Kenya's Ali Mazrui: Death of a towering intellectual

  • 13 October 2014
  • From the section Africa
Professor Ali Mazrui (1949)

Ali Mazrui, who has died at the age of 81, is regarded as one of Africa's foremost intellectuals. The BBC's Frenny Jowi looks back at how the Kenyan academic and political writer influenced a post-colonial generation.

Mr Mazrui has been a household name in Kenya and beyond.

Born in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa on 24 February 1933, some 20 years before the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial rule, he always portrayed himself as a true patriot.

In his series of essays On Heroes and Uhuru-Worship, he wrote as an African scholar deeply involved in the fight for the freedom of his people, expressing empathy with those on the front line of the battle against colonialists.

"What about blaming the freedom fighter for the atrocities committed by the security forces contending him?" he asked.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ali Mazrui wrote extensively about colonialism...
Image copyright AFP
Image caption He condemned the atrocities committed by colonial rulers

Mr Mazrui's writings, though embedded in history, still resonate because he talks about the need to recognise national heroes, without worshipping them.

They also give insight into some of the greatest concerns currently facing the world as he wrote about terrorism and Islam.

In one of his books, Islam between Globalisation and Counter Terrorism, he explained how the religion was entrapped in the danger of rising extremism.

'Shaping scholarship'

The professor had immense international experience in his academic career.

He studied at some of the world's most prestigious universities, including Oxford, from where obtained a doctorate in philosophy in 1966.

Mr Mazrui then joined Uganda's famous Makerere University as head of the Department of Political Science and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Throughout his career, he wrote numerous books and expressed strong opinions in widely published papers.

In the 1970s, Mr Mazrui's sharp criticism of the then-Kenyan and Ugandan regimes - led by Daniel arap Moi and Idi Amin respectively - displeased the ruling class, leading to his exile in the US.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ali Mazrui lamented the growing influence of Western culture

At the time of his death, he was an Albert Schweitzer professor in the humanities and the director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in New York.

Leading tributes to Mr Mazrui, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta described him as "towering" academic whose "intellectual contributions played a major role in shaping African scholarship".

"Indeed, death has robbed us of one of Kenya's greatest scholars," Mr Kenyatta said.

'The African condition'

Tanzania's Deputy Minister of Communication, Science and Technology, January Makamba, paid a more personal tribute, saying Mr Mazrui "taught me to appreciate and value Africa's complex identity and multiple heritages".

Mr Mazrui wrote and presented a ground-breaking BBC television series in the 1980s entitled The Africans - a Triple Heritage that talked of the Western , Islamic and indigenous influences on Africa.

He won several awards and in 2005, the US journal Foreign Policy and British journal Prospect listed him as among the world's top 100 public intellectuals

Image copyright Nation Media Group
Image caption Mr Marui authored many books

Mr Mazrui lamented the growing influence of the West on societies across the world.

"Even the very vices of Western culture are acquiring worldwide prestige. Muslim societies which once refrained from alcohol are now manifesting increasing alcoholism," he said in a speech in 2000 at an event hosted by the Royal African Society and the BBC in London.

"Chinese elites are capitulating to Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonald hamburgers. And Mahatma Gandhi's country has decided to go nuclear."

In 1979, Mr Mazrui also delivered the BBC's Reith Lecture, entitled The African Condition.

He will be buried, in accordance with his wishes at the historical monument of Fort Jesus in Mombasa, his birthplace.

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