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2009-02-16

Pan-Africanist Scholar Ali Mazrui on the Election of Barack Obama as the First Black President in the Western World

Guests

Ali Mazrui, Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and the Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Born in Mombasa in 1933, Mazrui studied in Manchester, New York, and Oxford before becoming a professor at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1973, he was forced into exile by then-Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and has taught in the United States as well as at institutions across the world ever since. In addition to his appointments at Binghamton, Professor Mazrui is also Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large at the University of Jos in Nigeria, the Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large Emeritus and Senior Scholar in Africana Studies at Cornell University, and Chancellor of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

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Ali Mazrui has been an intellectual giant in African studies for the past four decades. In 2005, Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines named him among the top 100 public intellectuals in the world. Mazrui has met Nelson Mandela, Ghana’s founding president Kwame Nkrumah; he had tea with the Indian prime minister; he met with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in his tent; he’s met with the Queen of England; and was forced out of Uganda under Idi Amin. Today, a conversation with Pan-Africanist professor Ali Mazrui. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

We turn now to our next guest, an intellectual giant in African studies for the past four decades. In 2005, Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines named him among the top 100 public intellectuals in the world, written over thirty enormously influential books, including Towards a Pax Africana, The African Condition, Black Reparations in the Era of Globalization, The Power of Babel: Language and Governance in the African Experience, Islam: Between Globalization and Counterterrorism, as well as the book The African Predicament and the American Experience: A Tale of Two Edens. He’s written and narrated a much-discussed 1986 TV series on BBC and PBS called The Africans: A Triple Heritage.

I’m talking about the Kenyan-born, Pan-Africanist thinker Ali Mazrui. He is Albert Schweitzer Professor in Humanities and the director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at State University of New York, Binghamton. Born in Mombasa in Kenya in 1933, Dr. Mazrui studied in Manchester, New York, and Oxford, then became a professor in Uganda, in 1973 forced into exile by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and has taught in the United States as well as at institutions around the world.

In addition to his appointments at Binghamton, Professor Mazrui is also Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large at University of Jos in Nigeria, the Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large Emeritus and Senior Scholar in Africana Studies at Cornell University, and he is chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya.

Professor Ali Mazrui joins us now in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALI MAZRUI:

Delighted to be here, Amy, and congratulations on your very successful program.

AMY GOODMAN:

It is great to have you with us. You have had many experiences in your life that really go to the connection between the United States and Africa. You met with the founding president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, in New York as well as other places. You were driven out of Uganda by Idi Amin, though met with him many times. You met with Jomo Kenyatta. You’re the chancellor of a university by that name in Kenya. You met with the Queen of England and sat in a tent with Muammar Qaddafi and discussed world affairs. You just had tea with the Indian prime minister in November.

This is the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Kwame Nkrumah, the founding president of Ghana. It’s also the time of the election of the first black president of the United States, his father from Kenya, Barack Obama. I heard you speak yesterday at the International Studies Association in New York, and you said it’s bigger than that for Barack Obama.

ALI MAZRUI:

Yes, indeed. Barack Obama is setting a precedent not just for the United States, but for the entire Western world. In none of the countries in the Western world with a white majority population has there been an election to install a head of state or a head of government who was black. So —

AMY GOODMAN:

You’re saying he’s the first black president of the Western Hemisphere?

ALI MAZRUI:

And of the Western world. That is, including Europe, not just the Western Hemisphere, but the Western world as a whole, because we keep on wondering when we’ll have a black president of France, for example, although there’s been progress in appointing ministers who are from Africa or from the world of color. And then, a black prime minister of Great Britain would be very nice, and I’m sure it will happen, not necessarily in my lifetime, but probably in yours or in the lifetime of my children. And then, even more surprising, but — historically, but perfectly understandable in modern terms, a black chancellor of Germany, and that will take a while. But I’m sure because of Barack Obama breaking that original taboo in the Western world about appointing as heads of states people who are not of European extraction, it opens other doors around the Western world as well as the Western Hemisphere.

And then, Barack Obama, himself, becomes the most powerful single black individual in the history of civilization, you know? There’s never been a person in control of the resources which the United States has, of the creative and destructive powers that the United States has. We’ve had great individuals in African history, like Menelik II of Ethiopia or Ramesses II of Egypt or even a more recent one like Kwame Nkrumah. Those were powerful within their countries or their regions. They were not globally powerful in the sense in which a president of the United States is. So he’s easily the most powerful single black individual that’s ever walked planet earth. And that’s a major breakthrough in race relations.

AMY GOODMAN:

His father also is Kenyan, as you are.

ALI MAZRUI:

Yes, indeed.

AMY GOODMAN:

The significance of Barack Obama’s links, his relations to Kenya?

ALI MAZRUI:

Yes, well, although I didn’t know the older Barack Obama personally, we share friends. There are friends even now I talk to for information about the older Obama. And we are waiting for the first book about the older Obama, the father, which will be published in Nairobi.

AMY GOODMAN:

Really?

ALI MAZRUI:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

But he was a student at University of Hawaii, right?

ALI MAZRUI:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

And also at Harvard?

ALI MAZRUI:

Yes. He did go to Harvard, as well, yes. And then he went back home, and he had ups and downs with the authorities, unfortunately, the way I have had ups and downs with the authorities.

AMY GOODMAN:

What do you mean “ups and downs with the authorities”?

ALI MAZRUI:

Well, he — unlike me, he actually was a part of the government, because he was appointed into the civil service. And then, now and again, he took positions which put him into a bad light with authorities, including his very strong position upon the assassination of Tom Mboya, who was a fellow Luo, but much more importantly, he was a potential next president after Kenyatta and was probably eliminated because of those credentials, presidential credentials for Kenya. And the older Obama was trying to get the government to be much more serious about investigating and not to engage in cover-up, because the chances were that people in government knew about the plot to kill Mboya and were hiding. So, he was a fairly brave man. And he was sacked out of the civil service on one occasion and then readmitted later on. He had ups and downs. But he didn’t realize he had produced a son who would change the history of race relations in the world.

AMY GOODMAN:

How do you respond to someone like — critics like Glen Ford — he writes for the Black Agenda Report — who says, “Obama will provide US empire with a black face, and that could be very destructive.”

ALI MAZRUI:

It is a risk, really, because sometimes people are swallowed up by the position they occupy. I would hope he would help reshape the position he occupies, the presidency of the United States. And I’ve spoken, including in India — the one thing I hope he will avoid is initiate another military conflict for the United States, because since the 1930s, every single American president has initiated a conflict, either large-scale war or some kind of confrontation with another country involving weapons — everybody since Franklin D. Roosevelt. So, my hope is he will break that tendency for the American presidents to feel the way to be really presidential and commander-in-chief is to be ordering an army into action on another society.

AMY GOODMAN:

And what sense do you have that he will go that way? I mean, since he has come into office, we see one after another of these unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan. Of course, while he says he’s going to draw down in Iraq, he’s talking about a surge that will double the force in Afghanistan.

ALI MAZRUI:

Absolutely. So, at the moment, I’m not optimistic that he’ll necessarily be just a peacemaking president with the conflicts that are on. So my dream was he will be the first president not to start a conflict, not that he would be the first president not to preside over a war, because he’s inheriting two wars, anyhow. And then, with one of them, the Afghanistan, he’s not planning to end it, really. He’s planning to escalate it for a while, so that is disappointing. So my prayer was slightly different, that I don’t want him to start a war with Iran. I hope he wouldn’t start a war with Syria. He would be mad if he started a war with North Korea, you see? So, in general, I hope he won’t start any war and break this idea that a commander-in-chief has to be engaged in an actual war to be a credible president of the United States.

AMY GOODMAN:

The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that took place —

ALI MAZRUI:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

— looking at modern conflicts and the US role in that, Professor Mazrui?

ALI MAZRUI:

Oh, absolutely. I think although Ethiopia always has reasons for being suspicious about its neighbor, Somalia, and has reasons to engage in hostile action against Somalia, the actual use of troops to enter into Ethiopia and virtually be an occupying power had a lot to do with American encouragement to do so. So the Ethiopians were allowing themselves to be used by the United States against another African country, in spite of the fact that you could argue that Ethiopia had its own national interests at stake in Somalia, whatever happened. So, we must be fair to Ethiopia. They weren’t just doing Washington’s dirty work, although they were doing that, but they had also good reasons to be cautious about dealing with Somalia, but that was not the answer.

AMY GOODMAN:

Professor Ali Mazrui, we have to break one more time, but we’re going to come back to this Kenyan-born, Pan-Africanist scholar, intellectual, professor at Binghamton University, also at Cornell, and chancellor of a Kenyan university in Africa. Be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Ali Mazrui. He is known for, among other things, his series for PBS and BBC called The Africans. He’s joining us in studio here in New York.

You were invited to Prince Charles’s sixtieth birthday party in Oxford, but you’re turning him down?

ALI MAZRUI: Yeah, I’m afraid so. It’s very tempting. Of course, you don’t turn down an invitation to a royal occasion, least of all a British occasion, which is even more exclusive than others. And I did consider seriously going there, but it’s really — first, it’s a long way to go just for a banquet. And secondly —-

AMY GOODMAN: What is your relation with Prince Charles?

ALI MAZRUI: Well, mainly because he’s the patron of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, and I’m one of the trustees of the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. So I serve on the board of that center, and I go to Oxford every year in connection with that center. So -— and he’s been remarkable in trying to reach to the world of Islam. He even gave a lecture at Oxford on Islam and the Western world, which was very Muslim-friendly. And he attempted to have the oath of coronation, when he does become king, changed to be not just defender of the faith, which originally envisaged the defender of the Church of England, but defender of faith in the sense more generally of all religions, etc. But he’s had trouble selling that concept to the people in charge of the rules of the coronation.

AMY GOODMAN: You will be celebrating your seventy-sixth birthday at just about the time he’s celebrating his sixtieth birthday. But not that long ago, you were sitting in a tent in Libya with Muammar Qaddafi. When was that?

ALI MAZRUI: A few years ago, maybe three, four years ago. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, now Muammar Qaddafi has been elected as head of the fifty-three-member African Union. He has vowed to pursue his vision of a United States of Africa, where African nations join together in a unified state. He has proposed establishing a single currency, army and passport for the entire continent. Tell us about him and what you think of his proposal.

ALI MAZRUI: Well, he’s definitely a very important individual for a head of state of such a small country, because Libya looks large on the map, but it’s, population-wise, a small society. And he’s been in power longer than I normally would recommend, because he’s been in power forty years this year. So that’s too long, even by African standards, etc.

But even in my conversations with him, he had already begun to change, that he was looking for a legacy in his capacity as an African and less for a legacy in his capacity as an Arab. In fact, in our four or five hours in his tent, one of the debates I was trying to convince him of, that he wasn’t being fair to the Arab world. You can imagine me trying to convince an Arab leader, “Don’t be so rough on the Arab world,” etc. And in general, he is seeking a legacy as a great African. It may be because he’s given up trying to forge a legacy as a great Arab. But in fairness to him, he has regarded himself consistently as part of the African scene, including at one time trying to save the regime of Idi Amin in Uganda by sending some troops there at the time Idi Amin’s regime was in danger from troops coming in from Tanzania.

And then, his dream of an instant United States of Africa, it’s nice. Many of us have had that kind of dream. But I’m realistic enough to believe that the speed he envisages is not doable. Africa needs to have the stage-by-stage approach, which the European Union has embarked upon ever since the Treaty of Rome in the 1950s, and they still haven’t reached a federation of Europe. So I’m skeptical about his timetable for African unification. But I’m intrigued by the optimism that it can be done, and I like the idea that there are still Africans who believe that we are one and should attempt to be politically united, even if his particular approach is unrealistic.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end on this centenary of the birth of Kwame Nkrumah. For viewers or listeners, particularly young Americans who have never even heard of him — we’ll start part two of our discussion on him, as well — but just briefly, in this last minute we have, explain who he is. Actually, we have thirty seconds, so it’ll have to be very brief.

ALI MAZRUI: Yes. Well, it’s arguable he’s the first post-colonial black president of the world. So, Obama being the first black president of the Western world, Nkrumah was the first of the world in post-colonial terms. There were president in Liberia before him, but Liberia was not a regular type of colony. And Nkrumah, although I have described him as not a great Ghanaian, in terms of what he did for Ghana, I’ve also described him as a great African, because he was the most ambitious Pan-Africanist of the twentieth century.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to leave it there, but we’re also going to pick it up there in part two of our conversation, which we will play this week. Professor Ali Mazrui, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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