Servant leadership extraordinaire

BY JACOB OKETCH

The memoir of the late Tanzanian President Benjamin William Mkapa, My Life, My purpose, is a gripping read and unputdownable. I have read many memoirs but this one stands above the others. It is not hard to see why this book is a good read. The narration skills of the fallen leader are top notch. It is instructive to note that Mkapa was an English major at Makerere University and so his command of the language is beyond reproach.

Mkapa came from a humble background having grown up in a village close to the border of Tanzania and Mozambique. Though his father was working with the Catholic Church as a catechist, he faced the everyday struggles of a village boy. He grew up in an era where even seeing a motor vehicle was quite something to marvel about. He used to walk a distance of 60 kilometers to get to school and barefoot for that matter.Indeed, his rise to the very top of Tanzanian politics is nothing but remarkable.

One major influence in Mkapa’s career in public service is none other than the founding President Dr Julius Nyerere whom he refers to as Mwalimu, a Swahili word that means teacher. Nyerere was initially a teacher before resigning to manage the affairs of Tanzania African National Unity (TANU). Mkapa was plucked from Foreign Service by the founding President to manage the ruling party’s newspapers. Later on, he served as the press secretary of the President. He also served as the high commissioner to Nigeria before being appointed the minister for foreign affairs, a post that he served in twice.

Mkapa’s presidency is important to Tanzanians because it is during his era that wide ranging institutional reforms were carried out. Privatization of most of Tanzania’s institutions happened under his watch. He steered the country into a free market economy in a country, which is largely known for her social leanings. In fact, there is a section of Tanzanians who felt that Mkapa was going against the wishes of the founding father. But he defends himself by saying that reform was the reasonable thing to do because of the dictates of the global economic dynamics. He however insists that the Arusha declaration that sets the trajectory of the nation’s social, economic and political growth is relevant today just as it was in the early days.

The late President’s reign is characterized by an element of simplicity that is rare in most African leaders. He was known to loath ostentation of any kind. For instance, he rejected the notion that his portrait be put on the currency. He also refused to use the honorific “His Excellency”, to refer to him while serving as President. Most African presidents amass wealth during their time of service and most of it is from corrupt activities. It is humbling to note that Mkapa had to take a bank loan, towards the end of his term, to purchase a property to secure his retirement even when he was entitled to a pension. This is a rare occurrence because most leaders loot their way into retirement and are not bothered at all about how they would live once they are out of office.

From left, former President, Benjamin Mkapa, President Pombe Magufuli, former Presidents Jakaya Kikwete and Ali Hassan Mwinyi and an unidentified guest during the launch of Mr Mkapa’s memior in November 2019 at Julius Nyerere International Convention Centre

Mkapa was an exemplary public servant and he says he learnt the art of listening from Mwalimu. What endears him to the readers in this piece is his readiness to admit that he made mistakes in his time and is not averse to criticism, something that is well noted by former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano in the foreword of this book. Mkapa and Chissano were lifelong friends having served as foreign ministers of their countries and again as Presidents.

Even after retirement, Mkapa continued to serve in various capacities. He came up with the Benjamin William Mkapa Foundation on the advice of former US President Bill Clinton who also provided the initial financial support. The foundation has done a lot of work particularly on health matters in Tanzania. He also served in various international organizations as board member. One of Mkapa’s contributions to peace on the African continent is his role in the mediation efforts in Kenya after the botched presidential elections of 2007. He recounts how the recalcitrance of some members of the negotiating teams almost ruined the process. He was honoured to be part of the process.

Mkapa regretted the fact that most African leaders hardly consult their predecessors on how they should be running the affairs of the state. In fact, he used to consult Mwalimu Nyerere on a regular basis given the fact that the founding President was his mentor. He recalls calling the ailing leader at a hospital abroad about prospects for an economic cooperation deal with the United States just three weeks before Nyerere passed on. However, contrary to popular assumption, the founding President did not vouch for Mkapa to be President. It is his admirers who prodded him to go for nomination. He merely informed the revered leader of his intentions upon which he received Mwalimu’s blessings.

The late former Tanzanian leader expressed his concern over the monetization of politics, not only in Tanzania but everywhere else. He recalled that he did not need to spend so much money in his presidential campaigns. He abhorred a situation where politicians spend obscene amounts of money to influence the electorate.

Mkapa was a modest person and it is also quite inspiring to note that he was a reader per excellence. While most people take to wild things as hobbies, his most treasured thing in life was reading. One of his homes was built for this purpose. He said this is where he would go to whenever he wanted to have a quiet time with his books. He loved poetry immensely and would even write some in his early days. He reproduces a poem he wrote while at university, in this book.

Much of this book is about the writer when he was in office. He minimally talks about his family life but he constantly acknowledges the role played by his wife Anne in helping him to be the leader he turned out to be. He also pays tribute to his leader friends across the world. His recollection in this memoir is a rich read indeed. Certainly, this book is most suited for young leaders, particularly those who are already serving. It will give them an insight into what it takes to be a dignified leader who puts service before personal interests.  

Writer is author of Aphorisms and Poems of Light

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