Workers’, students’ strikes a pain in the neck: Mwinyi

Saturday May 15 2021
Mwinyi pic

Guests attend the launching of the memoir ‘Mzee Rukhsa: Safari ya Maisha Yangu’ by retired President Ali Hassan Mwinyi at the Julius Nyerere International Conference Centre in Dar es Salaam on May 8, 2021. PHOTO | STATE HOUSE

By Jacob Mosenda

Dar es Salaam. Leading a country is not like a walk in the park. This is what the second-phase President Ali Hassan Mwinyi avers in his memoir as he recalls how workers’ and students’ strikes gave him sleepless nights at times.

In the memoir: ‘Mzee Rukhsa: Safari ya Maisha Yangu’ - roughly ki-Swahili for ‘Old Man Rukhsa: the Journey of My Life’ - he says workers’ movements in the country have a long history, with 1955 being the key date when The Tanganyika Federation of Labour (TFL) and the Seamen’s Union of Zanzibar were established.

Their common enemy, according to him, were Colonialism and the Sultanate.

“After independence, what had united (the common enemy) TFL and TANU - that is: to fight colonialism - ceased to exist, and by 1962 there had already been 152 labour strikes,” he narrates.

After the merger of Tanu and Afro-Shiraz Party to form Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) in 1977 under the single political party system, Mzee Mwinyi writes, Tanzania Mainland and Zanzibar formed a trade union, ‘Jumuiya ya Wafanyakazi Tanzania’ (Juwata) - ki-Swahili for Tanzania Workers Union - as a CCM Wing.

However, the situation - ‘Mzee Rukhsa’ says - did not meet the international standards of independent trade unions and the workers began demanding independent unions.


He explains that after a long misunderstanding in which Juwata continued to demand independence from CCM, in 1990 (when he was President) Juwata was renamed the Organization of Tanzania Trade Unions (OTTU) which had its own constitution.

However, he says, later OTTU which welcomed the other 11 trade unions under its jurisdiction, by 1995 the unions formed their own union called the Tanzania Federation of Free Trade Unions (TFTU) where the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania (TUCTA) was later born having required international criteria. He explains that as in other areas, his term of office was transitional, based on the concept of “rukhsa”, to loosen certain policies and lead Tanzanians to greater economic, political and social freedoms.

He says in giving that freedom, he thought at the time, and he continues to think so, that they did a good thing of expanding the rights and freedoms of citizens, including workers.

“But in doing so, we were also opening the door for opposition political parties to harass us. Even less than two years after the establishment of OTTU, they called a strike on March 1 to 3, 1994, and before that they had supported the massive teachers’ strike in January 1994,” recalls Mzee Mwinyi.

“Generally I started very well with the unions, but I came to a very bad end with them,” he writes.

One of the things that hurt him most about the workers at the beginning of his tenure was what came to be called the Kilombero Massacre. He says in July 1986, about 500 workers at the Kilombero sugarcane field went on strike claiming that their pay was being reduced.

“They refused to go to work and instead surrounded the office and prevented company officials from entering. In the ensuing commotion, stones were thrown and the windshield of one leader’s car got shattered. Tanzania Police Field Force Unit (FFU) officers tried to quell the riots with tear gas and when they saw the situation worsening they fired live bullets, leaving four people dead and 16 others seriously injured,” he recounts.

Overall, he says, his second term in office, 1990-1995, was marred by tensions and pressure between the government and trade unions.

“Some of them really annoyed me, including the teachers. It is true that teachers had their grievances deserving of explanation or action from the government, but I still do not believe that what they decided to do was the right way to take care of the interests of the country and the students.

In his 491-page memoir, Mwinyi explains that the Tanzania Teachers Association was formed in 1993 and before the end of the year, they wrote him a letter saying they really wanted to meet him, although their letter reached the State House when he (Mwinyi) was on a trip abroad, so seeing no response, the teachers called for a strike.

“When I returned and found the situation I called the leaders to my office on December 8, 1993 to talk and they threatened to call an endless teachers’ strike if their demands were not met,” he writes.

He says the demands - which they called ‘Pan-African Tanzania Teachers Demands’ - were rife with many unenforceable issues, including claims per teacher of Sh60,000 per month as food allowance, Sh60,000 travel allowance, Sh60,000 housing allowance, Sh60 , 000 medical allowances and many other claims.

“In those days, this was a lot of money. At that time one US dollar was worth Sh450, so by today’s standards, the four allowances, which amounted to Sh240,000 per month, would have been Sh1.19 million in allowances only,” Mzee Mwinyi says.

In terms of salaries, the teachers demanded new rates and benefits ranging from Sh540,000 to Sh1.02 million for the same period per month.

“We did the calculation. The claim, apart from the allowances, for a total of one year was equal to the total government expenditure for three years…,” Mzee Rukhsa explains. He also acknowledges that some of the teachers’ claims in their letter to him were legitimate and had to be dealt with by the government before it could lead to a major crisis. One was the delayed salaries.

“I reassured the teachers that they are like other people with a lot of human needs, and therefore they must get their salaries at the same time as other employees are paid,” he says.

After the talks, Mwinyi says he thought they had understood each other, but the teachers went ahead to organize a strike that began in January 1994 in Dar es Salaam before escalating to other regions.

“In such a situation, I had to use the police to control the protests and rallies as well as to suspend some of the 318 strike-leaders, and to detain others. After the situation had calmed down and a compromise had been reached, they were released and those suspended returned to work,” writes Mr Mwinyi. Less than two months later, he writes, OTTU also called for a nationwide strike on March 1-3, 1994.

“They wanted us to increase the minimum wage from Sh5,000 to Sh45,000 a month, an increase of 900 percent,” he explains.

“Do good deeds and do not wait for thanks”, Mzee Mwinyi remembers the saying as how the workers thanked him with nonstop strikes even after he expanded the boundaries of their freedom to form independent trade unions.

“Anyone with good intentions will agree with me that in the then economic climate it was not possible to meet the demand for additional workers’ salaries and benefits.

“They (workers) saw that I only had a bad spirit, which is not my character at all. They hated me so much that they did not invite me at their next year’s labour celebrations,” he says. Another strike he remembers is the one that was initiated by students of the University of Dar es Salaam where at the beginning of May 1990 there was a lot of violence at ‘The Hill.’ Here, he says, the students went on strike for their own reasons and they went on to even insult him (Mwinyi) and his government.

“The students really disrespected me… On May 12, 1990 I had to close the institution - and reopened it in January 1991. I returned some of the expelled students to complete their studies. However, 13 students were not allowed to return after being identified as leaders of the strikes…,” Mzee Mwinyi explains in his autobiography.