Benjamin William Mkapa will forever be remembered in East Africa as a peacemaker par excellence. Together with Dr. Kofi Annan and Graça Machel, they pulled Kenya back from the brink when the country suddenly erupted, in the wake of the flawed presidential elections of 2007. Mkapa also made peace between Southern Sudan and Khartoum, as well as in Burundi. The late former Tanzanian president was a consummate diplomat and a warm and delightful human being, who knew how to bring people together.
Mkapa will also live in the memory of many, for years to come, as one of East Africa’s leading philosopher kings. Yet, had he got his way when he was young, Mkapa who has died at 81, would have become a policeman. His father, William Matwani, wanted him to be a priest, however. If not that he should become a doctor or a teacher – in that order. None of this came to pass, although he almost went into priesthood.
His childhood encounter with Benedictine Missionaries in Tanganyika defined his personal ethos, to the very end of his life. His Christian family background and early education, under the keen eye of his mother, Stephania Nambanga, etched in him the personal philosophy of Prayer and Work or, as the missionaries put it, “Ora et Labore.” He always lived by this credo.
The boy who would become the third president of the United Republic of Tanzania was born on 12 November 1938, in South Eastern Tanganyika. His father William was a Catholic catechist. He had previously worked as a cook to the white Roman Catholic missionaries in the Mtwara Region. The future president was given the name Mkapa, being a name from his mother’s side of the family.
In his autobiography titled My Life, My Purpose (2019), the departed Tanzanian leader recalls that his family came from what is today Mozambique. His grandfather crossed the Ruvuma River in search of better land and pastures. This was before Europeans partitioned Africa in 1884. The partition left a part of the family in what is today Mozambique. Theirs was a matriarchal society. Hence his name, Mkapa, came from his mother’s clan in Mozambique.
William Matwani was one of the first Africans to take up Christianity. He doubled up as a catechist and “bush school” teacher, giving little children instructions in basic literacy and numeracy. His own four children got a good education, by the standards of the times, and went on to take up jobs in teaching and in government. Clearly, as a teacher and catechist, Matwani aspired that his last born child, baptized Benjamin William, should walk in his footsteps.
After his seventh grade in school, Mkapa joined the Junior Benedictine Seminary in his home region. He soon discovered, however, that this was not the vocation for him. A month of prayer and reflection saw him seek permission to leave the seminary, to continue pursuing a secular education. It was the start of a journey to greatness and a mission of service to his country and to humankind.
On completion of grade ten at Ndanda School, Mkapa applied to become a sub-inspector of police. His headmaster, a strict parson called Father Gereon Schramm, would hear none of it. He instructed him to carry on with education and even mentioned strange things like “university.” An impressionable Mkapa did not understand much of this, but elected to carry on with school. That was how he joined St. Francis College, Pugu, where he had his first encounter with the man who would be most influential in the rest of his life and career, a charismatic teacher called Julius Kambarage Nyerere.
Nyerere, or Mwalimu as people were calling him, was becoming a phenomenon in Tanganyika. He was busy mobilizing his countrymen and women politically, and talking of self-determination. The year that Mkapa joined St. Francis College (1955), Mwalimu resigned from teaching to work fulltime for the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) that he had recently formed. The few months during which he taught Mkapa English and History at St. Francis, however, flipped on a bulb that would glow in his head for the rest of the decades.
Mkapa never ceased talking of Mwalimu as his mentor and role model. He would later write in his autobiography, “He certainly was the person from whom I learnt the most throughout my working life.” Elsewhere in the same book, he said of Mwalimu’s rebuff of Sadam Hussein in Iraq in 1979, “That was Mwalimu, a principled man. He was my teacher in every sense; when I became president I wouldn’t tolerate such nonsense from anybody.”
The incident in Iraq pertained to a plea, by the Iraqi leader during a state visit to Bagdad, that Nyerere should join him in condemning the United States of America. Mkapa had by this time risen to become Tanzania’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. He had accompanied his president on this visit. His Iraqi counterpart prepared a joint communique that blasted America for “mistreatment of African-Americans.” Sadam had his own axes to grind with the USA. He wanted Nyerere to support him.
The Tanzanian leader did not wish to be sucked into other people’s conflicts. He politely, but firmly, said that he could tell the Americans what he thought of them from his own soil in Dar es Salaam. He did not need to say such things under someone else’s tutelage. The communique and the visit fell through, and Mwalimu returned his delegation to Tanzania.
But it had been a long tour to this moment. When he left St. Francis College in 1957, Mkapa joined the University of East Africa in Makerere, to study History, English and Economics. While in high school, he had already developed strong partiality for English – and especially English Literature. Makerere, East Africa’s foremost hub of learning in its heyday, was however the forge in which he would be ultimately moulded intellectually.
He would later write of his five years in Makerere with fondness and nostalgia. Here, he mingled and locked minds with fellow future notables. John Nagenda, a future journalist like him and a presidential adviser in Uganda, was his classmate. Philip Ndegwa, a future Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya, was in the same class. James Ngugi, later Ngugi wa Thiong’o, arrived in 1959. His iconic literary tour of duty began here, writing three of his outstanding novels in Makerere.
Mkapa was himself active in both literary activities and in student politics. He is featured in Uli Bier’s Origin East Africa alongside other budding East and Central African writers of the 1960s. His poem, “Facing A Volcano,” was a tribute to a Japanese girl he met and liked in his Makerere days. He was also involved with the seminal student literary magazine that was called Penpoint.
The study of literature simply swooned him. He specialized in Thomas Hardy’s writings in his final year, and enjoyed the Sisters Bronte, and the poets Andrew Marvell, Alfred Lord Tennyson and George Gordon (aka Lord Byron). Shakespeare was, however, his ultimate reading. “Oh, I loved his sonnets!” he would write.
It was this grasp of literature and exquisite command of the English idiom that opened doors for him. Even as he was leaving Makerere in 1962, the Aga Khan wanted him to come to Nairobi, to edit his soon-to-be-launched daily newspaper, having declined other positions in the government in Tanzania. The proffer of a job in the foreign service back home, however, saw him turn down the Kenyan journalism job. He would go on to train in diplomacy at the University of Columbia, USA, before coming back to the Foreign Affairs office in Dar es Salaam.
He edged ever so close to his mentor, Mwalimu Nyerere. For, once in Dar, he became a personal assistant to Oscar Kambona, the Minister for External Affairs. He had the opportunity to accompany the minister to meetings with the president, where he would take notes and prepare reports. Meanwhile, because of his grasp of the Queen’s idiom and his rich baritone voice, Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam gave him the opportunity to read news in English, on part time basis.
It was after reading the news one evening that, as he left the studio, he was informed that President Nyerere wanted to see him at his residence in Dar. A panicky Mkapa shortly presented himself before the head of state. He was at once relieved and worried that the president wanted him to head the TANU owned Nationalist Newspapers. He expressed both his willingness and yet feared that he was too green for the job.
Mwalimu, however, sent him to the United Kingdom for training, after which he was ready for the task. It was a mission he undertook with great merit, despite rubbing some government officials the wrong way. One such an instance was a scathing editorial in 1967, in which he questioned the relevance of a high school history syllabus that was still focused on the history and government of a former colonial power.
Regardless, Ben Mkapa continued to edge his way into a special place in Mwalimu’s political heart. After a new stint with the state owned Daily News and Uhuru, he was appointed High Commissioner to Nigeria, in 1976. It was a delicate moment. The Biafra secessionists of Eastern Nigeria had surrendered six years earlier. Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo was in charge. Mkapa, who had detoured from journalism to work as Mwalimu’s Press Secretary, was suddenly catapulted into this job, because relations between Tanzania and Nigeria were frosty. Tanzania had recognized the secessionist Biafra and it was now time to mend fences.
Nyerere is reported to have told Mkapa, “I need someone there, who can speak English well, who knows diplomacy, who is educated and can compete with those fellows. I have decided you should go.” It was, however, a very brief mission. For, without permission from his seniors at the ministry, Mkapa travelled to Dar from Lagos, after only three months in Lagos, to witness the merger of TANU and Afro Shirazi parties. His seniors were not amused. Yet the one person who was happy about this sudden return was Nyerere. He summoned him to State House and announced that he was henceforth the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
He will be remembered as Tanzania’s foreign minister when Gen. Idi Amin of Uganda invaded Tanzania in 1978 and when Tanzania ejected Amin out of Uganda in 1979. The Ugandan leader was unhappy that Tanzania had given refuge to Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni. The two had, moreover, unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow Amin in 1972. This man, who called himself “the Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas, Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular,” invaded Tanzania in 1978, in retaliation.
Mkapa had the onerous task of explaining to foreign diplomats in Tanzania, and to regional governments, why Tanzania must go to war with Uganda. Moreover, even after reclaiming the Kagera region that Amin had annexed, it was necessary to pursue him all the way to Kampala and beyond. The rationale was that Amin had threatened genocide against his own people who had celebrated the regaining of Kagera by Tanzania. His record was terrible. He was not beyond this lowly act. And so he was chased out of power.
Mkapa recalls the suspicions in the region. The neighbours in Kenya, Malawi, Zaire, Rwanda and Burundi, all feared that Tanzania was on an expansionist mission. Mkapa visited heads of state to explain that their mission had only been to reclaim their territory. Yet they also had the cause, the ability and the desire to bring about regime change in Kampala, to end the slaughter that characterized the Amin regime.
It was not that easy, however. Mkapa recalled that at the Moshi meeting where the Ugandans were urged to take charge of their affairs in April 1979, it was not easy to get them to agree. “Museveni wasn’t easy to deal with,” he wrote, “but eventually he had to agree.” Uganda would remain in turmoil for some seven more years, until when Museveni’s National Resistance Movement captured Kampala in October 1986, following a series of coups des tat.
The world was meanwhile changing, everywhere. Communism was collapsing in the Soviet Union and socialism with it, too, in diverse parts of the world. Mwalimu Nyerere voluntarily stepped down from office in 1985 and paved the way for a new tradition of succession in the highest office in Tanzania. The central committee of his party rejected his preferred candidate, Dr. Salim Salim, and instead chose Ali Hassan Mwinyi.
Ten years later, in 1995, Mkapa threw his hat in the presidential ring. First, he had to contend with internal competition, where he beat Cleopa Msuya and Jakaya Kikwete for the CCM ticket. He then went on to beat Augustino Murema, Ibrahim Lipumba and John Cheyo in the presidential election with a 61 percent landslide.
His ten year rule will be remembered as a season of unparalleled diplomatic gain and growth in the East African region. Cooperation between the three East African countries of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda reached levels never enjoyed before. The jewel in the crown was the restoration of the East African Community in 1999, which has since expanded to include Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.
The earlier community, before its demise in 1977, had been ruled with mutual suspicion among members. Now Presidents Museveni, Daniel Arap Moi and Mkapa were even talking of the possibility of a common currency and even the possibility of a political confederacy. As East Africa bids farewell to the fallen giant of regional cooperation and peacemaking, the challenge remains for the present leaders and those who will come after them, to realize the Mkapa-Moi-Museveni dream for East Africa. The present leadership has tended to be too far inward looking, with the possibility that the dream could miscarry.
Ben Mkapa will also be remembered as the person who pulled the Tanzanian economy from the doldrums. He restored the faith of the Bretton Woods institutions and the Paris Club in his country and got them to restore badly needed financial cooperation that placed his country’s economy on the road to reform and stability. Above all, he was a noble and affable individual who brought warmth in the room, once he walked in. His hearty African laughter was infectious.
He brought these qualities to the think tank effort that saw Tanzania become the leader of the Frontline states that fought against Apartheid and minority rule in South Africa and Namibia.
This writer had the rare privilege of sitting with him in Arusha in 1998, for two hours, as a part of a small team of sixteen East African professionals, to receive guidance from him on strengthening indigenous publishing in East Africa. He was amazingly gifted with eloquent insight, friendliness and humility. When a part of his country erupted in 2001, he was honest enough to accept responsibility and to apologize.
Mkapa has left behind a family beyond that which he bought up with his wife Mama Anna Mkapa, whom he met as a young civil servant in the foreign ministry. They will all miss him. The challenge is, meanwhile, up to those in power and those who come after him to carry the virtues he embodied into the future. Tanzania today shows worrying signs of reversal and negation of the gains of yesteryear. But it’s never too late. Maybe they can begin the journey afresh, in honour of their fallen heroes.