Benjamin Mkapa: Unique legacy

Saturday July 25 2020

 

By Bernard James bjames@tz.nationmedia.com

Dar es Salaam. For those who worked closely with him, he was remarkably polite and gentle, yet quite a serious and thoughtful person.

He did things not to please people but to fulfil his constitutional duties, through firm decisions, regardless of the consequences. He was not a populist who sought to please the gallery, but was prepared to annoy people or lose friends if that was the price to pay for the interest of the country he led.

 That was the man he was - Benjamin William Mkapa. His passing away, shortly after midnight on Friday, has shocked the nation as people struggled to come to terms with the news. He was a great and unique leader, former journalist, ambassador and distinguished diplomat who until few days ago is said to have been in good health and spirit. “Fellow Tanzanians, with great sorrow, a great loss has befell the nation. The third president Benjamin Mkapa, has died at a hospital in Dar es Salaam where he was admitted. I ask fellow Tanzanians to accept this and continue to pray for our elder…Mzee Mkapa is no longer with us,” said a visibly emotional and sombre President John Magufuli during a midnight live televised announcement.

When Mkapa was fronted by CCM to vie for presidency in 1995 during Tanzania’s first multiparty elections, many people were uncertain of his capability to steer the nation weighed down by high level corruption, incompetency and negligence in the public service machinery and a huge debt. At that time, the annual inflation rate of 40 percent, high unemployment and privatization of industries were a headache. But Mkapa’s record in public service had struck a chord with Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the master of Tanzania politics who took an active role in campaigning on behalf of Mr Mkapa. Mr Mkapa who had worked closely with President Nyerere and had been an active Tanu and later CCM member for much of his adult life, was finally elected President

On taking over the country from President Ali Hassan Mwinyi, President Mkapa drew his plan that would enable him institute major economic and institutional reforms that put Tanzania in a new status.

He read and understood where Tanzania was from an economic point of view, rolled out his plans and managed to turn the situation around at great cost.

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“Initially many people didn’t understand the tough decisions he took that made life a bit difficult but after sometime things started to change for the better. Our shilling gained value and the economy started to move forward,” says the managing director of Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, Walter Bgoya, a close friend of Mr Mkapa for many year.

Mr Mkapa is credited for initiating fundamental institutional changes in Tanzania’s governance system that saw many government institutions and agencies over-hauled and given more autonomy. He imposed austerity and overhauled the public serviced machinery.

He was frustrated by persistent overdependence of his country in financing major road network and set mechanism to finance the agency so that it can successfully manage trunk and regional roads. His favorite maxim, ‘Ukweli na Uwazi (truth and transparency) became a household phrase in Tanzania. It was during his tenure that budgets and financial reports of local government authorities begun to be published to promote transparency and accountability of public servants.

 The public service was one of his preoccupation. When he took office, the civil service machinery was in bad state.

 It was marred by unprofessionalism, negligence and incompetence that forced Mr Mkapa to initiate fundamental reforms by demanding accountability and battled lack of skills and improved salaries. He involved development partners in implementing public service reforms.

 He wanted people be employed in civil service on merit and that all jobs occupied by capable people. He discouraged autocracy.

 His government developed a medium-term strategy for public service reform that aimed to establish quality public services by improving the structure and level of civil service wages.

 This was to be achieved by rationalisation of the structure and functions of the government, including the establishment of additional quasi-autonomous executive agencies and transfer task to local government.

 The year he became president, Tanzania had a $7 billion foreign debt, and development partners had withheld $40 million pending a government crackdown on tax evasion that had cost Tanzania $100 million in revenue.

Since then, he worked relentlessly to have rich developed countries to offer debt relief for Tanzania and other poor African countries. Within no time, Tanzania qualified for the debt relief scheme under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative.

 During his time, Tanzania also made significant progress in structural reforms. More than half of the more than 400 public sector entities identified for privatization in 1993 had been divested by June 1999.

 Although, president Mkapa himself was heavily criticized for a failed privatisation policy and later admitted in his biography he published in early this year, the international community and experts still credit him for making that decision which they say was inevitable.

In June 2016, he publicly admit-ted that failing to monitor previously state-owned enterprises after they were privatized was one of the biggest regrets of his presidency.

“Privatization was necessary at that time, parastatals were making loses, his idea was to make them make profit. It was inevitable, it happened worldwide, so the private sector was invited to play a role in rescuing these institutions,” says Mr Bgoya.

 Respected senior public servant, Patrick Rutabanzibwa (rtd) who happened to work with Mr Mkapa for many years described him as a “very intelligent man” whose record in public service was known since early days of his public service.

 “I remember him as very diligent. The first time I met him was 1997 at State House where we discussed issues pertaining to the mining sector, oil and gas. I saw him in cabinet. He was always good at solving problems. He was ready to draw experience from the inter-national arena because he knew Tanzania was not an island. He had the ability to solve problems as it comes with the resources he had. Mr Rutabanzibwa is worried that some people have become hostile and seems to destroy president Mkapa’s great legacy. “The six to seven percent economic growth rate started during his time when he set up systems that would propel our economy,” he said.