THERE couldn’t have been a nicer way for our dear Ben Mkapa to say goodbye.
Just a few days before his death, he participated actively and spoke in the ceremony in Dodoma where Tanzanian President John Magufuli presented his papers for the Chama cha Mapinduzi party’s nomination for the October election.
Also present were the country’s two other former presidents, Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Jakaya Kikwete. So all the living presidents except the late founder of the nation Mwalimu were there at the pivotal moment that occurs every five years in Tanzania, when the Party renews its democratic legitimacy.
And then, a few days later, on Friday, July 23, Ben Mkapa was gone, leaving those of us outside the country without warning and without the opportunity to send messages of support and prayers. He has left us all so much the poorer.
As it was for millions of others, Ben’s death was a painful moment for me. I had been close to him since 1973, when he was the Editor of the major government- owned Daily News and I the Editor of the Sunday Post, Kenya’s only politically independent mainstream newspaper then.
He had called me out of the blue one day late in 1973, introduced himself and said he relied on the Sunday Post for getting independent information on Kenya, and we arranged to meet on his next Nairobi visit. We hit off right away, we shared a socialist orientation then and of course a passion for change and the use of communication.
Our friendship intermittently spanned the next four decades across the countries and continents our lives took us to. Ben always had a smile, was upbeat and warm, a poetry-lover who cared deeply for people and their needs.
He was extremely savvy politically and was genuinely committed to Pan Africanism and Africa’s liberation struggle, in the mould of Kenneth Kaunda and Thabo Mbeki. He was repeatedly asked to help mediate peace across the continent because of his mediation skills, and not surprisingly ended up being a board member of the blueribbon International Crisis Group.
Through this sought-after international engagement, Ben put Tanzania in a different manner of mainstream global spotlight.
Mwalimu had made Tanzania an object of passionate admiration by most progressives worldwide, and by a select segment of western international leadership, for trying to chart an African development path that would empower its people to a much better life without the ravages that capitalism inflicts on the poor.
None of this is to say that Ben Mkapa was a stain free, or that Tanzania is totally democratic and upright. Still in politics, as we genuinely strive for perfection, we must also distinguish between gross malfeasance and murderous greed and a lesser order of misdeeds which of course are also unacceptable.
We cannot use the same kind of brush to paint the terrible and the bad as that will often lead us no one to vote for who can win. A perfect example exists right now in the US, where I would never support Mr Biden for high office but am certainly doing so now as he is running against President Trump.
Thankfully, Mkapa’s legacy is widely known and freely discussed. Equally thankfully, he buttressed this legacy before his death with a rare, compelling African presidential memoir, “My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers.”
In it, he acknowledges important personal failures. His decisive intellectual sharpness and writing skills, plus his love of language, make it a truly readable memoir.
Talking of his love of language and poetry, I should mention that one of East Africa’s best known professors in the West, Simon Gikandi of Princeton University, has been trying to locate Mkapa’s writings from his Makerere days for the Clarendon lectures he is delivering at Oxford University this year on the use of English in the British colonies.
Ben read English at Makerere. I would like to appeal to any who might have copies of his writing to forward them to me.
Mkapa and CCM
Ben was of course devoted utterly to the party, and his ten years at the helm were as successful as they were because “he followed Mwalimu’s discipline of regular meetings of the party organs and free discussions within the party” as highlighted later in this article.
Ben helped build this oncesole political party so it could compete for the first time in the tumultuous rough and tumble – and dirty to boot - that now mark democratic competition everywhere in the world.
That Tanzanian’s comportment is not as rough, corrupt and no-holds-barred as its neighbours’ is a testament first and foremost to Tanzanians themselves, and also to most of its leaders, among whom Ben Mkapa stands out.
Ben always had a smile, was upbeat and warm, a poetry-lover who cared deeply for people and their needs. He was extremely savvy politically and was genuinely committed to Pan Africanism and the liberation struggle, in the mould of Kenneth Kaunda and Thabo Mbeki.
He was repeatedly asked to help mediate peace across the continent because of his mediation skills, and not surprisingly ended up being a board member of the blue-ribbon International Crisis Group – and even more importantly, a member along with Mama Graca Machel of the African mediation team led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that helped bring Kenya back from the brink of becoming a murderous failed state.
One reason Mkapa was particularly effective as a peace maker was Tanzania’s not being a hegemonic political or economic power. He could focus entirely on what was needed to achieve peace without simultaneously trying to seek a way to promote his country’s interests, or indeed his own.
I should mention that pursuit of such self-interest is not just an African or third world weakness, its par for the course for global mediators as well. In the 1960s, Africa produced a host of great leaders who oversaw the continent’s liberation from colonial rule, but the number of such leaders, and their greatness, dwindled rapidly thereafter.
From the time Ben Mkapa became President in 1995, he was one of only a few who were widely respected both at home and globally. As the New York Times reported today, “tributes to Mr. Mkapa poured in from across the world on Friday,” an indication of his international standing.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s Spokesman Stephane Dujarric made clear that Mr Guterres was not issuing a proforma tribute: “I can tell you that the Secretary-General is deeply saddened to learn of the death of former President Mkapa.”
Soon after I met Ben, Mwalimu Nyerere in 1974 made Mkapa his press secretary. Thus began his slow, steady rise that is the hallmark of Tanzanian politics. No overnight sensations there, nor billionaires jumping in out of the blue: Tanzanians want to get to know their leaders before they put their trust in them.
Our interactions grew in the latter half of the 1970s, as Ben sought to understand better the major Kenya financial interests leading the campaign to break up the East African Community.
A member of the East African Legislative Assembly in Arusha and a committed Pan Africanist, Mkapa fought valiantly to save what was one of the most advanced economic unions in the world then, with three sovereign countries sharing the same currency and jointly owning all major transport infrastructure, including EA Airways, Railways and Harbours.
While he and of course Mwalimu Nyerere lost that battle, Ben was thrilled that as President of Tanzania he was able to help reconstitute the EAC in 1999.
As Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three days of mourning for the fallen leader, Raila Odinga highlighted Mkapa’s commitment to Regional Integration and the revival of the East Africa Community, a sentiment Uhuru’s proclamation also echoed. Benjamin Mkapa had absolutely no airs about him.
Over the years I came to see that like his mentor Mwalimu, he was an incarnation of Tanzania itself, and of its innate modesty, commitment to peaceful competition and disdain for rank. One particular event captured this powerfully.
It was 1982, and I thought he was doing a superb job as Foreign Minister when I heard on the news that he had been appointed High Commissioner to Canada. I was stunned and crest-fallen and called him.
“What happened Ben?” He laughed heartily. “You mean my demotion?” Yes, I said! “You must get to know Tanzania and Mwalimu better, Salim. There are some key bilateral issues with Canada that need to be addressed and Mwalimu thinks I am the best person for it. We do not stand on rank and titles in our place.”
I was aware that that might not be the entire story, but being close to Ben, I knew the essence of it was true – which was borne out within the year, when Ben was appointed Ambassador to the United States. Soon he was back in the Cabinet and finally in 1995 he won the country’s first multiparty presidential election.
I could only marvel at how different Tanzania was from us in Kenya. Later in 1982, I had to flee Kenya when my journalistic “independence” became too much for President Moi. I ended up in the US and found a job with the UN in NY.
I had become a senior official by the time Ben became president, and we met privately so I could give him a briefing about what was going on within the UN when he came for the General Assembly meetings in September.
Another memorable Mkapa moment for me came in the first days of January 2008, when a group of African statesmen led by former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano and including Ben Mkapa jetted into Nairobi to deal with the exploding violence over the tainted December 30 election results.
As the group came out of their first meeting, Ben saw me and took me aside and told me that my New Year’s day article in The Independent ‘The Lights Went Out On Kenya Last Night’, just as the violence was breaking out, had made him realize why things were so much worse that he had thought, and why there was so much anger in Kenya, for which the tainted presidential election was like striking a match.
Ironically, I had tried to put off writing that article because in those tense, violence filled days, there I was simply overwhelmed as Raila Odinga’s Spokesman and hardly even sleeping. Thankfully, the Independent’s Nairobi correspondent, who had asked me to write that article, kept pressing me on the telephone, and eventually I frantically penned the fastest 750 words I have ever written.
Ben’s comment again brought home to me how important such articles and their speed of publication are, as is one’s journalistic credibility.
There was a surreal coincidence in the Kofi Annan-led mediation that followed shortly and brought Kenya back from the brink: I knew all three members of the negotiating team, Kofi Annan, Graca Machel and Ben Mkapa well!
In addition, I knew and had worked closely for many years at the UN with Lord Mark Malloch Brown, who was Kofi Annan’s Deputy Secretary General and in 2007 was Foreign Affairs Minister in Gordon Brown’s cabinet and hence a major player in the negotiations that led to the Kenya Accord.
That closeness to the major negotiators led Martha Karua - who led President Kibaki’s team in the Accord negotiations and forcefully championed his interests - to ask that I be removed as ODM’s liaison with the Annan group, and Raila and I agreed that was a good idea.
In “My Life, My Purpose”, Mr Mkapa recalled that Martha and William Ruto, then on Raila’s ODM team (but since 2013 Kenya’s Deputy President to Uhuru) were very difficult people to deal with. He narrates that talks proceeded much more smoothly once the Annan team managed to lock the two out of discussions with President Kibaki and Raila.
President Mkapa also wrote that Ugandan President Museveni played a disruptive role in the negotiations. Earlier, in my own faux pas related to the negotiations, I had been thoughtless enough to try to arrange a meeting Kofi Annan as I had not seen since I had retired from the UN four years earlier.
I thought it’d be good to chat beyond the casual conversation we had at his first reception, but his office told me he was unable to see me. I felt thoroughly chastened by my blindness. Ben Mkapa was an articulate, lively speaker, and given his political and intellectual strengths, he could hold the attention of international leaders.
Issa Shivji, the renowned professor who has just published a stellar, comprehensive biography of Mwalimu and in the 1970s wrote the landmark book Class Struggles in Tanzania, told me “Mkapa’s success lay in his following Mwalimu’s discipline of regular meetings of the party organs and free discussions within the party.
This serves an important function of ‘check and balance’ particularly in a situation where the President has constitutionally enormous powers, the opposition is weak (or repressed) and the ruling party is hegemonic. Of course this works only if the party is not packed with handpicked ‘yes men and women’.
“ This kind of openness to debate led to one of Mkapa’s most enduring achievements, transforming Tanzania into a functioning multi-party democracy during his presidency, which led to his handing over a stable nation to his successor Jakaya Kikwete.
In that period, Mkapa also substantially liberalized the economy with help from the World Bank and the IMF, and initiated the controversial privatization programme. While I am Kenyan, Tanzania is a land I have felt close to since I was a young boy because my father was born in Moshi and my mother in Tanga, and we had more relatives in Tanganyika than in Kenya.
That youthful affection multiplied when Mwalimu Nyerere took the helm and pursued his Ujamaa (socialist) policies, assiduously nurturing the country’s innate harmony and openness and keeping it free of the rampant cancer of corruption which had already started consuming Africa.
Mwalimu also kept the country united despite severe economic hardship without resorting to repression and use of state violence, earning worldwide respect for that astonishing achievement of genuine stability in a continent filled with political upheavals, which in the end included even Kenya.
It was supremely ironic that Tanzania, which has mostly had bristling relations with Kenya, ended up playing a critical role in helping the Annan mediation succeed brilliantly in early 2008. That was through Mkapa and subsequently, when the Annan-led negotiations deadlocked, through President Jakaya Kikwete.
In addition, President George Bush was in Tanzania on a state visit then, and he dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Nairobi to meet with Kibaki and Raila – no doubt with a briefing from President Kikwete! (Mkapa kept his successor informed about the Annan team mediation).
Conciliation is deep in Tanzanian DNA, even when dealing with a thorny neighbour! And that DNA operates, not always of course, within Tanzania too. I was amazed when President Kikwete’s former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa last year rejoined CCM and President Magufuli, after having fought a bitter 2015 election against him on the opposition Chadema party ticket.
Lowassa had helped Kikwete win an astonishing 82 percent of the presidential vote in a genuinely fair 2005 election, but he defected from CCM after it did not nominate him as one of its presidential candidates. I will conclude with another story about Tanzania.
In 1973, when I was editor of the Sunday Post, but before I knew Ben Mkapa or any senior Tanzanian, I went to Dar-es-Salaam in the hope of interviewing Mwalimu Nyerere. When I called State House to seek the interview, I was invited there by his assistants Joan Wicken and Anar Cassam to detail my request to them in person.
The next day I got a call saying Mwalimu was very tied up and had suggested I should interview Foreign Minister John Malecela instead. I asked if State House would call Mr Malecela to let him know this, but they said there was no need to, it was unlikely the minister would say no to a Kenyan newspaper editor.
As it was a weekend, I asked for Mr Malecela’s home number, but was told it was in the telephone directory. I was sure this was a polite way to put me off.
But I found Malecela’s home number listed in the directory, a young boy picked up the phone and handed it to Mr Malecela, who asked me to come home for the interview! I was utterly bowled over, as in Kenya even under-secretaries were like mini Gods then, completely unapproachable.