DODOMA – Africa Friday morning woke up to the news of the death of one of its noble sons Benjamin William Mkapa, a regional peacemaker who led Tanzania for 10 years between 1995 and 2005 and has died in a Dar es Salaam hospital aged 81.
In a televised address to the nation from Chamwino State House in Dodoma, Tanzania’s president John Pombe Magufuli in a somber mood announced the passing of the third Head of State of East African largest nation and arguably one of Africa’s finest diplomats, referring to his demise as a great loss to the country.
“I am saddened by the death of Benjamin Mkapa, the third President of Tanzania, I will remember him for his dedication to the nation and the growth of the economy,’’ Magufuli said.
Born on November 12, 1938 in Ndanda near Masasi in southern Tanganyika, Mkapa graduated from Makerere University in Uganda in 1962 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He proceeded to Columbia University the following year from where he graduated with a master’s degree in international affairs. He worked his way to the highest office in the land starting off as a junior public administrator.
Mkapa was elected President and Chairman of the Revolutionary State Political Party (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM) in 1995 based on a popular anti-corruption campaign and the strong support of former president Julius Nyerere, becoming the third president of Tanzania. Mkapa’s anti-corruption efforts included creation of an open forum called the Presidential Commission on Corruption (Warioba Commission) and increased support for the Prevention of Corruption Bureau.
Before his election to the highest office in Tanzania, Mkapa served as an administrative officer in Dodoma and the Minister for Science, Technology and Higher Education. He also had the chance to lead the Tanzanian mission to Canada in the year 1982 and to the United States of America from 1983 to 1984. He was the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1977 to 1980 and again from 1984 to 1990.
During his reign as president, Mkapa privatized state-owned corporations and instituted free market policies aimed at promoting economic growth. His policies won the support of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and resulted in the cancellation of some of Tanzania’s foreign debts.
But the short-sized diplomat did not survive the bug that eats up many African leaders. He was for example criticized for some ineffectiveness of his anti-corruption efforts [and lavish spending. He allegedly spent £15 million on a presidential jet, as well as £30 million on military equipment which experts deemed way beyond the needs of the country’s armed forces. It was over the latter purchase that former British International Development Sectretary Clare Short expressed public outrage, resulting in her becoming known as ‘Mama Radar’ in the Tanzanian press.
Having left office due to a two-term limit, Mkapa was dogged by accusations of corruption, among them improperly appropriating to himself and his former finance Minister Daniel Yona the lucrative “Kiwira Coal Mine” in the southern highlands of Tanzania without following lawful procedures. By privatizing the Kiwira Coal Mine to himself, he was accused of a breach of the Tanzanian constitution, which does not allow a president to do business at the state house.
The astute peacemaker
Mkapa will be remembered as an indefatigable peacemaker in the East African region and Africa. He was involved in different peace processes. When Kenya was on the brink of the precipice after a controversial presidential election in 2007, Mkapa together with other African leaders helped Kenya broker a peace deal that culminated into the formation of a coalition government.
Mkapa together with former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Graca Machel mediated talks between Raila Odinga’s ODM and Mwai Kibaki’s PNU after the country erupted in violence following the disputed 2007 elections. It was such efforts that compelled the warring parties to sign the National Accord in February 2008 saving the country from sliding into further anarchy after three months of violence after Raila-led ODM rejected Kibaki’s presidential victory with violence flaring up in the Rift Valley, Nyanza and Mombasa.
Kenyans also remember Mkapa’s oratory in Kiswahili whenever he addressed them as a guest of the State during public holidays. He would start by saluting them “WaKenya Mpo?” and they would roar back tupo Imara.
While serving as Tanzanian Foreign Affairs minister between 1977 and 1980, Mkapa played a key role in encouraging the United Nations sanctions against apartheid South Africa as a punishment for its occupation of Namibia. During his later years, he served as a Trustee of the Aga Khan University from November 2007 until 2012.
His last international assignment was when he represented President Magufuli at the burial of Kenya’s second President Daniel arap Moi in February.
Mkapa was last seen publicly in high spirits on July 11, 2020, during Chama Cha Mapinduzi National Congress in Tanzania’s capital Dodoma where President Magufuli who was also present was fronted as the party’s flag- bearer in the coming elections. Former presidents Jakaya Kikwete and Ali Hassan Mwinyi also attended the meeting.
Continental leaders have eulogised him as a son of Africa, a public servant with a great legacy of public service and integrity.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, African Union Commission Chair, described the late former President as a statesman who will be remembered for his peace efforts in the region.
Uganda’s Opposition kingpin Dr Kizza Besigye described the departed leader as a man on intergrity.
“Mkapa leaves a great legacy of public service with integrity, My heartfelt condolences to the family and Tanzanian people’’, tweeted Besigye.
Kenya’s opposition leader Raila Odinga described the departed diplomat as a great friend of Kenyan people, a pan-Africanist and a global statesman.
“Mkapa believed in Regional integration and championed the revival of the East Africa community. Africa has lost a giant,’’ Raila’s statement read.
A former journalist, Mkapa was both the president and the chairman of the long-ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi. He is survived by three children and spouse Anna Mkapa.
President Magufuli has already declared a seven-day mourning period with flags flying at half-mast.