Former President Ben Mkapa was at the ceremony where Tanzanian President John Magufuli presented nomination papers for his candidacy in October’s presidential election; the two other former presidents Hassan Ali Mwinyi and Jakaya Kikwete were there too.
A few days later, on July 24, Ben Mkapa left us without warning. It was a nice way to go right after an event that brought together four presidents, but he has left us so much the poorer.
It is a painful death for me, as I had been close to him since 1973, when he was the Editor of the government-owned Daily News and I the Editor of the Sunday Post, Kenya’s only politically independent mainstream newspaper then.
Ben had called me out of the blue one day, introduced himself and said he relied on the Sunday Post for objective information on Kenya and we should meet.
We also shared a leftist orientation. Our friendship intermittently spanned the next four decades across countries and continents our lives took us to.
Ben always had a smile, was upbeat and warm, a poetry-loving person who cared deeply for people and their needs.
He was very 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 was a board member of the of the International Crisis Group.
One reason Mkapa was particularly effective 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 this is not just an African or third world weakness, its seen in western leaders as well. In the 1960s, Africa produced a host of great leaders who oversaw the continent’s liberation from colonial rule 1960s 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 handful who were widely respected both at home and globally. As the New York Times reported, “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.”
Mwalimu Nyerere made Mkapa his press secretary in 1974, and 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 know more about the major financial interest in Kenya leading the campaign to break up the East African Community (EAC).
Mkapa fought valiantly to save what was one of the most advanced economic unions in the world then, one with a common currency.
He was very thrilled he was able to help revive the EAC as President in 1999. As President Uhuru Kenyatta declared three days of mourning, Raila Odinga referred to Mkapa’s commitment to Regional Integration and the revival of the East Africa Community, a sentiment Uhuru echoed.
Ben 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. 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 crestfallen 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 could only marvel at how different Tanzania was from us. A year later, in 1983, 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 election. I was then working at the UN in New York, 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 early 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 31 election results.
As the statesmen came out of a meeting, Ben saw me and took me aside. “I read your article about ‘the lights going out in Kenya on 31 December’ in the Independent yesterday, and I realized then that things were worse than I thought.”
I had in fact tried hard to put off writing that article because in those tense, violence filled days, there was hardly any time to sleep, but the Independent’s correspondent pressed hard, and I penned the fastest 750 words I have ever written. Mkapa’s remark also reminded me how important such articles 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!
That led Martha Karua to ask that I be removed as ODM’s liaison with the Annan group, and Raila obliged. I had earlier, upon Mr Annan’s arrival in Kenya, been thoughtless enough to try to arrange a meeting with Mr Annan, who I had not seen since 2003, but of course he declined.
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 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 hand-picked ‘yes men and women’. “ This kind of openness to debate led to one of Mkapa’s most enduring achievements, transforming Tanzania into a fully multi-party democracy during his presidency and managing to hand over a stable nation to his successor Jakaya Kikwete.
In that period, Mkapa also substantially liberalized the economy with help from the IFIs, and ushered in extensive privatization. Tanzania is a land I felt close to as a young boy since my mother and father were born there.
That affection multiplied when Julius Nyerere, also known as Mwalimu Nyerere – Mwalimu means the Teacher in Swahili – took the helm and pursued his Ujamaa (socialist) policies, assiduously nurtured the country’s innate openness and harmony and kept it free of the rampant cancer of corruption which had already started consuming Africa.
He kept the country united despite severe economic hardship without resorting to state violence, earning worldwide respect for that astonishing achievement in a continent filled with political upheavals, which in the end included even Kenya.
It was ironic that both Mkapa and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete played significant roles in helping the Annan mediation succeed in 2008, which Mkapa wrote about in a book.
I will conclude with another story about Tanzania. In 1973, when I was editor of the Sunday Post, but before I knew Mwalimu, I went to Dar-es-Salaam in the hope of interviewing him. In the end he was just too tied up and his secretary Joan Wicken said I should interview Foreign Minister John Malecela instead.
I asked her if she would call Mr Malecela to let him know this, but she said there was no need to, she could not imagine the minister saying no to a Kenyan editor.
She said his home telephone number was in the telephone directory. I was sure this would not work. Anyway, I called the listed number and a young man 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.
Ben Mkapa was not stain free – no leader is. While he steered the country to a stable multiparty system free of rigging, the corruption inevitably grew in the multiparty, privatized Tanzania to levels not seen earlier. Accusations were made against Mkapa himself.
And after the 2000 election, police killed about 21 protesters on Pemba island. Mkapa set Tanzania on a very successful free market trajectory without causing the upheavals other African countries suffered from this change.
This rare African achievement is Mwalimu’s first and foremost but Mkapa played an important role amid the wrenching changes for the poor during the reforms he implemented.
This is a model that should be emulated by those interested in ensuring the kind of peace that Tanzania has maintained through turbulent times.
[IDN-InDepthNews – 27 July 2020] Photo: Tanzanian President Benjamin William Mkapa (left) meets with the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan during the special session of the General Assembly for the overall review and appraisal of the implementation of Agenda 21 since the 1992 Earth Summit.
The writer is former Director of Communications under Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Spokesman for Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga for more than a decade and currently working on a book on Kenya in the Global Context with a focus on the UN.