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Ali Mazrui and the Challenge of Africa’s Triple Heritage

11 Nov 2012

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Ali Mazrui


Tunji Olaopa looks at Mazrui’s intellectual appreciation of the challenge of development in Africa

The choice of our intellectual-hero for celebration in this contribution would obviously ignite some curiosity. The curiosity will arise given our stated objective for this enterprise at its commencement, and it bears restating. Given that today’s global cultural supermarket might be making it difficult for Nigerian youths to harness their national mentors and the pool of endogenous ideas and ideals as they prepare mentally for their inevitable task of leadership, political education focused public service is becoming a compelling responsibility.

Such political education would be one way of promoting human understanding and cooperation given the lingering issues around the national question that makes it look as though there is no value in our diversity. Besides, profiling the achievement and intervention of these heroes and national figures is meant to contribute to raising the level of public awareness and discourse. Furthermore, in spite of the availability of global ideas and best practices, these ones constitute a reservoir of endogenous ideas and beliefs that could be harnessed to interrogate and interact with the global pool for national transformation.

And this brings us to the subject matter of Africa’s triple heritage, which Nigeria shares, and which is a specific contribution of Prof. Ali Mazrui. Of course, it is obvious that Mazrui does not readily fit into my Nigerian framework of achievers. I agree, but only at a superficial level of assessing Mazrui’s achievements and intellectual and filial genealogy. Let me quote him for his own justification of inclusion:

In one sense, I identify with all African countries and with the African Diaspora. But it is true that there are some particular African countries which have intersected with my own life more than others. Kenya is the birth place of my academic career and the initial engine of my rise to professional pre-eminence; Nigeria is the land of my African wife’s birth [Pauline Uti] and the country which inspired the emotions of my only novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. Nigeria is also the country which made it possible for me to combine an appointment in Africa (University of Jos) with an appointment in the Western world (University of Michigan). The Nigerian Television Authority also joined forces with the BBC in Britain and the PBS in the US to produce my television series, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage”. Ghana was the country which had a greater impact on my Oxford doctoral dissertation, and Tanzania is the vanguard of my own Swahili culture. Kiswahili is my mother tongue.

Mazrui therefore comes forward as a diasporan whose ideas are generated within the context of Africa’s multifaceted cultural, socio-political and economic challenges. Yet, it is not difficult to confer the honour of a Nigerian citizenship on him less for his marriage to a Nigerian, but more for his contributions as a political scientist to the understanding, resolution and revival of Africa nay Nigeria as a force in global affairs.

The triple heritage thesis, first proposed by Kwame Nkrumah, but given its most powerful espousal by Mazrui, resonates with a forcefulness that speaks to Africa’s and Nigeria’s postcolonial predicament. The thesis simply states that Africa’s future lies within the framework by which we are able to navigate the dynamics of our Euro-Christian, Islamic and traditional heritage. Due largely to the Arab and European colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, Africa inherited a combustive mix of non-traditional religious ideals and sentiments that has done a lot to colour its sociological and continental futures.

Let me illustrate this thesis with the sociological point of my personal experience growing up in the village. I was born in the little town of Awe in Oyo state. Awe is a typical African community which embodies the convivial values of a normal village. My grandfather, a Christian convert, got married to the daughter of an acclaimed local Muslim chieftain. Before the birth of my father, the expected religious crisis had erupted between the two families: “My daughter will not marry a kiriyo [the derisive term for a Christian]. It will only happen over my dead body!” However, Mama Muniratu, my grandmother, later had my dad for my Christian grandfather. She then remarried along the preference of her Muslim parents and bore about half a dozen other children. Whereas the discriminating attitude was somewhat deeply ingrained even within our spatial limitation in the village, there were strong mitigating factors which are the substance of the triple heritage thesis.

In spite of this religious difference, we had the good fortune of achieving the harmonious relationship between the two religions around the framework of tradition and culture. In other words, as the two religious faiths got more entrenched within our communal space, adherents began defining their relationship to the traditional beliefs around the imperative of values and culture but excluding the “idolatrous” practices defined by traditional rituals. I therefore grew up in a community of other loved ones and the dynamics of shared values which the triple heritage thesis encapsulate. For instance, I “religiously” carried my Grandma’s mat to the mosque every Friday, and would stay outside until the prayer ended and we returned home. And Grandma, as a mark of respect for my father who raised his other siblings in love, paid her tithe equally “religiously” in church and sent her regular gifts to the church ministers. Whereas the church preached that we were not to eat Sallah meals, it was simply impracticable in our home as my Muslim cousins were the only brothers and sisters I knew. We slept in the same room, grew up with a bond that never created the crack for us to see that we were different until we were intellectually matured to interrogate the doctrines of our shared faiths.

I therefore grew up within the dynamics of the Yoruba adage that: “Enikan ni o ma nbi’mo, sugbon igba eniyan ni o ma to o” (Only one person gives birth to a child, but the community trains him/her). The communally shared values and restraints within which I developed as a child were incredibly social and spiritual; they coalesce around the dictum: “Ranti omo eniti iwo nse!” (Remember the child of whom you are) and its attendant duties and obligations not only to the family and the society, but also to some “Heavenly Father” we had a very dim understanding of then, but ably represented by my earthly father who kept the faiths in harmony, without allowance for a relapse into fundamentalism!

At the national level, the advantage of living harmoniously together, especially within the context of the foisted triple heritage all but disappears. Most African plural states have all been struggling for fifty-something years now to come to term with this heritage and convert it to a wholesome platform for moral reorientation and institutional/national transformation. A typical African state or society is therefore a mesh of warring political, social, religious, gender and ethnic sentiments motivated by the struggle for the scarce resources within the ambit of the state. The population and the distribution of these three elements of the heritage in Nigeria make our case a largely frightening one. However, it also gives Nigeria the possibility of living up to its reputation as the giant of Africa, if we can undermine the virulence of the elements working out of synchronisation with one another.

The need to find a solution to the virulence of the Euro-Christian and Islamic elements in Africa’s triple heritage raises significant questions for the urgency of moving forward beyond our present crippling circumstances. First, is it impossible for people, otherwise distinguished by ethnic, cultural and religious affiliations, to live together? If we manage an affirmative, in what sense then would that hope not be truncated by an absolute conception of faith that necessarily exclude the others from religious, and national, communion? What role does self-understanding play in our attempts to come to term with our differences and similarities? How does the knowledge of the Infinite moderate our conscience in the world where other consciences inhabit?

What makes us human is our ability to live together with others who are simultaneously different and the same with us. “Don’t you see that that blessed conscience of yours,” proclaimed Luigi Pirandello, the Italian dramatist, “is nothing but other people inside you?” Yet, as we have encountered over and again, recognising the simple truth is such a difficult thing that we must work at it with all hands on deck. Religious fundamentalism, ethnic triumphalism, gender chauvinism, and many others are all dimensions of the dynamics and contradictions of the triple heritage in disequilibrium. The dream of national integration is however hinged around the imperative of harnessing the energy flow seeping off through cracks in our inability to enlarge our civility and social interaction.

In the integrative process, according to Mazrui, we move from bare coexistence to contact which precipitate competition arising from social and economic interpenetration. The two other stages include the compromise and coalescence stages. The former requires that the diverse people have found a means of living together with minimal conflict; the latter signifies a form of cultural synthesis in which the diversity has finally achieved unity. Nigeria, for sure, is presently in a pre-compromise stage, and the prospect of coalescence seems like a receding horizon.Yet, that horizon can be achieved. I have never flinched from the prospect of national compromise in Nigeria. And my optimism is premised on the tantalising fact that Nigeria will eventually evolve into a land of promise, one way or the other, in which our interests as Nigerians supersedes every other consideration. As Mahatma Gandhi notes, “Willing submission to social restraint for the sake of the well-being of the whole of society, enriches both the individual and the society of which he is a member.”

Compromise and national integration therefore require a robust sensibility, an enlarged mind, and an empathetic consciousness that can tolerate a wide range of human experience without flinching in self-righteousness. This requires a process of reciprocity and self-respect that allows others to hold onto what John Rawls, the American philosopher, calls their “comprehensive doctrines” while equally respecting the right of others to hold onto theirs and the need to achieve what Rawls, again, calls a “reasonable overlapping consensus” amongst these doctrines. This consensus then becomes the template for a national conversation that turns the dynamics of the triple heritage into a unique source of strength.

Furthermore, compromise also requires a proactive policy initiative around concrete programmes like the resuscitation of the idea of civics education in our schools as well as a veritable cultural/linguistic policy that ensures that the knowledge of other cultures is not far from the our consciousness. These are already issues receiving the utmost attention within the transformation agenda of government. The challenge however is to strengthen them by taking the policy to its logical conclusion. If Ali Mazrui could become a quintessential scholar within the context of his immersion in that heritage, Nigeria equally can, through its large intellectual capital among who is Mazrui himself.
• Olaopa, a Federal Permanent Secretary, writes from Abuja.

Tags: Politics, Nigeria, Featured, Triple Heritage

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