Lowassa was a rare Tanzanian species, a victim of the system

Sunday February 18 2024

Former Tanzanian prime minister Edward Lowassa. PHOTO | THE CITIZEN | NMG


Tanzanians have spent this past week mourning a former prime minister, Edward Ngoyai Lowassa, who left office 15 years ago amid accusations of graft. Notwithstanding the manner of his exit, the public outpouring of grief has been overwhelming.

As is the wont of occasions such as this, there have been official biographical statements lauding the man as a fallen hero, ticking off the many initiatives he undertook in the various phases of his public life, such as the establishment of the University of Dodoma and the tapping of the waters of Lake Victoria for irrigation in the Sukuma hinterland.

I incline to go back to these two high points (there are so many more), because they truly represent the persona of the man, his can-do spirit in everything he embarked on and a certain doggedness found in very few people in a country where politicians hide in facelessness and non-commitment.

Read: EYAKUZE: Incandescent with fury, Lowassa earned my respect

Dodoma University, with the decided goal of enrolling up to 40,000 students, was a gamble, a huge project that might daunt any run-of-the-mill politician just doing a job. Lowassa embraced the challenge with gusto, transforming a barren moonscape outside Dodoma into an inspiring chain of tertiary schools offering a gamut of disciplines catering for the needs of 21st century academia.

On the waters of Lake Victoria, earlier in his career, Lowassa wasted no time as minister for water before laying claim to Tanzania’s right, as a riparian state, to use this common resource in the face of a British colonial treaty that favoured Egyptian monopoly over the use of the waters of the Nile.


Lowassa effectively operationalised the Nyerere Doctrine on state succession, which qualified the applicability to new independent states of treaties entered into by colonial powers, to “liberate”this great input into the development and livelihoods of the parched provinces to the south of the lake. It is part of Lowassa’s legacy that areas in Shinyanga and Tabora have experienced the miracle of piped water, notwithstanding initial protests from Cairo.

It is safe to say that Lowassa’s short-lived prime-ministry denied his country the opportunity to see what a driven politician could do, because he took fast and sharp decisions every time he was seized of a problem, insisting that what was needed was action, not words. By his pet subject, he set much store, insisting he had three priorities: Education, education and education.

Soon after coming to the prime-ministry under President Jakaya Kikwete in 2005, Edward moved to end a stand-off between the education ministry and Haki-Elimu, a civil society organisation advocating quality education.

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The previous government had all but banned Haki-Elimu activities, especially in the crucial awareness and publicity campaigns. The previous education minister, backed by the president, had been of the view that the campaigns were denigrating government efforts.

Edward summoned the organisation to Dodoma for a meeting between its leadership and key sectoral ministries, trying to find out what the matter was. In three hours, the prime minister had found a modus vivendi by which the ministry was advised to accept constructive criticism and the organisation was counselled to recognise government efforts when they were obvious.

I can report — I was board-chair at that time — that he displayed admirable people skills that got both sides to agree a middle-ground that left both sides happy, and that entente has endured to this day.

Yes, this was an activist prime minister whose activism did not sit well with the ambiguous complexion of Tanzania’s prime ministry, a creation of Julius Nyerere back in the 1970s.

Read: EYAKUZE: Chadema marched and nothing happened...

The office gave the occupant the title, but the power had to be defined by the occupant himself, allowing him to accrue as much power as he dared to amass, a risky situation if the top dog should get the idea that someone is trying to overshadow him, especially if the topmost man is of the laid-back variety.

Edward Ngoyai Lowassa may have fallen victim to the vagaries of an ill-defined territory of an office that is neither executive nor ceremonial but is dependent on the humour of a boss one cannot always depend on.

The Richmond scandal, which is what felled Edward, could have ended otherwise had the prime-ministry been an effective and properly defined place. According to him, he did everything in accordance with what his boss told him to do but in the end was left holding the can.

He had his ambitions, for sure, and there is no doubt that he would have loved to rise to — why not? — the presidency one day. The curtailment of that dream in 2007 may have spelt the beginning of the end for Edward.

His early departure may perhaps afford us an occasion to mull the usefulness of an office that is ill-defined, ill-appreciated and ill-equipped to deal with the political vicissitudes of the country.

The other day, I was wondering why the radio kept referring to the man they call prime minister as the “Prime Minister of the United Republic of Tanzania” — that is to say the Prime Minister of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

Now, I am no dunce, and I know that is what the Constitution says. But I am sorry to say that is not so.