Mkapa: My life, my purpose

Friday November 22 2019

Former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa. He supposes that it is his upbringing which implanted his drive for efficiency and timeliness. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Against the backdrop of an economy gone awry, Tanzania’s third president Benjamin William Mkapa took the reins of power of a country wobbling from inflation caused by permissive business heralded by the previous ruksa regime of his predecessor Alli Hassan Mwinyi.

The government could not afford to pay public servants’ salaries, banks were collapsing and there was so much money in the streets chasing too few goods and services.

Inflation stood at 27.4 per cent and revenue collection was erratic and insufficient. Bold decisions had to be arrived at, including dropping some Cabinet ministers and appointment of new Bank of Tanzania governor to rectify the situation.

These revelations as recounted in his autobiography, My Life, My Purpose launched last week in Dar es Salaam.

The first of its kind to be authored by any president sitting or past, the autobiography was published by Mkuki Na Nyota publishers. The launch also marked his 81st birthday.

By the time of writing this article, all the published copies had been sold.


The launch was graced by current president John Pombe Magufuli and former presidents Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete.

The 320-page autobiography traces his formative years in Lupaso village in the southern Tanganyika with his itinerant catechist father William Matwani, his stern mother Stephanie Nambaga his journey through school and finally studying history, economics and English at Makerere University in Uganda.

During that time, the Nationalist Newspaper was run by indigenous Tanzanians.

After five months in London learning the workings of the newspaper industry, Mr Mkapa was appointed the managing editor (a political appointment).
His role was to ensure that the newspaper supported the political views of his bosses.

First steps on political journey

In 1974, Mr Mkapa was unexpectedly appointed President Mwalimu Nyerere’s press secretary. Handing over to Ferdinand Ruhinda the mantle, he flew to Butiama village whereby he found the president digging and joined him.

From then on, they would be in the shambas digging in the morning hours and later, and even in between, receiving callers.

He would much later join Mwalimu to various meetings in and out of the country.

He was later charged with the duty of starting a National News Agency Shahita (Shirika la Habari Tanzania).

Next, Mr Mkapa was to fly to Nigeria to establish bilateral relationship. He arrived as High Commissioner and presented his credentials to Gen Olusegun Obasanjo.

After a three-month stint in Nigeria, Mwalimu appointed him Foreign Minister—to help shape the liberation of southern African nations.

In 1977, he was nominated a member of parliament and later, high commissioner to Canada.

Between 1976 and 1985 when Mwalimu retired, he had had stints in Nigeria (1976), Canada (1982), USA (1983-1984), twice the Foreign Affairs Minister and Minister of Information and Culture.

Under his successor Ali Hassan Mwinyi, he continued as Minister of Foreign Affairs and then as the minister responsible for information and broadcasting, science, technology and higher education.

Finally, Mr president

He supposes that it is his upbringing which implanted his drive for efficiency and timeliness. For example, he did not accept papers tabled before the Cabinet unless they were properly prepared.

During his tenure as president, he cultivated an aura of approachability, frankness and bluntness that sometimes put him at loggerheads with some ministers and Tanzanians especially when he made the people aware that the country was in financial dire straits and that the public needed to tighten their belts.

One of his earliest tasks was to align Tanzania with IMF, World Bank and in 1976, he visited Baroness Lynda Chalker, the UK Minister for Overseas Development who approached the matter with caution because of the skewed way development funds were managed at the time.

Mkapa finally prevailed

One of milestone achievements was external debt relief under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) run by the World Bank and IMF.

Tanzania had over the years sunk deep into a rut because of the war to liberate Uganda, surging of the world oil prices and inflation.

He understood that bringing government finances into healthy state of affairs required an attack from two fronts; he needed to increase government revenues as well as decrease unnecessary expenditure.

He inherited the government coffers with a paltry $612,567, which was not enough to pay for the country’s recurrent budget, let alone development costs.

Ten years later, the country’s revenue was a healthy $1,796,682.

The foreign exchange reserve covered at only one and-a-half months grew to cover 5-plus months in 2005.

Interest rates plummeted from 36 per cent to 15.2 per cent in 2005. Tanzania Revenue Authority commenced in 1996 as well as the Prevention of Corruption Bureau of Tanzania—and he was christened Mr Clean for it.

According to him, “it was important for him to give to his nation a framework with key attributes high quality livelihood, peace, stability and unity; good governance; well-educated and learning society, and a competitive economy capable of producing sustainable growth and shared benefits”

Mkapa’s regrets

The autobiography gives an insight into some of the infamous scandals that rocked the country during his tenure in office including the External Payment Arears account in whichTsh133 billion ($57 million) was spirited away, theTsh120 billion ($52 million) radar purchase deal, a haphazard privatisation process and the sale of government houses among others.

Mr Mkapa also candidly talks of the torment he went through following the shooting to death of protesters in the post-election period of 2001.