Benjamin W. Mkapa: A life of service to SADC and Africa

SANF 20 no 20
Southern Africa woke up on 24 July 2020 to the shock news that former United Republic of Tanzania President Benjamin William Mkapa is no more.

In a televised speech, President John Magufuli announced that Mkapa died in a Dar es Salaam hospital at the age of 81.

“I am saddened by the death of the third president of Tanzania and that is a big loss for us as a country. Let’s pray for him and more information will follow later,” Magufuli said.

Mkapa was the country’s third president after independence from Britain in 1961 and ruled from 1995 to 2005.

Born in Lupaso village of Mtwara Region, near the border between Tanzania and Mozambique, Mkapa’s humble early years probably toughened him up for his future role as leader of his country.

In his memoirs titled My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers that was released in November 2019, Mkapa recounts his childhood memories during which his catechist father, William Matwani, professed his strong desire for his last born, Benjamin, “to become a priest, failing that a doctor or a teacher”.

How thrilled William Senior was when his loved son enrolled in the Benedictine seminary in 1957 to kickstart a journey that was supposed to make him a proud father, only to be crushed when the same son dropped out of the seminary before qualifying.

Neither did Mkapa become a doctor nor a teacher as per the wishes of his father.

Rather, he earned a degree in English in Uganda and later worked as a journalist.

He later joined the public service, first as a Foreign Service Officer in 1963 and rising through the ranks to become a cabinet minister in Nyerere’s administration, and later the first president to be elected under the multi-party system in Tanzania.

In the end, while he did not live up to his father’s desires, he is confident that his father died a proud man, especially having seen his son being appointed minister by Tanzania’s founding President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

He was, however, disappointed that his parents died before he rose to the highest political echelon in the country, for they would have been proud of their son’s achievements.

Mkapa’s political journey started when Nyerere appointed him as his press secretary in 1974.

He refers to the influence he got from Nyerere several times in the memoirs, to a point that it almost becomes more a book about Nyerere than about Mkapa, demonstrating the deep respect he had for his mentor.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was undoubtedly the greatest influence on my personal growth as a leader and on my career,” Mkapa said of his former mentor, adding that “he was my teacher in every sense”.

Writing in his memoirs, Mkapa said the Tanzanian economy was not doing well when he assumed the presidency on 23 November 1995.

Faced with this enormous challenge, Mkapa instituted a raft of economic reforms, a number of them not popular within the country and beyond, earning the journalist-cum-president the nickname Mzee Ukapa, drawn from Kiswahili phrase ‘anakula ukapa’ meaning “you have nothing”.

Interestingly, he also became known as “Mr Clean” for his relentless efforts to rid the country of corruption.

For his efforts, he left office a proud man, having seen an increase in government revenue from when he became president in 1995 and when he left office in December 2005.

Mkapa was also instrumental in driving Tanzania’s foreign policy, having served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under both Presidents Nyerere and Ali Hassan Mwinyi.

In the memoirs he recalls that Tanzania’s role in the liberation of southern African countries was not an easy feat at all, especially as Tanzania and other Frontline States struggled to unite the liberation movements in the various countries that were fighting for self-rule.

He held several cabinet posts, such as foreign minister and information minister and also served as ambassador to the United States before he was elected president.

His death is, however, not a loss to Tanzania alone but to the rest of Africa, in particular in eastern and southern Africa where Mkapa was dedicated to the liberation of the sub-continent.

He was a unifier, having been involved in the mediation processes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Burundi.

On power-sharing in Kenya, the negotiations were “not easy for both parties to agree upon, particularly as each side wanted exclusive power,” Mkapa said of the two formations behind presidential contestants Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki in 2008.

The DRC mediation efforts were not easy either, and he does not mince his words about the difficulties encountered.

“We found it impossible to deal with the ragtag political parties,” Mkapa wrote in his memoirs.

He added: “They would sign agreements and agree on repatriations, then within weeks they were quarrelling about what the signed agreement meant.”

Mkapa had most recently attempted to mediate between Burundi’s government and opposition groups after a disputed 2015 election plunged the country into crisis, however the government repeatedly refused to take part and the talks went nowhere.

Regardless of the difficulties, Mkapa remained proud of how he sustained Tanzania’s profile on the international scene, largely as a peacemaker.

Mkapa was passionate about the economic and political integration of the SADC region and is credited with the launch of the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP), the region’s long-term strategic plan.

A strong believer in the power of regional cooperation in the fight against poverty, Mkapa urged SADC member states to “run while others walk”.

“Let us now run in order to narrow the gap between our region and the developed world,” he said in a Foreword to the RISDP which has guided SADC in establishing a shared regional community.

He chaired SADC between August 2003 and August 2004 and launched the regional development blueprint in 2004.

He believed in the power of the youth in contributing to the development of SADC and the rest of Africa.

It was his wish that SADC leverages the vast “knowledge dividend” that resides in its young people by harnessing new technology to ensure deeper regional integration.

Speaking during a public lecture on the sidelines of the 39th SADC Summit held in Dar es Salaam in August 2019, Mkapa called for the revamp of the education system to “offer the kind of skills that will not only allow them to survive but to thrive.”

“With a burgeoning population in SADC, the majority of whom are youths, we have to harness their potential in an age dominated by digital technologies,” he said.

The former Tanzanian leader was instrumental in the establishment of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC), an independent regional knowledge resource centre established in 1985 to strengthen regional policy perspectives and track implementation on a range of issues in southern Africa.

SARDC is a widely respected development research institution that provides knowledge support to regional policy initiatives such as industrialization, energy development, climate change, water resources, gender and development, and China-Africa relations. sardc.net


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