By Okello Oculli
Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem was born in far away Funtua in Northern Nigeria’s sahalian flatlands barely two years before Mazrui hit Makerere University as meteorite. In his own words: ‘Makerere made me a professor, less than two years after making me a lecturer’. Tajudeen would live for ten years in Kampala, Makerere’s home, after Ali Mazrui had fled from Makerere.
A peculiar form of solidarity was manifested by Idi Amin’s soldiers, parking a military tank on the street in front of Mazrui’s residence daily from around sunset to dawn. The strain on Mazrui’s family (whether he was at home or out of the country on his numerous nomadic public lectures), advised a flight that may well have echoed in his Islamic ancestral memory as a personal ‘hijra’ (the journey by Prophet Mohammed out of Mecca in search of security from persecution).
Tajudeen came into Kampala to run the secretariat of the 4th Pan-African Conference, having been encouraged to leave Oxford University and the lures of London by Mohammed Abdurrahman Babu, a radical ideological from Zanzibar. Babu had gone from being a cabinet minister in Tanzania, a prisoner and political refugee from Abed Karume’s murderous plans for him. He had settled in London and turned his home into an intellectual drinking pool for radicals from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Americas.
Professor Mazrui attended the 4th Pan African conference held in 1994 at Kampala, but complained that copies of his paper on the need for a ‘re-colonisation of Africa’, vanished and that he was not allowed the opportunity to deliver it at a session commensurate with the importance its subject merited.
Tajudeen talked most warmly about contact made with Mazrui in another geography and political site – Trinidad. They met at a conference on Islam. Taju recalls appealing to Mazrui to save him from a burdensome honour assigned to him of delivering the sermon at the local mosque. He invoked a cultural pressure on him to pay deference to Mazrui’s age, scholarly fame, and higher social status.
Mazrui insisted that Taju owed the Muslim Umma of Trinidad the appeal of youth and sense of succession from an ancient to a recent graduate of Oxford University. In desperation Taju confessed that he saw a most inhibiting clash looming between his role as the Imam-of-the-day at prayer time and his personal ‘anticipation of a joyous beer-drinking session with the comrades’.
Mazrui relented but warned him not to assume his own innocence in that domain of joyful human participation in history. That combination of generosity of spirit, tolerance, solidarity in minor vice and humility had touched Tajudeen deeply.
So, how has he, from ‘After-Africa’ (Mazrui’s coinage) responded to the initiative by Makerere University and President Museveni’s government to honour Professor Ali Alamin Mazrui? The honour is reported to be a product of ‘Makerere University Private Sector Forum’, whose vision is to develop the university’s capacity to ‘raise funds that will later on promote the exchange of professors between Makerere and other foreign institutions of learning’.
The infrastructural expression of this project are: The establishment of a professorial fair named after Ali A. Mazrui; a fund that would award scholarships associated with Mazrui’s name, and the construction of an eight-story building that would host the ‘East African Ali A. Mazrui Centre for Global Studies’. Apart from lending his name to the project, Mazrui will equip a resource centre which will contain: ‘A photo gallery and archives, displays of Mazrui awards, prizes, significant speeches, public lectures and any other academic and professorial narratives’.
Tajudeen must have immediately chuckled in his staccato mirth and congratulated himself for expecting that gesture by Mazrui of generosity and sense of devotion to his academic roots. It is a gesture he would have expected of Museveni who is himself a graduate of Political Science and author of a book on the drama of his record as a political actor.
There are, however, some intriguing paradoxes that would tickle Tajudeen. For a start, that Museveni was groomed by a radical academic culture on the campus of the University of Dar es Salaam, as well as field research experience of visiting ‘liberated zones’ controlled by freedom fighters of the Movement for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo), may tickle Tajudeen in two ways.
Firstly Mazrui’s record of support for the liberation struggles in Africa may have been fatally affected by the character of the ‘Zanzibar revolution’ of 1964. It has certainly not endeared him to the subsequent union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika into ‘Tanzania’. He has openly mocked the revolutionary plumes of the union by claiming that Nyerere was pressured into it by the imperialist former American President Lyndon Johnson.
Secondly, from early in his academic career Mazrui put much value on capturing the flavour of the present as expressed in contents of newspapers; radio and television broadcasts, speeches and interviews by politicians and those in power. A young John Ken Lukyamuzi, who would later become a combative member of Uganda’s parliament, cut his teeth in higher education through undertaking newspaper cuttings whose contents Mazrui cherished.
The late Professor Archie Mafeje was brutally dismissive of this tradition of scholarship, accusing Mazrui of ‘superficiality and journalistic predisposition’. As one who travelled around Africa like a human tornado, and also used media data and interviews with people of power, it is unlikely that Tajudeen would have been so harsh on Mazrui’s methodology. Mazrui would not, however, have been a man who worked with the methods of a ‘comrade’ in seeking out the pulse of people in an African country. The exception would have been the making of the BBC documentary ‘The Africans: A Triple Heritage’ if research was not primarily done by those paid to craft the script.
In his ‘debate’ with Mafeje in CODESRIA Bulletin, Mazrui revealed much pain about how Makerere had later treated him. He accused Mafeje of not knowing ‘that I have offered myself more than once to my old university, Makerere, in Kampala. Uganda, and not been taken up’.
Tajudeen must have heard quite a lot about how Museveni and his comrades in the National Resistance Movement remembered Mazrui’s record in Uganda’s turbulent political history. For President Museveni this would go back to the period when he was a research (cum intelligence) officer in Milton Obote’s presidency.
Mazrui has given his own version of his closeness to Obote during the period before the Idi Amin’s military coup of 1971. A pro-Obote satirist did publish a book in which the role of a certain Professor Salim Fisi is not favourably portrayed. In the context of such divergences in recalled and interpreted historical records, the decision to give Professor Mazrui a home that pleases his heart, as well as enriches Makerere, must be commended by Tajudeen.
In the context of the current political crisis in Uganda over honouring the ‘sovereignty’ of Buganda, a little historical record crops us. Professor Mazrui had once used what Professor Archie Mafeje noted disapprovingly as ‘his mental agility and great sense of imagination’ to throw up ‘bright but ephemeral ideas like white phosphorus in a bowl of water’.
Four are worth recalling, namely: ‘documentary radicalism’; ‘violent constitutionalism’; the notion that the Baganda are ‘the Japanese of Uganda’, and the notion that ‘Uganda is the Switzerland of Africa.’ The third notion was seen by ideologues of the ruling Uganda Peoples Congress, UPC, as hostile to them and partisan as a form of giving primacy to the culture of Buganda. That meaning of culture rolled directly to power for Mengo.
The fourth notion was detested as suggesting that Uganda should become an immoral site into whose secret bank vaults corrupt African leaders and crooks elsewhere would hide their looted wealth. What was ignored was the more positive notion that Switzerland may be small but it runs the best intelligence organisation in the world; and celebrates a deep culture of industrial genius in inventing products it sells into markets of bigger countries, including the vast and rich American market. That Museveni’s regime may be exercising reflexes of reconciliation and wishing to hear prophet Mazrui at his own home, is something Tajudeen would commend.
Makerere’s initiative in treating Mazrui to an ‘intellectual coronation’ comes at a time when public universities in Nigeria have been closed for four months because academic and administrative staff unions are on strike. The strike has drawn attention anomalies in wages in which local government councillors earn three times the salary of a university professor. Also, whereas a professor would earn 330,000 Naira per month, if she/he climbs to become the Vice Chancellor he earns 2.8 million Naira per month.
The gap is regarded as provocative and scandalous. The level of decline in the quality of teaching and research in the universities has, however, bred widespread resentment against endless strikes by university unions. Repeated complaints by employers in the private sector to the effect that the quality of Nigeria’s university graduates is so low that they have to put them through re-training to get any useful output from them, has fuelled the deepening hostility among parents. Makerere’s celebration of scholarly achievement by Professor Ali A. Mazrui sends out a useful signal to Nigeria. Tajudeen would wish that it were heard across Nigeria.
And talking of Nigeria, the culture of public lectures that Mazrui took to a higher gear at Makerere, led to a novel project created by the Makerere Students Guild (or executive). Growing dissatisfaction with what was increasingly regarded as Mazrui’s hostility to radical African nationalism, the Guild under the troika of Peter Anyang Nyongo, Joshua Mugyenyi and Daudi Mulabya Taliwako convinced Y.K. Lule, Makerere’s Principal, to fund ‘The Makerere Africa Lecture Series’.
Distinguished scholars would be nominated to deliver an annual lecture. Makerere would publish and market the lectures to libraries worldwide. Professor Ade Ajayi was nominated to launch the series. He arrived in Kampala the morning after Idi Amin’s coup. He was met at the Apolo Hotel and urged to return to Nigeria immediately. Word had reached the student leadership that Amin’s regime had been launched on a very bloody note inside and outside military barracks. Tajudeen would have wished to participate in a revived series. The dictum that ‘not by good tasting bread alone does man live’, is a worthy gift that Mazrui since the 1960s gave Makerere and Africa, because it forced others to rise and engage him in intellectual combat. Intellectual combativity in the defence of African dignity, freedom and development is a call for which Tajudeen demands action. He would urge that vigilance be adopted by Makerere and all Africa’s universities to ensure that Mazrui’s honour and valued gifts serve the call.
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* Okello Oculi is the executive director of Africa Vision 525.
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