The Great Iroko Has Moved On

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) regrets to announce the death in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on 04 December, 2006, of one of Africa’s most illustrious citizen intellectuals, the incomparable Joseph Ki-Zerbo. Academic historian of the very first order, life-long pan-Africanist by instinct and by choice, unrelenting crusader for social change and justice, untiring advocate of African collective self-reliance, teacher to at least three generations of African social researchers, an unflagging source of inspiration to many who were lucky to encounter him, a great example in selfless service to the community, the giant Iroko, king of the tropical rain forest, standing tall in dignity and majesty: That was the quintessential Ki-Zerbo who, after 84 years of sojourn amongst us, has now moved on, leaving his indelible foot prints in the sand of time – all time – and challenging us, in honour of his memory, to take the baton with courage and commitment until Africa is truly liberated.
Born to a father who was reputed to be the first convert to Christianity in the area that was known at the time as Upper Volta, Ki-Zerbo was to define an early and unambiguous trajectory for himself as a committed historian with a deep and abiding interest in the twin projects of democracy and development in Africa. As a young academic, he invested himself in the study of the history of Africa, helping through his original works both to enrich the historical method and to challenge the fallacies of the day about Africa, not least among them, the widespread racist discourse of the period that Africa had no history. Together with other nationalist historians of the time, they were to build a corpus of literature that came to constitute the core of African History as a field of knowledge, complete with its methods and tools. An important part of that effort was to be synthesized into the UNESCO General History of Africa of which he was a directing editor. But his role as a doyen of African historians also included the dedication of his time to the construction of the institutional basis of the production and reproduction of historical knowledge in and about Africa. His paramount role in the building of the African Association of Historians was but one of his engagements in this regard.
For Ki-Zerbo, retrieving and documenting the history of Africa may have been an important pre-occupation to which he applied himself completely. But in and of itself, it was not sufficient if that history – its high points and low moments – did not serve as a point of departure for the creation of an autonomous foundation for the political, economic, social and cultural emancipation of Africa and its peoples. And it was in this pre-occupation that he came to immerse himself as scholar and activist, in the struggles for national liberation, democracy, social justice and development, doing so without any apologies to those who might have felt that he went too far beyond his scholarly calling to immerse himself in local and global political contestations. Thus it was that he was to assume various roles at the same time: prolific university professor, indefatigable activist in various social movements, party leader – mostly in opposition – and, ultimately, conscience of the African nation: That was the inimitable Ki-Zerbo, a man who was passionate about his convictions and who was prepared to pay the price when it became necessary, including leaving his professorial post in France to volunteer in the newly independent state of Guinea under a Sekou Toure who had successfully mobilized the populace to reject Charles de Gaulle’s neo-colonial project of an enlarged French federation; he was also to spend time in exile from Burkina Faso in the 1980s.
Few were the intellectuals of Ki-Zerbo’s generation who emerged to become a living encyclopedia of human history, including detailed recollections of many landmark events in the 20th century history of Africa and the world which he himself witnessed firsthand or participated in directly. He had formal and informal sessions with many of the leaders of the African independence project, including Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Frantz Fanon, Modibo Keita, Amilcar Cabral, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, and Julius Nyerere, to cite a few. He shared in all the key debates on the future of pan-Africanism as independence dawned, as well as in the reflections that occurred on the development alternatives that the continent could explore. But through all these experiences, he never         sullied his reputation for intellectual integrity and personal honesty, a fact which earned him a moral high ground to reproach – publicly and privately – the first generation nationalists as many of them began to abandon the ideals of nationalism in pursuit of personal projects of power maximization. His voice was the voice of authority and throughout his life, as the first generation leaders gave way to succeeding generations, he reserved his right, exercised in his uniquely magisterial manner, to counsel, to remind, to criticize and to condemn as the need arose.
The membership of CODESRIA was fortunate to enjoy glimpses of the rich experience embodied in Ki Zerbo when he delivered one of the three keynote addresses to mark the grand finale conference of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Council in December 2003 in Dakar, Senegal. It was also an occasion at which, in recognition of his contribution, he was honoured by the African social research community with a life membership of CODESRIA, alongside Archie Mafeje, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ali Mazrui. None amongst the nearly 500 African scholars who were assembled in Dakar for his speech left the venue of the conference without feeling inspired as much by the richness and clarity of his message as by the coherence and lucidity with which, despite his nearly 82 years, he delivered his message: That was our Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the ageless Iroko who, for the African social research community, was the mentor for all seasons. But, beyond Africa too, he was also celebrated as a rare gift to humanity as evidenced by the many laurels he won, including the Alternative Nobel Prize awarded by grassroots social movements to distinguished world figures.
We can only be grateful as an institution that in the last month of his life, and with the support of his widow, Josephine, and children, CODESRIA was given the privilege of recording interviews with him on his life, his work, his times as part of the Council’s initiative of documenting the contributions of leading African scholars in a digital format that could become a veritable pedagogical tool for present and future generations. Ki- Zerbo and his family could not have given the CODESRIA membership and the wider African social research community a better gift to bequeath to the world. And now, as we express our regret that he has had to move on, we also feel inspired to celebrate his life and to rejoice that while he lived, Joseph Ki-Zerbo was among us and we were the happier for it. For, truly great scholars of his standing are rare - and human beings do not come better than him.
Long live Joseph Ki-Zerbo!


Executive Secretary, CODESRIA


Pages 4-5

Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres

Volume 03 N° 02,​ Septembre 2007


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