Mkapa was a philosopher king and model kingmaker


The passing on of Tanzania’s third president, Benjamin Mkapa, invites us to reflect not just on East Africa’s fallen hero, but also on the role that his country has played in the region and the rest of Africa. Mkapa leaves behind a full catalogue of solid personal achievements. He was an outstanding statesman, a diplomat and peacemaker, and an ace journalist in the age of Ujamaa. 

As a statesman, he will be remembered as the person who built the infrastructure for liberalisation of his country’s political economy after the return of multiparty democracy. Tanzania restored political pluralism in 1992. Mkapa became the first president under the new dispensation in 1995. He soon stood out as a towering figure in the region.  

He worked with Presidents Daniel arap Moi and Yoweri Museveni to restore the East African Community in 1999. He made peace in troubled Southern Sudan, Burundi and in Kenya. A pleasant and eloquent public intellectual, President Mkapa will be remembered at once as a philosopher king and a kingmaker. 

Like Plato’s philosopher kings, Mkapa presided over his country during his tenure and left graciously when the time came. He handed to his successor a solid and united nation and pursued other dignified tours of duty. The Pemba crises of January 2001 left a scar on his career, a scar which he was honest to admit and regret in public. Whence comment such another?  

As East Africa mourns, it must be reminded that Tanzania reflects, at the same time, some of Africa’s finest hopes and attributes, as well as some of the continent’s worst fears. Those privileged to ascend to the throne of Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere have an onerous task. They are challenged to tip the balance towards hope, in a continental sea of hopelessness. 

Admirable role

Tanzania evokes memories of the African liberation movements of the 1960s and the 70s. It is especially impossible to speak of the liberation of Southern Africa without the hugely admirable role that Tanzania played under Mwalimu Nyerere. Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and South Africa owe so much to Nyerere and Tanzania. When others cuddled the erogenous zones of Apartheid and neocolonialism, Tanzania stood firm against both minority rule and colonialism in Africa.  

The liberation of Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Principe, and the end of the White supremacist rule in Rhodesia, under Ian Smith, resulted in part from the energy of East Africa’s philosopher kings in Dar es Salaam. At the heart of this philosophy were the twin notions of self-determination and self-reliance. Mwalimu Nyerere and his understudies saw everything through this prism. Each piece of their efforts had to fit in the philosophy. They incarnated this philosophy in the practice of Ujamaa – literally personhood. And Mwalimu regularly stated on Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam, “Ujamaa ni utu.” Ujamaa was about being humane. As young people in high school and college, we idolised and idealised the philosopher and his philosophy. We were especially swooned by the oxymoron of his scathing humility.  

A man of humble disposition and mild manners, Mwalimu was in his element when lampooning those who stood only for their appetites. “Wana tabia za kimalaya-malaya,” he would say. He saw them in the imagery of commercial sex workers. In the fullness of time, we have come to appreciate that indeed, Africa is full of political commercial sex workers. They stand for nothing, believe in nothing and hold nothing sacrosanct, except their appetites. 

Africa’s worst fears

Such are the lessons from Tanzania’s founding president and his students. And Ben Mkapa took them well. Like Mwalimu, he retired without a whiff of scandal around him, or those close to him.

Like Mwalimu, he was also quick to admit when he thought he had failed. And like Mwalimu, he held together a country with more than 100 tribes. He has gone at a time when the successor to his successor is preparing to defend his presidency at an October election. 

But Tanzania is not a paradise. As I have said, it embodies some of Africa’s worst fears. President John Pombe Magufuli possibly captures the essence of Mwalimu Nyerere’s final vision for Tanzania best. He dreams of a functional working nation. His work ethic is second to none. Like Mwalimu, he can fold his sleeves and work with his hands. 

President Magufuli is especially impatient with the corrupt. He is also firmly against wastefulness and joy riding in the public service. Unlike many post-colonial African leaders, Magufuli places the people first. It looks rather obvious that the people are going to give him a resounding nod for a second term at the October election. Some have even talked of a third term, which would call for changing the country’s constitution first. Calls for a third term, however, have the earie echo of the African political strongman. These are the people who are so “smart”, that their countries cannot do without them.

Tanzania must run away from this kind of backward thinking. Equally, there has been a tendency to be overbearing. The present regime has been especially hard on the media, on civil society and on the political opposition.  

The war against corruption, for example, requires all hands on the deck. The tendency in Dar es Salaam has been to demonise alternative voices outside government. The clampdown on the media and civil society is worrying. Dar es Salaam needs to find avenues for partnership with these alternative voices, instead of demonising them. Tanzania must remain the shining citadel of freedom and liberation. 

The writer is a strategic public communications adviser.

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