It is not by accident that the East African Community made its fastest strides when Benjamin William Mkapa was president of the United Republic of Tanzania. The attitude at Ikulu (State House Dar es Salaam) is what matters most to the fortunes of the regional economic body which also has a distant dream of becoming a political federation.
Before the admission of South Sudan, Tanzania at one million square kilometres comprised more than half of the EAC land area, also then being the only country sharing a border with each and all of the other member states.
Like Tanzania’s founding father Julius Nyerere who had delayed Tanganyika’s independence so one country with Kenya and Uganda would emerge, Mkapa also attended Makerere University and grew into a strong believer in East African integration.
At Makerere, Mkapa made lifelong personal East African friends who include fellow media personality, Uganda’s long-serving presidential media adviser John Nagenda. Leaving Makerere in the early sixties, he worked both in local administration and Foreign Service, furthered his studies abroad and wound up in journalism, editing some national papers.
By the 1970s, Mkapa was already a Nyerere protégé before taking over as Managing Editor of the Daily News, the Establishment mouthpiece. Several diplomatic portfolios followed until he finally joined Cabinet, eventually taking the high profile post of foreign minister.
When Tanzania went to war with neighbouring Idi Amin (officially Tanzania never fought Uganda but fought Amin) late 1978, Nyerere assigned Mkapa the job of beating the rival Ugandan rival factions into unity. It was a proper choice for Mkapa knew Ugandan society with its political and cultural nuances.
He it was, that facilitated the famous 1979 Moshi Unity Conference that formed the Uganda National Liberation Front that constituted the post Idi Amin government.
Delegates to the conference recall the no-nonsense iron hand of Mkapa that beat them into forming a government among the bitterest of enemies. He drove the Ugandan leaders hard until he bundled them out of Moshi to Kampala.
Later as president of Tanzania, Mkapa supported the East African integration so much that East African citizens felt quite at home doing business and working in Tanzania.
Nyerere had been out of office for a decade when Mkapa joined the race for the ruling CCM candidature in 1995 to contest for president. Mkapa came as a surprise candidate and the story of his emergence has been told and retold by the pundits of Dar es Salaam.
As the Cold War approached its anticlimactic end with socialism being declared a failure by many, Nyerere prepared to retire. But not before sidelining Mkapa who had become an early enthusiast of globalisation and a market economy in Tanzania's Ujamaa era. But Nyerere never gave up on Mkapa completely and by 1995, as CCM looked for a candidate to beat the charging populist opposition man Augustine Mrema, Mwalimu Nyerere who was still influential dropped Mkapa on the table.
A popular Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete who was not yet 40 was pressurised to give way to the man Nyerere deemed best placed to ease Tanzania into the new order as unipolar capitalism reigned over the world.
Mkapa took over as the third president of Tanzania, with the urgent task of restoring order in a country that had slid into economic anarchy during the ten years of under Nyerere’s immediate successor, Ali Hassan Mwinyi. (Mwinyi had been nicknamed Ruhusa because virtually all economic (mis)conduct was allowed on his watch – but his story will be told at the right time.)
Mkapa did not owe anybody favours, knowing as everybody did that he had his only constituency in Nyerere. Privatisation, austerity, rationalisation, revenue collection took shape under Mkapa. He drove the country more than leading it. In the end, Tanzanians appreciated Mkapa for restoring order and putting the country back on course. He showed them tough love.
In 2015, a retired Mkapa returned the late Nyerere’s favour to Tanzania by identifying John Pombe Magufuli. As had happened 20 years earlier, an ‘opposition’ candidate Edward Lowassa was inching close to winning the presidency.
An uninterested Magufuli with the reputation of a workaholic was fronted by Mkapa. The onus is now of Magufuli to honour Mkapa’s memory by running the government with the clear headedness of the man who was behind his elevation to the highest office