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The Mkapa I knew

The Mkapa I knew

Towards the end of September 1988, the Ministerial Meeting on South-South Cooperation on Agriculture Development was held in Pyongyang, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, (DPRK).

The late President Benjamin William Mkapa attended the meeting in his capacity as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, as it was then called.

The late George Kahama was the Ambassador of the United Republic of Tanzania to the People’s Republic of China, (PRC) and DPRK.

I was a Second Secretary in the Embassy and as an Economist I was assigned duties dealing with economic issues.

I was, thus, honored to prepare briefing notes for the Minister and attend the meeting in Pyongyang. The Ministerial Meeting was preceded by a Preparatory Meeting of officials. I attended that meeting. The Ministerial Meeting was officially inaugurated two days after the Officials’ meeting.

The late Benjamin William Mkapa was present at that meeting. On the day of his arrival in Pyongyang I called on him to introduce myself. After brief normal courtesies, he asked me in not so friendly manner, “So you are the one who prepared my briefing notes for this meeting?” Without any hesitation I replied in affirmative.

His next question was quite intimidating. “Did you show these notes to our hosts?” I said no, but hastened to inform him that during dinner on the day of my arrival I had left the notes on my desk in my room.

I knew the habit of the Officials in DPRK of searching belongings of guests in their rooms even in their suitcases, I had, therefore, deliberated left everything open so that they should not temper with combinations of the briefcase or suitcase.

It was now my turn to ask him if there was something wrong with the notes. In response to my curious question, the late President Mkapa looked at me straight in the eyes and said that our hosts have decided to use the document as a working document for the meeting.

He added saying “Of course they will make some changes here and there to look as if it originated from them. I have accepted their request.” I was, as you can imagine, so much relieved. This conversation was followed by a bombshell.

“In two weeks, I want you to report to Dr. Chagula, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, in New York. He will assign duties for you to do there.” It was like lightening has struck me. I was transfixed where I stood. I loved the working environment of Beijing.

There was so much going on there. China was on the move to transform itself in all sectors. I loved writing about the reforms and opening up policy that the Chinese Leader Deng Xiao Ping had launched in 1978. I, sincerely, thought it was not the right time to leave China.

I had the audacity to share these thoughts with the late President Mkapa. As a diplomat I had to be very careful how I declined the offer.

As a professional administrator I knew I had an obligation to serve my country anywhere, anytime that I am assigned to work. I said the following: “Thank you Honorable Minister for your trust and kindness to transfer me to New York. It is a privilege that I really do not deserve.”

In addition I told him that “I would like very much to move to New York but I have only one year to complete my tour of duty in China before returning home.” It was a big mistake to tell him that. It should be remembered that this was my first encounter with the Minister.

I had no prior knowledge of his sentiments, behavior or attitudes. The intellectual arrogance of the Minister was vividly displayed to me by telling me there and then in no uncertain terms that his decision was final and no one can question it. “If I want you in New York for two weeks that will be it.

I give you two weeks to be in New York.” In addition he said to me: “By the way, your briefing notes were very well prepared, Are you an economist?” A diplomat to the core. Diplomacy is not about being nice all the time, but about making friends all the time and not making enemies at all

. Before mid of October, 1988 I was in New York until the end of January, 1992 when my tour of duty came to an end and time to go back home-home sweet home. By the time I returned from New York, President Mkapa had been re-assigned to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education.

During my whole stay in New York, I never had a chance to meet President Mkapa again. On my return home in January, 1992, I assumed work in the Office of the South Centre in Dar Es Salaam, joining Ms Joan Wicken, the long serving Personal Assistant to Mwalimu since late 1960s.

Let the reader note that Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere was the Chairperson of the South Commission which was established during the Summit of the Non Aligned 1987 in Harare, Zimbabwe. The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Bin Mohamad proposed the establishment of the Commission.

He also proposed Mwalimu to chair the Commission. The proposal was endorsed by the NAM Summit. Since the Commission was not meant to isolate the South from the North, the Headquarters of the Commission was conveniently based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The government of Switzerland generously offered to pay rent for the premises of the Commission. The Commission completed its work in 1990 issuing “The Report of the South Commission.”

This report was eventually adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1991 for implementation through the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD}.

As a follow-up mechanism for the implementation of the Report of the South Commission, the South Centre was established immediately after the report was adopted by the General Assembly.

The Centre was also to serve as an independent “Think Tank for the countries of the South.” Mwalimu continued to serve as chair of the Centre until his death on 14th October, 1999. At one point, President Mkapa also served as Chair of the Centre for two terms of three years each term.

I joined Mwalimu’s office when the South Centre was just becoming functional. The period I worked in this office brought me very close to President Mkapa.

The late Mkapa was himself really close to Mwalimu. I could say he truly respected Mwalimu beyond any imagination - intellectual respect not blind respect.

At the concluding of the presidential campaign rally at Jangwani grounds in 1995, Mwalimu was scheduled to speak before Mkapa the then Presidential candidate for CCM, but in respect to Mwalimu, President Mkapa decided to address the rally before yielding the floor to Mwalimu as the last speaker of the day.

President Mkapa held Mwalimu with the highest degree of reverence possible. Whenever Mwalimu arrived in Dar Es Salaam from either Butiama or from outside the country, President Mkapa, if he happened to be present in Dar Es Salaam, would personally meet Mwalimu at the airport driving by himself his personal car.

President Mkapa used to hold such meetings with Mwalimu at the airport time again and again. He was the only person at Ministerial level who took time to be with Mwalimu on a one-on-one meeting for private intellectual exchange of ideas. Both Mwalimu and Mkapa were people of extraordinarily high flair.

President Mkapa’s humility is rare among many leaders or successful people. Many people knew the close relationship that existed between Mwalimu and President Mkapa, as a result some of them used to ask him to convey certain messages to Mwalimu when things got strenuously tough to be handled without Mwalimu’s intervention.

As a seasoned diplomat he would faithfully convey the message and thereafter would intently listen to Mwalimu’s reactions to give feedback to those who sent him to Mwalimu.

In rare occasions, Mwalimu would admonish President Mkapa to be tough with those who Mwalimu regarded as abusers of the relationship that existed between him and President Mkapa. Mkapa was ready to render his helping hand to whoever cared to seek his assistance.

The ability to listen and his empathy to those who needed help from him were God’s virtues bestowed on President Mkapa who used them without reservation or discrimination.

He was people’s servant and his deep concern for humanity was humanely genuine although by his looks he seemed insensitive, but deep inside him, he had a spirit of an angel. Some weeks before Mwalimu’s death, Mwalimu asked me whether his ideas, beliefs and wishes for the people of Tanzania would vanish when he died.

I believe at that time he thought what would happen to the very few people like Mkapa - people who believed what he himself passionately believed in.

President Mkapa never betrayed Mwalimu despite the contentious privatization move that Mkapa carried out during his presidency.

Talking about privatization, in 1998, Mwalimu held talks with Mr. Wolfenson at latter’s office at the World Bank Building in Washington. Mr. Wolfenson was the then President of the World Bank.

The talks touched on many issues including the privatization move in Tanzania. Mwalimu told President Wolfenson that he himself did not believe the move would be beneficial to the people of Tanzania, however, he told the President of the World Bank that he highly respected President Mkapa.

Forces of liberalization and privatization came from all corners of the world. “I sympathize with poor Ben. He is a strong person, he will help you to carry out smooth privatization process in Tanzania.

Please work with him. He has the people of Tanzania at his heart.” Wolfenson assured Mwalimu that he will take his advice and work closely with President Mkapa.

Thereafter, Mr. Wolfenson visited Tanzania several times and worked very closely with President Mkapa. When Mwalimu was hospitalized at St. Thomas Hospital in London, President Mkapa visited him on the 25th September 1999. Mwalimu’s health was deteriorating fast.

At that time the High Commissioner was not at his post. I requested the President to appoint a person of high status to head the team that monitored Mwalimu progress of his treatment.

The President was indeed very kind to leave behind his wife Mama Anna Mkapa to accompany Mama Maria Nyerere, to start with, while he looked for someone to come and lead the team of Mwalimu’s assistants.

After a week, Mr. Ngombale Mwiru arrived in London to lead the team that monitored Mwalimu’s treatment at the hospital until Mwalimu passed on to join his ancestors.

President Mkapa meticulously organized the funeral of Mwalimu that made us all very proud of him. All events were organized with a military precision - Mkapa the perfectionist in all he undertook to perform. President Mkapa reaffirmed the pride of the people of Tanzania when he firmly made sure that the body of Mwalimu was brought back by the national carrier, the plane of Air Tanzania Boeing 737. There were some offers to bring back Mwalimu’s body using better types of planes. Mkapa’s intellectual arrogance was demonstrated by insisting that Mwalimu’s body would be brought back using Tanzania national carrier. If Mwalimu were himself to reveal to us he would have applauded “Jeuri ya Mkapa.”

When the plane was approaching for landing I witnessed the mass of people cramming the airport grounds inside and outside, who came to pay their respect to Mwalimu. It was an unforgettable sight. After the death of Mwalimu, President Mkapa appointment me as the Ambassador of Tanzania to the People’s Republic of China and six other countries of Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Mongolia.

I believe he remembered my plea to him in 1988 to remain working in China instead of being transferred to New York. As an Ambassador, he assured me that as long as he remained President I would remain working in Beijing. During my tour of duty as an Ambassador he visited China two times.

The first visit was in October, 2020, he came to attend the very first Summit on the Forum on China-Africa Economic Cooperation (FOCAC). I really thanked the President for accepting the invitation to attend the Summit. It should be remembered that this was a time for his political campaigns for the second term.

The Chinese leadership was pleasantly surprised that he had accepted the invitation. It was a clear sign that he was absolutely confident of winning the second term. Another show of intellectual arrogance. The second visit was a State Visit in 2005 which he also used it to bid farewell to the leadership of china.

The President was in his final year as President pending his deserved retirement later that year. President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete succeeded him sometime in December the same year. President Mkapa also had a very successful State Visit to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

During the visit he revealed to his hosts how he visited the country in the midi of 1960s when the country under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh fought western powers for reunification of North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

Let it be noted that between 1963 and 1972, President Mkapa held the portifolio of Managing Editor of the NATIONALIST, UHURU, DAILY NEWS AND SUNDAY NEWS. President Mkapa revealed to some of us yet another characteristic of himself as a fearless person and ready at any time to carry out orders given to him by his superiors – “Praecepit mihi et prompte exequi,” (Give me orders and I will execute promptly), more so if that superior was Mwalimu.

He lived by the often quoted saying of President John F. Kennedy that “Fear is the worst enemy to fear.” Mwalimu had sent him to Vietnam to find out the status of the war and show Tanzania’s moral support to the people of Socialist Republic of Vietnam against outside aggressors.

The hosts were over joyous to learn more about the ventures of President Mkapa during his journalistic visit in the ‘60s. Shortly after that State Visit, Vietnam re-opened its Embassy in Dar Es Salaam. After his retirement as President I still maintained contacts with him especially through meetings at Upanga Immaculate Catholic Church where he attended Sunday masses like I do myself.

Our brief meetings at the church were business like. During one of those meetings he asked me if I could help him to chair the Body of Trustees of his Foundation - the Benjamin Mkapa Foundation. I humbly accepted his offer and chaired the Body of Trustees for five years, August 2014 -l August 2019.

At the same time as a Chancellor of the University of Dodoma he appointed me to be a member of the Council of Dodoma University since 2014 until today. All these appointments showed his deep trust in me at a very personal level. I am completely overwhelmed with his generosity and will remain so throughout my life.

The sudden journey of our relationship started in Pyongyang, DPRK, and, unfortunately, it ended up with a similar fate of suddenness on the 23/07/2020. It was the day he passed on to join his ancestors and his best career mentor, the late Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

May all their souls find everlasting peace in eternal life in the presence of the merciful Creator of all things, seen and unseen.

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Author: Ambassador Charles Asilia Sanga

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