OPINION: Benjamin Mkapa: A Tanzanian, Ugandan and Kenyan story

Thursday November 14 2019

Charles Onyango-Obbo

Charles Onyango-Obbo 

There was news this week from Tanzania that wasn’t about President John Magufuli’s pursuits – Benjamin Mkapa, who was president between 1995 and 2005.

Mkapa just published his autobiography My Life, My Purpose. I can’t wait to lay my hands on it. The Citizen reports that in it, he says one of his biggest regrets is that he allowed himself to be persuaded into setting up an external debt payments account, and failing to prevent Sh133 billion ($58 million) from being stolen through it.

It’s admirable that Mkapa has done the book. I first heard of the book project from Mkapa himself at a Nation Media Group (NMG) event in Nairobi in 2008.

It was a kind of vigil over expensive food. Mkapa was one of the members of the Kofi Annan team that was negotiating a settlement following Kenya’s worst post-election violence in late 2007 and late early 2008.

As it became clear that the Annan team had made a breakthrough with the belligerents, a sense of relief and gratitude begun to sweep through Kenya’s corporate family corridors. Mr Linus Gitahi, then Group CEO of NMG, was particularly elated.

He threw a small feast to toast Annan and his team. Annan came to the dinner with Mkapa. I sat next to Mkapa.


It was an insightful and eye-opening two hours or so, in part because before that I was quite ambivalent and suspicious of Mkapa.

Though he had himself been a journalist, his treatment of the media as president wasn’t exemplary.

It was a side of Mkapa that, as a young Ugandan idealist, came as a surprise. Mkapa was Tanzania’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1977 to 1980 and again from 1984 to 1990.

It was in his first stint that he did something for which he became a key figure for a generation of Ugandans .

In 1978 Uganda’s military dictator Field Marshal Idi Amin had invaded and briefly occupied part of Kagera Region. Later in the same year, the Tanzanians struck back, and by April 1979, together with a motley of Ugandan exile dissident groups, kicked Amin out of power.

Those Ugandan groups were organised in an umbrella political organisation called the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF). They were formed at what famously became known as the Moshi Unity Conference in March 1979 in the northern Tanzanian town of Moshi.

The Ugandans famously feuded and squabbled, but stories, participants, news reports and books on the goings-on generally agree that without Mkapa, acting as Nyerere’s point man, the Moshi conference would have been a flop. Mkapa also did global diplomacy to win support for the UNLF.

Progressive elements in UNLF also credited him with putting his finger on the scale, and tilting the balance of power inside the organisation in their favour.

This rosy picture of Mkapa, a graduate of Makerere University no less, started to fade when he became president. Sometime in early 2005, my view started to mellow.

Mkapa was a member of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s quite influential Commission on Africa.

At a media event in London, during a coffee break, a group of us from East Africa caught up with Mkapa. He had a big leather bag, which he insisted on carrying around himself.

He went and poured himself coffee, and joined a group. He clutched the bag between his legs. Mkapa is not the tallest man in town, so that image of him with coffee and bag between his legs was almost cute. We chatted, and he was notably amiable.

Then that February 2008 night one would have thought he would talk about the peace talks. No. He had watched the series The Making of a Nation on NTV that was co-produced with veteran Kenya journalist Hilary Ng’weno.

He bemoaned the fact that Tanzania didn’t have the video records that would enable a similar series, but mostly focused on how a country that didn’t have a store of such memories, and didn’t tell its stories, would never find itself.

He said he was doing his bit, and was writing a book about his time in Tanzanian leadership at various levels.

It’s 11 years later. To paraphrase from Timothy 4:7, we can only say that the man has fought the good fight, he’s finished the race, and has kept the faith.