East African Community mourns Benjamin Mkapa - mediator, economic architect
Sunday July 26 2020
East Africa is mourning a pragmatic leader who stepped forward at hour of need to bring peace in troubled countries in the region as well as a man who turned around Tanzania’s economy within the shortest time.When Benjamin Mkapa took reins of leadership in Tanzania in 1995, critics viewed him as an extreme apologist of socialism ideology that the country’s founding president Julius Nyerere had established.Observers say although Mkapa continued with socialism, he borrowed some capitalist policies that turned around the economy, which was on its knees, and won confidence from global financial institutions that eventually removed debt burden on the country.Among other things that Mkapa implemented to boost economic growth, were privatisation of key State agencies and public corporations and sweeping reforms in Tanzania’s civil service.Mkapa died in a Dar es Salaam hospital from an undisclosed illness on Thursday night.On the regional level after the end of his term as president, Mkapa mediated political stalemates in Kenya and Burundi. He was a member of panel of eminent persons that was chaired by former UN chief Kofi Annan that midwifed a grand coalition government in Kenya after disputed presidential election results that sparked post-election violence that claimed lives of at least 1,300 people.
He later became the lead mediator of a protracted political crisis in Burundi until he reportedly resigned early last year.His 2019 autobiography My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers remains a bestseller in Tanzanian bookshops.Born on November 12, 1938 in the southern region of Mtwara as the youngest of four children, Benjamin William Mkapa made a name as a savvy and largely socialist president who nonetheless adopted a pragmatic approach towards improving the country's economy.Though a somewhat surprise choice at the time, he was elected president in 1995 based on a popular “Mr Clean” anti-corruption image and the strong backing of Mwalimu Nyerere.According to New Humanitarian Magazine article on him after he ended his tenure 10 years later, Mkapa's detractors initially dubbed him first president Julius Nyerere's “errand boy” who wouldn't be able to change the socialism course that Mwalimu had chosen for the country.ReformistBut while not completely abandoning Nyerere's socialist tenets, Mkapa aggressively pursued some capitalist policies of his own that ultimately won him favour with international lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.His two terms in office saw Tanzania make some significant economic strides largely based on macroeconomic fundamentals. In 2004, a year before he stepped down, inflation stood at around 4 percent, down from 27.1 percent in 1995, while the annual economic growth rate had reached 6.7 percent, up from 3.6 percent when Mkapa took office.By 2005, foreign reserves had increased to an equivalent of eight months of imports and revenue collections stood at about $140 million a month, more than triple the amount for 1995-1996.Man-made povertyIt was Mkapa's strict macroeconomic policies that led the World Bank and IMF to cancel over $2 billion in debt in November 2001, representing about half of what the country owed the two Bretton Woods institutions.But he faced some criticism for neglecting people-centred economic development, as a huge proportion of Tanzania's then 36 million population continued to earn less than $1 a day.This prompted him to remark in one of his public addresses: "There is a thought that poverty is a public policy failure. But poverty is man-made by action and non-action. It can be eliminated."Always a sharp and often candid orator, he also once commented that "the idea of African brotherhood is often just a cover-up for laziness.""We (Tanzania) must see what is achievable in our circumstances and evaluate all decisions. In terms of regional economic integration, sentimentality is not enough. We really have to be frank and honest," he said.Mkapa's rallying slogan while campaigning to become president was for Tanzania to become "a nation of science and technology" during the 21st century.He was often a vocal lobbyist on matters relating to international justice and equity, particularly on the adverse effects of globalisation and unfair terms of international trade. For example, he vehemently opposed the Economic Partnership Agreement between EAC and European Union from the word go.As Tanzania’s leader Mkapa was also criticised for lavish spending habits including the £15 million acquisition of a private presidential jet and the £30 million purchase of military radar equipment which was widely derided as being surplus to the immediate requirements of the Tanzanian army.After leaving office, he was dogged by the accusation that he improperly appropriated to himself and his former finance minister Daniel Yona the lucrative Kiwira Coal Mine in Tanzania's southern highlands without following lawful procedures.He was at pains to deny these allegations in his memoir, describing them as "absolute nonsense" as "everything was done above board.""The government took the property back in 2008 due to political pressure, it was returned to the State Mining Corporation and nothing has since happened," he wrote. "It annoys me that in this country which suffers from insufficient electricity supply, the mine remains idle."At the launch of his memoir in Dar last November, Mkapa said he was driven to write it by the belief that a true leader is shaped by both good and bad events in his or her public and personal life."In hindsight, some of the decisions and steps I took as a leader, based on the information at my disposal at the time, can be looked at completely differently from today's perspective," he stated.CAREEREducated at Uganda's Makerere University (BA - English) and Columbia University (MA - International Affairs), Mkapa's career in public service began as a Foreign Service officer in 1963 and then veered to journalism for a while.Then-president Nyerere, who considered Mkapa his protégé, appointed him editor of the ruling party's Nationalist (later Uhuru) newspaper in 1966 and the government-owned Daily News in 1972. In 1974 he became Nyerere's press secretary and in 1976 he oversaw the launch of the state-owned Tanzania News Agency (SHIHATA), now defunct.He was at different times Minister of Information; Foreign Affairs; and Science, Technology, and Higher Education, and served as Tanzania's high commissioner to Nigeria (1976) and Canada (1982), and ambassador to the US (1983-1984).