Some of the severest criticism of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin—and of other African leaders as well—comes from a Midwestern college town 8,000 miles away. In this unlikely exile, Ali Mazrui, Kenyan-born professor of political science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, sees his job as “raising uncomfortable issues.” He was chairman of the political science department at Uganda’s Makerere University until 1973. Since then Mazrui has spoken out often on African politics, and his statements are considered influential enough to be reprinted in the African press. He does not mince words. For example, the same day in February that the Anglican archbishop of Uganda was killed in what Amin termed an “auto accident,” Mazrui bluntly called it “murder.” “Being here,” Mazrui claims, “means not having to censor myself too much.”
Admired by Michigan students for his lecturing skills, dry wit and patience, Mazrui, 44, describes himself as an enthusiastic “Third Worlder.” He believes only Africans should police Africa—but that they should be tolerant and nonideological. Amin’s police state is an “antimodel” and “the way not to go.” The professor is just as critical of Rhodesia’s white Prime Minister Ian Smith for delaying black majority rule there. “He should capitulate immediately and work out the best deal possible,” Mazrui believes. “Another Kenya might be possible then. In that country there are more whites now than in colonial times. Although they have limited political power, they do have economic security.”
Meanwhile Mazrui writes as well as teaches. He has produced eight books on Africa and a political novel set in the hereafter. Though his first language is Swahili, Mazrui publishes in English, with images Americans will understand. He compared former Ugandan boxing champ Amin and Muhammad Ali—both “rose to supremacy out of the depths of ridicule and disguised contempt. Both seemed loud and unpredictable…” He has also written An African Views ‘Roots,’ on the Alex Haley book that Mazrui regards as helpful in remedying Americans’ “amnesia of the history of slavery.”
The second son of Kenya’s Muslim chief justice, Mazrui at age 15 was barred from higher education when he failed entrance examinations. But after selling radios he went to England’s University of Manchester and won a degree and a British wife, Molly Vickerman, the mother of their three sons. An instructor in French in Uganda, she now is her husband’s interpreter in that language. (Has a mixed marriage hurt his credibility? No, says Mazrui. Molly explains: “In Africa wives don’t count.”) After getting a master’s from Columbia, and a doctorate from Oxford in 1966, Mazrui went to Makerere University and became a critic of then Ugandan President Milton Obote. When Obote was deposed in 1971, Mazrui was an Amin favorite, but while at Stanford University on a fellowship, he attacked Amin’s curbs on civil liberties. Warned that he could return to Uganda only if he “shut up,” Mazrui chose exile.
Still, says Mazrui, who last year made six trips to Africa—but not Uganda—to lecture, “I see myself returning for good one day.” But he believes he and his intellectual colleagues from the Third World are already “too Westernized” to have legitimacy in African affairs. “We are a lost generation,” he laments. Does Mazrui see any of his dreams for Africa coming true soon? “Probably not in my lifetime.”