BY Biko Agozino

June 5, 2010

As a fan of the work of Mahmood Mamdani, I was shocked to read his commencement speech at the University of Johannesburg following his honorary doctoral degree on May 25, 2010. The speech has just been published by Pambazuka online with the title, ‘Beware of Bigotry: Free Speech and the Zapiro Cartoons’. The speech showed the dismay of Mamdani to find that his favourite cartoonist in the Mail & Guardian newspaper had followed the example of Danish and European newspapers of the left and the right to publish a cartoon of the Holy Prophet Mohammed without sensitivity to the concerns of Muslims who would find such offensive.

See Free Speech and the Zapiro Cartoons.

What concerns me is that Mamdani himself may have committed a similar offense of insensivity by asserting that when the Danish offensive cartoon controversy broke, he was in Kano – a majority Muslim city in northern Nigeria – but he failed to inform his readers that an estimated 100 mostly Christian Igbo lives were lost in that part of the country, the only place where people were massacred in the world due to the recklessness of a Danish cartoonist who is not related to the Igbo in any way. Instead, Mahmood made the incendiary statement that is unexpected from a respected powerful scholar of his ilk:

‘When the Danish cartoon debate broke out I was in Nigeria. If you stroll the streets of Kano, a Muslim-majority city in northern Nigeria, you will have no problem finding material caricaturing Christianity sold by street vendors. And if you go to the east of Nigeria, to Enugu for example, you will find a similar supply of materials caricaturing Islam. None of this is blasphemy; most of it is bigotry. It is well known that the Danish paper that published the offending cartoons was earlier offered cartoons of Jesus Christ. But the paper declined to print these on grounds that it would offend its Christian readers. Had the Danish paper published cartoons of Jesus Christ, that would have been blasphemy; the cartoons it did publish were evidence of bigotry, not blasphemy. Both blasphemy and bigotry belong to the larger tradition of free speech, but after a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide, we surely need to distinguish between the two strands of the same tradition. The language of contemporary politics makes that distinction by referring to bigotry as hate speech.’

This false claim of equal-opportunity bigotry between the Kano Muslims of the North and the Enugu Christians of the South is a-historical and potentially provocative of even more ethnic cleansing in the troubled climate of northern Nigeria where the Igbo have been periodically massacred for being ‘nyamiri’ but without retaliatory massacres in Igboland. Far from his allegation that ‘If you stroll the streets of Kano, a Muslim-majority city in northern Nigeria, you will have no problem finding material caricaturing Christianity sold by street vendors. And if you go to the east of Nigeria, to Enugu for example, you will find a similar supply of materials caricaturing Islam’, I can testify that I have walked through the streets of Kano without finding any street trader, most of whom are Christians from the Eastern part of Nigeria by the way, hawking bigotry against Christians.

On the contrary, what I had no difficulty finding when I strolled through Kano in 1999 were numerous election campaign posters in which candidates with Christian and Igbo names were vying for offices to represent the predominantly Igbo ward known as Sabo Ngeri or migrant quarters in Kano. Muslim brothers had no bigotry inviting me and my companion to their homes to partake in meals of ‘talia’ (Italian, for Spaghetti) during the Muslim feast of Ramadan. Similarly, I grew up in Enugu without finding a single bigoted piece of literature targeting Muslims. We even had a local Malam who is from Enugu and who spoke Hausa but practiced Islam and we shared our home with him and his two wives and children without charging him any rents at the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war in which we lost dear family members. The bigotry that is not hard to find in Enugu is not against Muslims given that the residents of Enugu actually elected a Muslim from Kano as Mayor of Enugu city in the 1960s.

The common form of bigotry in Enugu is more commonly between Catholics and the various protestant sects. When I was growing up, it was common to continue elementary school football rivalry with my cousin at home by chanting our inane humors: I would chant, ‘Shiemenshi (CMS or Christian Missionary Society) are thieves, they led astray the motor of the children of ghosts, Fada (Catholic or Rev. Father) is King, ewah!’ My cousin would reply, ‘Fada shat in the motor and wiped his ass on the tire…’ It was partly to end this divisive tendency that the Gowon administration nationalized sectarian schools but the last Obasanjo administration started handing them back to the founding sects, coinciding with a steady decline in students’ academic attainment in a climate of decreasing funding for schools. Despite their rivalry for converts that would make parents forbid their children from marrying into any other sect unless the fiancée first converted, they collectively preached against traditional religious worshippers, not against Islam, despite the common incidence of syncretism just as the recent Boko Haram and the previous Maitasene sects rioted against ‘infidels’ and ‘western’ influences, not against Christianity per se because Muslims also revere Christ as a Prophet. Soyinka observed anti-traditional religion bigotry in his hilarious ‘Neo-Tarzanism’ reply to Chinweizu and his troika of critics in the 1975 issue of Transition:

"They (Aladura Churches) were, in addition, rabid iconoclasts, more efficient and more successful than either the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches, contrary to popular misconception on the subject. If you added together what they burnt on their own and what they had burnt in conjunction with the more orthodox Christian churches upon whom they frequently descended all over the country for bonfire revivalist sessions, the Cherubs rank as the most dedicated arsonists, depleting our traditional art heritage in the name of Christ. Their power was truly enviable, their passionate rhetoric sent listeners hurrying into the recesses of their compounds to return with price-less carvings ("pagan idols") which they hurled into bonfires in an orgy of excitation."

I am not saying that bigoted literature might not exist in Kano or Enugu but I am not sure where Mahmood strolled in order to have no difficulty finding such literature. On the contrary, the vivid accounts in Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Soyinka’s Season of Anomy indicate that the Muslims and Christians appeared to be friends in the North before the pogrom in the 1960s in which former friends had no qualms massacring their Igbo compatriots, spurred on by hate speech in newspapers and radio broadcasts by local and foreign elites as if in rehearsal for the Rwanda genocide as Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe recounts in Biafra Revisited. Given Mamdani’s claim to be a student of the Rwanda genocide in his speech, I would have expected him to be more sensitive to possible uses of his suggestion of equal-opportunity bigotry by agents provocateur to incite more of the endemic cycle of violence against mostly Igbo southerners in the northern part of Nigeria. For as he put it in his own speech; ‘The Rwandan trials are the latest to bring out the dark side of free speech, its underbelly: How power can instrumentalise free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice.’

Mamdani makes the matters worse by picking 1967 as his first significant date in the history of bigotry but uses it to talk about an obscure Penguin publication of a blasphemous book targeting the Christian faith in England and how the publisher trucked the entire stock of the book from the warehouse and had a book-burning bonfire in order not to offend his Christian friends even though he himself was not a Christian. Having written about Fascism in Uganda under Idi Amin, I am sure that Mamdani is aware of the fact that 1967 represents the first time in Africa that ethnic cleansing was conducted with impunity and with the eager support of the international community of the left and the right, resulting in the genocidal killing of over three million Igbo people as Ekwe-Ekwe and even Mamdani’s own friend, Ifi Amadiume, documented in her editorial with Abdullahi An-Na’im, The Politics of Memory: Truth, Healing and Social Justice, published by Zed Press in 2000.

I do not know what to make of this speech from Mamdani in an African University that talks of the African Danshiki flowing gown exclusively as a gift to Western academia from the Madrassa Islamic schools of the Middle East but without any reference to the revered history of Sankore University in which Africans institutionalized both learning and the academic gown while Europeans were still wallowing in their dark ages. He also identified mathematics as ‘Indian Mathematics’ and dubbed philosophy as ‘Greek Thought’ to show the graduating students of the University of Johannesburg that Europe borrowed a few things from the Orient. No mention of the fact that Cheikh Anta Diop has indubitably documented the African origin of mathematics, philosophy and the sciences, including the fact that Chemistry comes from Al-Kemet, for instance.

Rather than offer a Eurocentric address on the widespread publication of Orientalist bigotry in European history in a commencement speech to some of the future leaders of Africa, I would have expected Mamdani to use his speech to highlight the on-going project of African Unity, to warn against the nonsense of Africans killing fellow Africans in South Africa in orgies of brotherphobia that the media misnamed xenophobia, and to cite the example of the great Madiba Mandela who came out of prison and agreed to meet Chief Buthelezi at a press conference but while the chief fumed about his Inkhata Freedom Party  hatred for the ANC and his determination to battle the liberation movement to the last man, the wise Mandela reminded him that he and his father were friends and that they fought together against apartheid, thanked the chief for supporting the call for his release from prison and offered to work together with him to usher in a new South Africa (A Long Walk to Freedom). Here Mandela was exemplifying the legendary African tradition of non-violence which Gandhi claimed that he learned from the Zulu in South Africa (Gandhi: An Autobiography) but which Mamdani completely ignored while offering an Orientalist anti-bigotry bigotry as a commencement speech in South Africa. Why?

Biko Agozino is Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061. He is the author of Counter-Colonial Criminology; Black Women and the Criminal Justice System; ADAM: Africana Drug-Free Alternative Medicine; and the play, The Debt Penalty, among other books. He is the Editor-In-Chief of the African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies and the Series Editor of the Ashgate Publishers Interdisciplinary Research Series in Ethnic, Gender and Class Relations.

See "Beware Bigotry: Free Speech and the Zapiro Cartoons" from Pambazuka