I owe my writing to the late Prof Ali A Mazrui who inspired me to write and to Mundia Muchiri, who availed the opportunity.
I was a youthful publishing editor in the early ‘90s when Mazrui published an essay in the Sunday Nation, revisiting his pet theme of the trinity of the African condition.
The thrust of the thought was that Africa was culturally the product of three backgrounds — the Indo European, Arabic Islamic and Afro Asiatic heritages.
He saw the Afro Asiatic heritage as dying. It was succumbing to natural attrition at the hands of the Arabic Islamic and the Indo European heritages.
The latter two heritages were meanwhile locked up in their own war of supremacy.
Eventually one was set to prevail. Mazrui pitched for the Arabic Islamic heritage. If the traditional African heritage was dying, the European heritage was cancerous.
The Arabic Islamic heritage was, therefore, the natural choice for Africa. I disagreed.
FASCINATED WITH IDEAS
I argued that Africa needed her own idiom, identity and destiny, equidistant from the Judeo-European and Arabic Islamic worlds.
We debated over an eight-week period in the Sunday Nation. In the end we agreed to disagree. But, with that, my weekly perorations were born.
Despite our disagreement, Mazrui found the dialogue edifying. He purposed to publish the essays in a future collection of his intellectual battles. It did not come to pass, however, for reasons beyond us.
Our relations nonetheless remained warm, peppered with occasional email exchanges on varied issues.
We purposed to revise Nations and New States in Africa but this fell through when I left EAEP. This seminal work was previously authored jointly with the late Prof Michael Tidy. It remains a tour de force on Africa’s postcolonial states.
It is an indictment against our failure to build new nations in our new states.
I first picked up the expression “the Hereafter” from The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. The converse was “the Herebefore,” or land of the living, as “seen” by the dead. The Okigbo story is the tale of a great artist — a poet — who is on trial in Heaven — the Hereafter.
He is charged with the crime of throwing art to the dogs and allowing himself to die on the battlefield in a tribal war.
Chris Okigbo, easily Africa’s finest poet, died in action in the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70).
In the eyes of Kwame Apolo-Gyamfi, himself an extraordinarily brilliant Ghanaian student who was killed in a motorbike crash in the UK after a rare drinking binge, Okigbo did a bad thing to die in war. “When the ordinary man or the great soldier dies for his nation, that is indeed heroism,” Apolo-Gyamfi, the, “prosecutor,” said.
He concluded, “When the great thinker dies for his nation, that is escapism.”
Mazrui was fascinated with ideas. As if talking about himself, he famously wrote in the Sunday Nation in 1979, “A philosopher is someone who wonders.” He packaged his “wonderings” in rhetorical and titillating intellectual cadence.
POLITICS OF TRIBE
He was the ultimate master of Aristotelian rhetoric. Of Kwame Nkrumah he would quip, for example, “Was Nkrumah a Leninist Czar?” Leninist Czar? What a beautiful oxymoron! So Kwame was at once a revolutionary liberator and a profligate reactionary!
But Mazrui was in his element when discussing the trinity of phenomena. In the Okigbo story, he used trinity to examine the curse of the African tribal intelligentsia.
Here, Apolo-Gyamfi describes what he calls “The fall of Okigbo.” Mazrui writes, “Counsel made a distinction between individualism, universalism and social collectivism.
A great artist was first of all an individualist, secondly a universalist, and only thirdly a social collectivist.”
The individualist is, we may infer, the person who respects his thoughts, conscience and will. He bends only to these three. He will not do things to conform to social collectivism, such as kith and kin.
The scholar who refuses to “join in”— for example in inter ethnic conflict — is an individualist, the black sheep of the tribe.
The collectivist is driven by tribal passions and sympathies. He belongs to the tribe first and to everything else afterwards. The universalist is committed to eternal values and principles.
And so Apolo-Gyamfi concludes, “If the great artist has to sacrifice himself for anything, he should only sacrifice himself for the universal. To die for the truth is martyrdom. To die for knowledge is martyrdom. To die for art is martyrdom.
But when the great thinker dies for his nation (read tribe), this is an indulgence.
He has put the politics of the tribe before the power of the eternal. He may not have broken his contract with the dead. But he has broken his contract with the living and with those who are to be born.”