Benjamin Mkapa: A Tanzanian, Ugandan and Kenyan story

Wednesday November 13 2019

President Yoweri Museveni (right) meets with former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa on June 20, 2016. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


There was news this week from Tanzania that wasn’t about President John Magufuli’s Quixotic and ham-fisted pursuits but 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, Mr Mkapa 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 Tsh133 billion ($58 million) to be 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.

Then, Mkapa was among the members of the Kofi Annan-led 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 began to sweep through Kenya’s corporate and family corridors.

Linus Gitahi, the then-group CEO of NMG, was particularly elated. He threw a small feast to toast to 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 wasn’t exemplary. It was a side of Mkapa that, as a young Ugandan idealist, came as a surprise.

Mkapa was Tanzania’s Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1977 to 1980 and again from 1984 to 1990. It was during his first stint in the portfolio 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 the 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).

The groups were formed at what famously became known as the Moshi Unity Conference, in the northern Tanzanian town of Moshi, in March 1979.


The Ugandans famously feuded and squabbled, but stories participants, news reports and books on the goings-on generally agree on is that, without Mkapa, acting as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s pointman, 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, hence, 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 former 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 then 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 talked about the peace talks. No. He had watched the series, The Making of a Nation, on NTV that was co-produced with veteran Kenyan 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.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site @cobbo3