Mkapa’s memoirs: A tribute to Nyerere 

Source: Mkapa’s memoirs: A tribute to Nyerere | The Herald December 23, 2019

Mkapa’s memoirs: A tribute to NyerereBenjamin Mkapa

Mukundi Mutasa Correspondent
It is the afternoon of November 10, 2019, and I am sitting on a Zanzibar beach with my cousin, Garikai.

Garikai and I come a long way, and share the same passion for English Premiership side, Liverpool Football Club. This passion has passed the test of time, three decades to be precise, since Liverpool last won the league title in 1990.

On this particular afternoon, we discuss anything but football. Our thoughts digress a bit to Tanzanian politics and lives of the general populace.

“They regard Nyerere as a prophet; they revere him,” Garikai said.

Little did Garikai know that in my camera bag was one of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s anthologies,

“Freedom and Liberation: A Selection of Speeches, 1974-1999”, a great book. That is, however, a story for another day.

Two days later, one of Nyerere’s students and a former president of the United Republic of Tanzania, Benjamin William Mkapa, launched his memoir in Dar es Salaam.

The book, titled “My Life, My Purpose: A Tanzanian President Remembers”, entrenches Garikai’s sentiments about how Tanzanians’ regard Nyerere’s legacy.

“Mwalimu was an extraordinary man, he was a God-given gift to us,” wrote Mkapa, with great respect.

Mkapa was born on November 12, 1938 in Lupaso Village of Mtwara Region near the border between Tanzania and Mozambique, and his humble formative years probably toughened him for his future role sitting in the country’s highest office.

Launched on his 81st birthday, the book recounts Mkapa’s childhood memories during which his catechist father, William Matwani, professed his strong desire for his last born, Benjamin, “to become a priest, failing that a doctor or a teacher”.

How thrilled William Senior was when his loved son enrolled in the Benedictine Seminary in 1957 to start a journey that was supposed to make him a proud father, only to be crushed when the same son dropped out of the seminary before qualifying.

He studied at St Francis School, Pugu, on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, which was famous at that time for having one indigenous teacher by the name of Julius Nyerere, whose affectionate title of Mwalimu (Teacher) was appended to his name at Pugu.

Neither did Mkapa become a doctor nor a teacher as per his father’s wishes. Rather, he ended up joining public service, first as a Foreign Service officer in 1963 and then editor of the party newspaper, The Nationalist, rising through the ranks to become Press secretary to the president and a Cabinet minister in Nyerere’s administration, and later the first president elected under the multi-party system in Tanzania.

While he did not live up to his father’s desires, he is confident that his father died a proud man, especially having seen his son being appointed minister by Mwalimu.

He was, however, disappointed that his parents died before he rose to the highest political echelon in the country, for they would have been proud of their son’s achievements.

Mkapa, whose political journey started when Nyerere appointed him as his Press secretary in 1974, refers to the influence he got from Nyerere several times in the book, to a point that it almost becomes more a book about Nyerere than about Mkapa.

“Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was undoubtedly the greatest influence on my personal growth as a leader and on my career,” Mkapa said of his mentor, adding that “he was my teacher in every sense.”

One of the lessons that Mkapa learnt from the founding president of Tanzania was the ability to listen.

He says: “I definitely owe an immense debt to Mwalimu for teaching me the importance of listening.”

Mkapa was not the only one who felt the effect of Nyerere on the country.

“It is difficult to convey the effect and power of Mwalimu over Tanzanians; people held him with such great respect,” wrote Mkapa in his memoir.

“His instructions (were) carried out almost unquestioningly,” said Mkapa, adding that Nyerere “was head and shoulders above everyone”.

When Mkapa assumed the presidency on November 23, 1995, he inherited a country whose economy was in difficulty, and his Chief Secretary, Matern Lumbanga, gave him the shocking news a day after his inauguration.

“The economy was in shambles,” he says. “Had I known this beforehand I am not sure I would have sought nomination.”

Faced with this enormous challenge, Mkapa instituted a raft of economic reforms, a number of them not popular within the country and beyond, earning the journalist-cum-president the nickname Mzee Ukapa, drawn from Kiswahili phrase “anakula ukapa” meaning “you have nothing”.

Interestingly, he also became known as “Mr Clean” for his relentless efforts to rid the country of the vice called corruption.

For his efforts, he left office a proud man, having overseen government revenue rising from just over US$612 000 when he became president in 1995 to about US$1,8 million when he left office in December 2005.

Mkapa was also instrumental in driving Tanzania’s foreign policy, having served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under both Nyerere and Ali Hassan Mwinyi.

He recalls that, although Tanzania’s role in the liberation of most Southern African countries has been widely written about, this was not an easy feat at all.

He also lifts the lid on the difficulties of mediation, having mediated in the deadly 2007 Kenyan post-election conflict and the 2008 negotiations to bring an end to the skirmishes in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

On power-sharing in Kenya, the negotiations were “not easy for both parties to agree upon, particularly as each side wanted exclusive power”, Mkapa said of the two formations behind presidential contestants Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki.

The DRC mediation efforts were not easy either, and he does not mince his words about the difficulties encountered.

“We found it impossible to deal with the ragtag political parties,” Mkapa wrote.

“They would sign agreements and agree on repatriations, then within weeks they were quarrelling about what the signed agreement meant.”

Regardless of these difficulties, Mkapa remains proud of how he sustained Tanzania’s profile on the international scene, largely as a peacemaker.

Perhaps the only anomaly one can say about Mkapa’s memoir is the absence of a postscript, which would have taken care of the developments that happened between the date of submission of his manuscript, and its final publishing in November 2019.

For example, the book gives the reader a sense that the late Robert Mugabe is still Zimbabwe’s president, and that Jacob Zuma remains at the helm in South Africa.

Barring that, the book is a good read that gives readers an understanding of Tanzania’s socialist past; the country’s role in the liberation of Southern Africa and its neighbour Uganda, and the economic costs paid from such interventions; its involvement in mediation efforts in the region; and emphasis on national self-reliance as a measure of development.

The inspiration to write came about having realised that “more has been written about our nation by foreigners than by Tanzanians”,  Mkapa says.

The memoir was published by Mkuki na Nyota Publishers and Uongozi Institute based in Dar es Salaam.—


Mukundi Mutasa writes in his personal capacity.