By Damola Awoyokun
Good a thing that Mahmood Mamdani is coming to Nigeria to deliver Odia Ofeimun’s birthday lecture on 16th March 2010. Mamdani is a scholar and public intellectual of note and a worthy successor to the great Ali Mazrui. If Indians have their Aijaz Ahmad, and the Caribbean have their Paul Gilroy, we often point to him as our most energetic mind. His knowledge is real, his scholarship thorough, his analysis in-depth.
One of the beauties of classics like Paulin Hountondji’s African Philosophy: Myth and Reality is that it presents African scholarship as it is. Take it or leave it. Critique of western ignorance or misperception of African culture and intellectual systems is implicit and incidental to it not fundamental unlike all of Mamdani’s works that explicitly kick off to correct, attack, debunk or redress a western fallacy on Africa or the third world. There is something of his works that quietly insists that had there being no dishonest western views of Africa there would be no Mamdani.
And this precisely fits into the blame-west-first brand of African scholarship of which Mamdani is a second-generation practitioner. Slavery, colonialism or the so-called neo-imperialism have provided handy excuses to blame the west for our failings. Yet without luxuries of intense self-criticisms, Africa cannot fly.
His take on Zimbabwean crisis for instance. A bane of African leadership is perennial self-perpetuation at all cost, and one of the tools these leaders employ is tribal nationalisms or whipping up populisitic resentments against the west. Mamdani concedes that the 30 year old presidency of Robert Mugabe is authoritarian, that Mugabe is willing ‘to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters,’ and that in the same breath, Mugabe has ruled by ‘coercion and by consent’ and again in the same breath, that Mugabe’s ‘land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity’ in his country. Based on our serial experience of brutal dictatorships, this forceful yoking together of incompatibles may not sit well with a Nigerian audience.
Because General Abacha went after the bourgeoisie heads of failed banks, because he set-up Petroleum Trust Fund(PTF) that bankrolled several public projects, because Daniel Kanu organised million-man marches for Abacha that featured many popular musicians and because he banned some predatory British corporations in Nigeria then we call Abacha a people’s man. Very Mazruish. Any solution to Zimbabwe’s crisis must start with ousting Mugabe whether this coincides with west’s interests or not. Transparent land reforms and compensations can then follow.
Since the seventies when our intellectuals refused sympathy with Negritude, or refused the distractions of Idi Amin’s Pan-African rhetorical poses, Nigeria is not a place where we get excited over analysis, however brilliant, that places anti-imperial radicalisms over on-the-ground facts. President Babangida almost deceived us in the eighties when he kept pointing to heartless austerity policies of western institutions such as World Bank, IMF, Paris Club as sources of our economic woes meanwhile he and his cohorts were stealing our money in raw billions.
So before Mamdani begins to offer us lessons, any attempt to locate Nigeria’s problems in any post- or neo-colonial discourse would tamper with our efforts to take him too seriously. 60 years after independence, India a multi-tribal setting with its religious problems like Nigeria is emerging as a world power with an economy growing faster than those of western colonial masters. Nigeria at 50 is still a rat tending to an ant.
The Nigerian stake is even higher for Mamdani because not professors or brilliant critics exploded a thesis of his book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror, but Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Mindful of oversimplification, Mamdani argues that there are no good or bad Muslims; there are only good or bad people. A good person would always be a good Muslim and a bad person would always be a bad Muslim. This sounded very interesting until the young, innocent and morally upright Abdulmutallab came into the scene. The book also holds the affirmative view that al-Qaeda, the network of Islamic extremists and jihadists is a boomeranged cold war creation of CIA and they are motivated by legitimate grievances with U.S. foreign policy; yet he is coming to a country where that motivation is disputed by on-the-ground facts: US foreign policy is just a smokescreen for the extremists’ campaign to spread sinister Islamism. If there is no US meddling in Middle East, if the Israeli-Palestine problem disappears today, bin Laden and the Taliban will still do what they have to do. Illustrations of this fact abound in Nigeria from Maitatsine to Ahmed Yerima Sani to Boko Haram, and the number of deaths from Nigeria’s Islamic extremism far exceeds the global deaths from al-Qaeda’s terrorism.
Prof Mamdani, welcome to Nigeria.