African News

Ali Mazrui and the Role of the African Intellectual

4 February 2006 at 03:55 | 791 views

Another brilliant essay from our Ottawa correspondent Kofi Akosa-Sarpong.

Kofi, who holds a masters degree in journalism from Carleton university in Ottawa, is currently in Ghana, his native country, where he is one of the experts recently recruited by the Canadian NGO Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) to train Ghanaian journalists in development and human rights reporting.He will be in Ghana for six months, from where he will continue to write for the Vanguard.

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, Accra, Ghana

Prof. Ali Mazrui’s address at the 30th anniversary celebration of the Dakar, Senegal-based CODESRIA on the theme,Intellectuals, Nationalism and the Pan-African Ideal reveals the growing pre-occupation, Africa-wide, with the implications of African culture and the continent’s development process. The central theme of the Mazrui (currently Chancellor of Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology) address is twofold: Why African intellectuals are mediocre and why this informs their inability to appropriate Pan-Africanism ideals into Africa’s development process.

I would prefer to address why African elites have not been able to appropriate African cultural values into Africa’s development process as other elites in other parts of the world have done in their development process.

Using the East African region as a continental reference, Mazrui, known globally as one of Africa’s leading thinkers, reveals how undemocratic political climates undermined Africa’s intellectual growth, and how, by extension, this impacted on the continent’s development process. Unlike other ex-colonies, such as Japan, which Mazrui used liberally as an example to show how African elites failed to match their Western education with their African values in both their intellectual development and the continent’s progress, the trouble with African elites and the continent’s development process is that the elites who conceptualise ideas are not informed by Africa’s innate, indigenous values or ideas but are rather influenced by the Western ideas that they have had in formal schools.

Mazrui himself shows this contradiction and confusion of the African elites in this statement:

"Uganda had for Head of Government a person who had changed his name because of admiration of the author of the great English poem, Paradise Lost. Obote became Milton Obote out of admiration of John Milton. While in the spirit of universal intellectuality Obote could admire Milton, his admiration for a non-African poet and the fact that he is a Head of State, may have let Ugandan and African youth to admire more non-African elites than indigenous Ugandan and African elites."

The central issue here is role model, values, and inspiration in the development process. In this sense, Obote did not deeply help the growth of African values and progress. If Obote had done so and greatly touted a non-African value it is not because he was educated in Western paradigms but, like most African elites, because either he did not understand African values deeply enough or was mesmerized by Western values or did not respect African values or was confused about African values in relation to the continent’s progress.

Still, Mazrui’s argument that the capacity to be curious and fascinated by ideas has to start early in the educational process and that the spirit of intellectualism has to be nourished from primary school onwards, but that it can die at the university level if mediocrity prevails, reveals that the problem of Africa’s intellectual growth is not only at the university level but also at the primary school level; where the values, images and examples which are heavily European-centred are formed. So, if the African primary education system is heavily Western structured, it flows and grows to the high school level, and then later to the university level; thus sowing a culture of mediocrity, in terms of African values not predominantly dictating the intellectual life of the African child early enough. It is in this sense, that Ghana’s Dr. Y.K. Amoako, the former UN Economic Commission for Africa executive secretary, has observed that Africa is the only region in the world where foreign development paradigms dominate her development process.

Not only does this indicate that Africa’s development process is not culturally close to Africans, but also a revelation that African elites are mediocre in both their intellectualizing and their direction of the continent’s progress.

This has made the African elite mediocre in their own innate environment and in their development process struggles. The mediocrity has come about because Africa’s elites do not think deeply from within Africa’s values first and the enabling aspects of their colonial legacies second in the continent’s development process. Mazrui himself testifies of the Japanese elites doing so in their country’s development process.

In this connection it is worth bearing in mind important differences between the westernization of Africa and the modernization of Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Japan’s original modernization involved considerable selectivity on the part of the Japanese themselves (Western Technique, Japanese Spirit). The whole purpose of selective Japanese westernization was to protect Japan against the West, rather than merely to submit to western cultural attractions. The emphasis in Japan was therefore on the technical and technological techniques of the West, rather than on literary and verbal culture. The Japanese slogan of western technique, Japanese spirit; at the time captured this ambition to borrow technology from the West while deliberately protecting a substantial part of Japanese culture. In a sense, Japan’s technological westernization was designed to reduce the danger of other forms of cultural dependency.

This process should start from childhood to adulthood based on a curriculum skillfully cast in African values first and any other borrowed ones second; more especially, in preparing African elites’ minds at an earlier stage: from primary and high schools levels. It is in this process that African elites, from their early formation to their university crystallization, will be culturally close to African society, will be culturally close to the African’s progress in the continent’s development journey.

By not being culturally close to the African society, African elites could not undertake the Japanese cultural selectivity in relation to their colonial legacies and the enabling aspects of the global culture, and have therefore, become both technologically and culturally dependent upon the Western world despite their superb innate culture having huge technological and cultural values for progress.

Writes Mazrui, "The nature of westernization in Africa has been very different. Far from emphasizing western productive technology and reducing western life-styles and verbal culture, Africa has reversed the Japanese order of emphasis. Among the factors which have facilitated this reversal has been the role of the African university as a vehicle of Western influence on African culture".

The challenge for African elites today is how to overturn the contradiction they have caused in Africa’s progress by thinking first from within African values, and then matching African values with the enabling aspects of their colonial legacies and the global values, and then intellectually linking this to the wider world of scholarship and science.

Photo: Prof. Ali Mazrui, leading African scholar.