‘and he wants to see you.” I went to see the Governor. It was a big deal in the British colony to have an audience with the Governor who was the highest representative of the British Monarchy. So, I went to see him-Philip Mitchell and he asked me about my aspirations. I told him that I wanted to go for further studies to study Law. He dismissed it because Colonial Governments didn’t like Africans to become lawyers then because they become political agitators. He said, ‘No! Look at India-every politician there is a Lawyer and every lawyer is a politician. There is no professional pride(in Law).” It was totally untrue but was only the colonial position.
After this meeting, the next time I applied for admission to the Kenyan Colonial Government, instead of receiving the usual negative reply, after looking at my pass grade, they actually invited me to be interviewed-an academic type ofinterview. They wanted to find out my potential as a student. I left Mombasa which was my hometown for Nairobi, the capital of the country to be interviewed. What made me believe that it was the Governor who made this difference was the fact that I was interviewed by the Director of Education who was the highest-level official entrusted with Colonial education and his Deputy. Similarly, they dismissed the notion of becoming a lawyer.
I also wanted to do Journalism as an alternative though they didn’t mind much, they said that the best journalists within the British system got a good degree not from school of Journalism but in Social Studies, Arts and then learnt the job of journalism while practising it. It seemed they changed their mind about my potential and sent me to Britain to complete my secondary education. They gave me an extra two years to compensate for the poor grade.
If you don’t succeed, try again. I tried again and again. By the time the second chance came, the British Colonial Authority decided that this young man has potential so they sent me off to England to be polished off.
On what made him persevere through the tough times
Competitive spirit. A playmate who I thought was not brighter than me gained admission to Makerere University. Others got scholarships to go to England, America and so on. I never thought they were brighter. I said if they could do it , why couldn’t I ? The youthful talent was there which had been wasted by underestimating the importance of examinations in the first phase.
When the Kenyan Colonial Authority gave me the opportunity re-enter secondary education, I knew that I was not going to take any chances with the second opportunity. I had to be sure I did well enough to move on. Once I got the first degree, it was easy because I did so well that I didn’t need government scholarship to study in Columbia University, after study at the University of Manchester. I got scholarship to Columbia University from the Rockefeller Foundation and Fellowship to Oxford University. They paid for everything; tuition, living expense and pocket money. The rest is history.
Thanks so much Dr. Ali Mazrui for sharing your story with us.