Benjamin Mkapa was a skillful diplomat

Saturday July 30 2022
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President Mkapa confers with Tanzania's current Foreign Affairs minister Liberata Mulamula during the Burundi talks. Ambassador Kapya was also part of the process, he is seen in the back row holding papers. COURTESY

By David Kapya

I joined the foreign office in 1972 fresh from University of Dar es Salaam and since then I worked at different missions with my first stint being at the embassy in Addis Ababa where I worked with Paul Rupia. 

Despite having trained in Paris for two years, Addis may be was another turning point because it was a school of diplomacy in its own right, because it was where one learnt the art of diplomacy because of the interactions with the international diplomats.

This interaction broadened my scope and sharpened my skills in the diplomatic arena, however, after that stint I later went on secondment with the UNHCR.

At that time Salim Ahmed Salim was the Minister of Foreign Affairs and he got the nod to release me from President Nyerere.

Our paths with Benjamin Mkapa crossed in 1975, I had just returned from France and he was foreign minister and we worked very closely including going on several missions across Africa and beyond.

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In those early days, he played a great role in sharpening my skills because he was a very adept and skillful diplomat himself, I was rather fortunate to have learnt so much from him at that early age.

And as we all know when you are young you tend to emulate what the elder brother is doing especially when it is positive.

In early 1995, I was stationed in Mozambique with the UN and Mr Mkapa came to Maputo by then he was minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, at that point Tanzania was preparing for the first ever elections since the return of multi-party elections.

In the conversation that ensued later after he was done with his assignment, I asked him to come home for dinner so that we can talk and plan for November. My main interest at the time was for him to go back to the foreign ministry to put things right because we believed that the ministry was not what it once was.

“Once the elections are over, let’s hope the new president will give you back your ministry,” I told him.

Little did I know that he was also aspiring to run for the presidency of the United Republic of Tanzania, to me this was also an art of some kind by keeping certain things secret until the right moment when he could divulge.

But even after he had been nominated by his party (CCM) to become the flag bearer in the October General Election, he remained the calm and simple person that I had worked with for over two decades.

In my own personal assessment, I was indeed confident that he would make it in that election and even when I visited him, I had the guts to say it to him that from the look of things, he was going to be the next president.

After he was sworn-in as Tanzania’s third President, his focus was mainly on strengthening the economy which was making a transition into the market economy and as a result, he instituted many things that has kept Tanzania on her feet to date.

This was not a simple task, because to change the mindset from Ujamaa to liberalised economy required understanding and tact on how navigate the waves at the time. This was gigantic task!

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President Mkapa with Nigeria's Olesegun Obasanjo during the Congo peace negotiations which resulted into the March 23, 2009 agreement in Nairobi between the warring parties in Eastern Congo (DR). Ambassador Kapya is seen in the background second from left.

As a diplomat locally and internationally Mkapa was a respected gentleman because of his capacity, stature and ability to handle sensitive issues and that is why after retirement he was given the task alongside Kofi Anan to sort out the 2007 Kenyan post-election mess.

We thank God that the team which was composed of high profile diplomats such as Kofi Anan, Graca Machel, and President Jakaya Kikwete to avert further violence after an election that certain sections believed it was stolen.

Immediately after that task which I was part of as well, the AU, EAC and ICJLR asked him to be their special envoy to team up with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to form a joint team to deal with another mess in Eastern Congo.

The team under Mkapa shuttled between Goma and Nairobi until the Goma agreement which was signed on March 23, 2009 in Nairobi.

 In my assessment, this was a beautiful document which if the government in Kinshasa (DRC) would have adhered to then they would have achieved so much but instead Joseph Kabila’s administration reneged on its implementation.

As a result the ‘M23 boys’ said they were going back to the bush and adopting the name M23 which was the date when the agreement was signed.

Although not much was achieved out of that accord, the credit remains with the two statesmen Obasanjo and Mkapa, whose work to salvage Congo out of that darkness cannot go unnoticed.

But that was not the last time that he would negotiate settlements because he went on to do Burundi and later the South Sudan referendum.

For the 12 years that I spent with him after retirement, he always exuded commitment and desire to see peaceful settlements because as a retired head of state he could have chosen to rest in the comfort of his home and read books.

It is that same desire that saw him, probably against the expectation of many go into the dock on May 5, 2011 to defend Prof Mahalu over the events that had transpired in our embassy in Rome, Italy.

Prof Mahalu had been arraigned in January 2006 along with a former counsellor at the Rome embassy, Ms Grace Martin, on charges of conspiracy to steal from the government. Defence lawyers filed Mr Mkapa's sworn affidavit at the Kisutu Resident Magistrate's Court