The late Benjamin William Mkapa (81) former Tanzania president––who died suddenly on Friday and was buried at Lupaso Village in South Tanzania where he was born––was not only my president but also my friend. Although he was a powerful person, we could exchange emails whenever, as peace scholar and a friend, I needed his ‘nuggets of wisdom’ especially on diplomacy, international issues, mediation and peace mission among many. Mkapa did not allow his power and stature to set him apart from commoners! He was accessible and ready to help whenever and wherever he could.
I received the news of Mkapa’s untimely demise as I was preparing myself to go to bed at about 10.00 Central Time. I tried to call his best friend, my friend Cde Pius Msekwa, retired speaker of the national parliament, secretary-General of the TANU and later the CCM, chancellor of the University of Dar es Salaam and current Chancellor of Moshi Cooperative University and Mbeya University of Science and Technology among many positions he held. Actually, although the phone went through, Msekwa was unable to speak. Later he emailed me saying that he was busy the whole day responding to questions and doing interviews with the media about the late Mkapa whom he knew more than anybody else. The death of the person that you know at a personal level is shockingly torturous so to speak. It took me time to accept that Mkapa was no more.
I came to know and interact with the late Mkapa through my best friend Cde Msekwa who I co-authored the book on president John Magufuli: Magufulification: Concept That Will Define Africa’s Future and the Man Who Makes Things Happen, published by GDY Publishers of Dar Es Salaam. Mkapa inspired us to write this book after he published his biography: My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers (2020). We even wanted him to write its poem, but we declined for fear of overburdening him, especially at the time he was marketing his biography.
I vividly remember everything as if it happened just yesterday. When I introduced myself to the late Mkapa, he was then unwell. He just sent me a short email asking me to bear with him so that after recovering, he’d soon touch base with me. Indeed, he did. Thereafter, I was free to ask him any question or help whenever I felt like. Mkapa openly admitted his failures apologized to all Tanzanians. He documented his apology in the book about his life that I have mentioned above. His humility matched the one of two other famous people I have known and interacted with as friends namely, Cde Msekwa and former Kenyan Chief Justice Ndugu Willy M. Mutunga (PhD) who still calls me ndugu whenever we touch base.
Mkapa was Tanzania’s long-time ambassador, minister for foreign affairs, Mwl. Nyerere’s writer and later a two-term president from 1995 to 2005. Under his leadership, Tanzania achieved a great deal locally, regionally and internationally. After becoming president, Mkapa exuded high self-confidence that made some people to view him so as being aloft and arrogant. He was an ace and eloquent debater whose skills of constructing arguments were a rarity in the crop of the leaders of his time. As president, his regime oversaw the liberalisation of Tanzania’s economy after being closed close for three decades of Ujamaa and Kujitegemea or Socialism and Self-reliance that the founder of Tanzania, Mwl. Nyerere presided over before handing the baton to Alhaj Ali Hassan Mwinyi whose economic policy was not clear.
When some his detractors complained that he was betraying the goal of socialism, Mkapa told them point blank that the era of preferential treatment was long gone. The era of competition and competence had come. It is at this time the Kenyan Nation Media Group (NMG), according to its chair, Wilfred Kiboro, received invitation from Mkapa himself personally to do business in the country. Mkapa opened up Tanzania for international investment. Most of his lieutenants however betrayed him by engaging in bogus contracts that saw Tanzania cascade economically.
Mkapa created many government institutions such as Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA) among others; and formed commissions to look into prevailing issues such as corruption. Mkapa openly pushed Tanzania to paying debts it had accumulated for a long time and returned Tanzania to the map of the world as a capable country anybody could do business with.
As minister of foreign affairs, Mkapa contributed hugely in the formation of the post-Amin government in Uganda after Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) repelled Idi Amin’s soldiers’ advances in Tanzania. Mkapa became instrumental in mediating peace soon after Kenya’s 2007 Post-Election Violence (PEV). Together with the late former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, Kenya was able to reach the agreement of forming a Government of National Unity (GNU) under Mwai Kibaki as president and his nemesis, Raila Odinga as Prime Minister. Despite its political animosities and squabbling, the GNU delivered Kenya from the tribal abyss.
Burundi will always remember his facilitation after the government and some factions set Burundi to a perilous path. The East African Community appointed Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni as a mediator and Mkapa as a facilitator. Soon Museveni left Mkapa do everything until the conflict was resolved. Thereafter, Burundi became peaceful up until today.
As an educated person, he liked logic to guide whatever argument was made. When it came to defending his position, like his mentor, Julius Nyerere, the founder of Tanzania, he was like a lion who would send his opponent shivering. However, once the dialogue was over, the gentle and humble Mkapa would resume his position and warmly intermingle with everybody who approached him.
It is not easy to contain Mkapa in one article or book. Now that he is no more, history will soon start to revisit him and bring forth his unknown treasures as a leader and a human. Go well in your eternal journey Benjamin William Mkapa. Tangulia nasi twaja mpendwa ndugu Mkapa. Every soul will one day die.
By Nkwazi Mhango
Mhango is a lifetime member of the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador (WANL) and author of over 20 books among which are Africa Reunite or Perish, 'Is It Global War on Terrorism' or Global War over Terra Africana? How Africa Developed Europe and contributed many chapters in scholarly works.