It is difficult, in the African setting, to write honestly when you are dealing with a departed person, especially to cast what may be seen as aspersions about someone who has passed on and who occupied a prominent place in society such as that of the former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa.
The tendency is almost always to look for something positive to say, and this is usually not such a hard task, for, whatever the faults of an individual, there surely has to be something good to say about them. It is the biographers who come later, distanced by time, and sometimes space, who get the latitude that frees them from niceties and polite discourse.
I have an interest to declare, I first met Mkapa when I was a first-year Law student at the University of Dar es Salaam and had gone to Addis Ababa to attend a non-governmental-organisations conference called by the UN Economic Commission for Africa back in 1970.
Mkapa was then managing editor of the Tanu party newspapers, Uhuru/Mzalendo and The Nationalist. As I recall, he was a jovial man and quite helpful at a personal level, because he helped me out with the airport fee that one had to pay before flying. But later, after graduating, I found myself in the government newspaper (The Standard) where he was soon sent as managing editor after its name had been changed to The Daily News.
Now I found quite a different man from the one I had met in Addis and from whose largesse I had benefitted. He seemed distant, keeping mostly alone, and hardly talking to reporters or sub-editors except when it was absolutely necessary.
I came to notice these traits again long afterwards, when I joined parliament and he was a government minister. The aloofness was still there, and this for pretty much everyone, though there was always polite salutation and occasional good humour.
At the Daily News, I quickly realised his mastery of English was never in doubt, which should surprise no one, seeing as it was in it that he had majored. He also tried his hand at private poetry and played Scrabble.
His natural habitat was populated by Chaucer, the Bard, Lord Byron, Wordsworth, Mark Twain and Longfellow , though I doubt that he ever spent much time on the poetry of Shaaban Robert, Amri Abeid, or Muyaka of the Kenyan coast.
Though he should have been able to converse with ease, he often lost his cool when challenged by anyone he did not like much, and impatient outbursts were a common occurrence with him. This was displayed infamously during an interview with the BBC HardTalk’s Tim Sebastian in 2001. It became clear to me that while he could deliver a beautiful speech on many an occasion, it was disastrous to let him go extempore.
Mkapa has often been described as a former journalist, and just as often have I rejected this label, because my idea of a journalist is someone who has been through the rigours of the newsroom, and who, on a few occasions stood sweating before the news editor wondering whether to hand him the story in his/her hip pocket or to wait till the news editor’s mood has changed from frown to smile.
Mkapa never had to go through this situation. This disconnect with the media became clear when he became president and came across as long on attacking the media for being ‘unprofessional’ but short on the remedial measures needed to professionalise the industry.
Mkapa was no democrat, and his often expressed thoughts tended to be of a hard-state variety, brooking little dissention or contrary opinions.
Though he took over from Ali Hassan Mwinyi, under whose presidency (1985-95) Tanzania liberalised its politics, Mkapa showed little appetite to improve on the work Mwinyi had started, work that has set apart the self-effacing Mwinyi as the architect of the modest constitutional reforms in Tanzania’s history.
He struggled with the idea of cleaning up the administration when he took over in 1995, even appointing a presidential commission under Judge Joseph Warioba to advise him on how to tackle the cancer of corruption, an effort proven to have been half-hearted. In the end, he threw the Warioba Report into dusty cupboards and left it for other countries to adopt and use.
He set up another commission, under late Judge Robert Kissanga, to advise him on further constitutional reforms (after Mwinyi’s reforms) but took the Kissanga Report to a public meeting and castigated the quiet, timid judge as ‘ill-intentioned’.
When, in January 2001, political differences came to a head in Zanzibar and opposition party members took to the streets in a mass demonstration, Mkapa watched as tens of people were mowed down and others severely injured by police, for the first time creating Tanzanian refugees who ran off to Kenya.
He may not have noticed that scores of police officers were promoted after this bloody incident. Subsequent half-hearted efforts to absolve himself, including in his recent autobiography, have had a hollow ring to them.