9 November 2012

Africa: Mazrui and the Challenge of Africa's Triple Heritage


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.

Dr Olaopa, a permanent secretary, wrote from Abuja

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