Tuesday, 14 October 2014

(102): Ali Mazrui: The demise of a scholar and global-statesman

I just sat in the office early morning on Monday 13th October 2014, when I noticed that I had three different text messages on my phone, the first of the three from Dr Abubakar Alhassan started with Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un (from God we came and unto Him we shall return), I was in a state of anxiety  before I even started reading the text message, for I knew we must have lost somebody dear to our hearts, and so the message stated that Professor Ali Mazrui has passed away the night before.

There is no better person to break this news to us than Dr Alhassan, since Dr Mazrui himself stated that he has two sons called Abubakar, and of course Dr Alhassan was the second one. Professor Ali Mazrui is a household name not only in Africa but globally, yet for any student of the social sciences, Professor Ali Mazrui stands out. Here is an African scholar who greeted our screens through his award winning documentary, Africans: A Triple Heritage, was a professor in almost every major university worthy of its name around the world, an adviser to heads of government, a public intellectual, an activist, African nationalist, historian, sociologist, political scientist and an authority in the study of dialectics and Islamic political thought. Until his death he was a scholar and global-statesman.

It is difficult to find a scholar of his caliber with such humble mien, willing to learn from others, and respect for his students and colleagues alike. In the last fourteen to fifteen years I have listened to a number of distinguished professors, read some of their work, yet without exaggeration Professor Ali Mazrui remains exceptional.

I only met Professor Ali Mazrui once, courtesy of the effort of Dr Abubakar Alhassan, who with the support of Bayero University, Kano invited the erudite professor to deliver a public lecture at the BUK old campus in the year 2000. I was a 300 level undergraduate student then, and Malama Binta Suleiman who was teaching us Broadcast Continuity Writing announced at the end of the class that our next lecture on Saturday morning will not take place, and a wave of silence arrested the mood of the class; and she then announced that Professor Ali Mazrui will be delivering a lecture on that day, and so she couldn’t afford to miss it.  For we the students, you can imagine the level of excitement for having the once in a lifetime opportunity to listen to one of the most distinguished African Professors in history.

Early hours that Saturday morning, we were at the old campus to make sure we get Sahun Farko (the first row). But within an hour, after a well-coordinated publicity around the city of Kano, the Bayero University theatre has become too small to accommodate the sea of human beings flowing into the old campus. It was more than a university event, it was a real public lecture. We were so lucky to get in.
Extra television monitors had to be provided in the open theatre, and extended public address systems to cover other areas of the campus so that people could listen to this important lecture, yet for the audiences jam-packed in and outside the venue, they were only waiting for one thing, the first sight of Professor Ali Mazrui. 

Our professors, lecturers and other invited guests were already on the high table waiting for the arrival of the special guest. Almost everyone among the who is who of Bayero University was there, and shortly afterwards, the then Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University, Dr Muhammad Yahuza Bello, as representative of the Vice Chancellor, late Professor Musa Abdullahi, and Professor Emmanuel Ajayi Olofin, the Chairman of the Public Lecture series led Professor Ali Mazrui into the lecture theatre, and within seconds the entire hall was gripped with a thunderous ovation. Welcome Professor Ali Mazrui.

As our teachers of Makarantun ilmi (traditional Islamic schools), always remind us that Al ilm Annaafi’ Yukassiru Sahibuh, a beneficial knowledge humbles its possessor, the first lesson of the day was the humility exhibited right from the introduction of the guest speaker through to the entire event. Professor Olofin, a highly respected Professor of Geography told the gathering that if it would take what Professor Ali Mazrui has done to become a Professor, he himself wouldn’t have been qualified to be one; of course Professor Olofin has ticked all the dots to be a Professor, yet when the intellectual giants mount the podium, they were so humble that we students could only exchange the smile of admiration.

The title of the lecture was “Nigeria Between Lord Lugard and the Digital Divide: Political Culture and the Skill Revolution”. But during the introduction Professor Mazrui stated that  his paper is caught between the influence of three personalities, Lugard who amalgamated the northern and southern protectorates of Nigeria, Bill Gates who at the time was the leading symbol of the digital revolution, and of course Uthman Danfodio, the 19th century reformer. It was in the analysis of these three personalities that a glimpse of the dialectical ability of Professor Mazrui to make comparison on issues that might on the surface look unrelated, captivated the audience.
“Northern Nigeria was historically the first in literacy among the peoples of Nigeria. Northern Nigeria was also the first in written literature. But Northerners as the first in literacy in the history of Nigeria have not been the first in digitization. Northerners as the first in written literature have not been the first in computerization”, said the Professor
“It is true that even in written literature it was not a Northerner who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. But it is doubtful that the jurors in Sweden for the Nobel Prize bothered to read any literature in Hausa, Kiswahili, Zulu, Igbo or even Soyinka's own Yoruba language”
“This is not a reflection on Soyinka. It is a reflection of the dominance of European languages in our African lives. We are prisoners of Euro-linguistic paradigms”, said Mazrui, who was greeted with astounding ovation, but also brought forward the rivalry between Mazrui and Soyinka, after the latter has allegedly accused Ali Mazrui of being a ‘fundamentalist’. 
The presentation raised a lot of eyebrows especially since Northern Nigerian was struggling with the loss of political power. Some newspapers even wrote editorials criticizing Professor Mazrui for being a stooge in the hands of northern establishment.

After the lecture a reception was organized in the evening at the faculty of Law for the Professor, but it was an opportunity for many to listen once more to this great son of Africa.   It was during this session that Professor Abubakar Rasheed and the late Professor Alkali Abba asked Ali Mazrui an interesting question about ‘cloning’ from an Islamic perspective, and in his characteristic humility, Professor Mazrui suggested that, since Professor Sani Zahraddeen was around, and as a Professor of Islamic Studies, he was more qualified to answer that question.

I have heard so many good stories about Ali Mazrui from Dr Abubakar Alhassan, whom I also believe is in the best position to narrate them, but one thing is clear, Africa has lost a son, the intellectual community have lost a scholar, and to the politicians an adviser willing to say it as it is. 
As stated by Darryl C Thomas in the 1998 collection of essays entitled “the Global African: A Portrait of Ali Mazrui” edited by Omari H Kokole, “Mazrui has continued with the tradition established by other African scholars and activists, focusing on the triple heritage, reaffirming African, Western and Islamic traditions in the African and African diaspora experiences” (p. 79). 

Mazrui has written significantly in different areas, but the triple heritage thesis might be the contribution he will be most remembered for. Our sincere condolences to his family, friends, colleagues, students and other well-wishers. May Allah forgive his shortcomings and grant him Jannatul Firdaus, Amin.


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