Mkapa, Benjamin 1938–

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Benjamin Mkapa 1938

President of Tanzania

Pursued Journalism

Identified as Harbinger of Change

Saddled with Social Complexities

Proposed an African First


In 1995, Benjamin Mkapa (pronounced em-KA-pa) became the third president of the United Republic of Tanzania, part of a former German colony and later a colony of Great Britain. His election was the culmination of a long political career that began more than 30 years ago. For the reform-minded Mkapa, his new office was to be a tool to bring forces of change to his country, one of the poorest in the world, but also one that The Economist cited as a model of stability for [the past] 30 years.

Benjamin Mkapa was born on November 12, 1938, in Masasi, Tanzania (then called Tanganyika). He attended Catholic schools, eventually receiving a certificate from St. Francis Collegethe equivalent of a high school diploma in the United Statesin 1956. The following year he enrolled in Makerere University College located in Kampala, Uganda. He earned an arts degree in 1959, and was continuing his studies there, in 1961, when Tanganyika (soon to be called Tanzania) gained independence from Great Britain on December 9, 1961. With European colonialism still entrenching most of Africa at that time, Makerere was a particularly prestigious institution, having the distinction of being the only university in any of the three east African countriesKenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika.

Pursued Journalism

After leaving Makerere University in 1962, armed with a bachelor degree in English, Mkapa returned to Tanzania, where he was appointed an administrative officer in Dodoma, an administrative hub. Within one year he had moved up to district officer and then foreign service officer. At that point, Mkapa travelled to the United States, where he attended Columbia University. In 1963, he was awarded a masters degree international affairs.

Mkapa took up journalism during the next several years. By 1966, he was managing editor of The Nationalist and Uhuru newspapers. Also that year, he married Anna Joseph Maro, a young administrative assistant. Six years later he fulfilled the same role for The Daily News and The Sunday News. In 1974, President Julius Nyerere recognized Mkapas talents and potential and appointed him his press secretary; two years later Mkapa became the founding director of the Tanzania News Agency, Shihata (Shirika la habari Tanzania).

At a Glance

Born Benjamin William Mkapa, November 12,1938, in Masasi, Tanganyika; son of William Matwani and Stephannia Nambanga; married Anna Joseph Maro (an administrative assistant), 1966; children: two sons. Education: Makerere University College, Kampala, Uganda, B.A., 1962; Columbia University, New York, NY, M.A., 1963. Religion: Christian.

Dodoma, Tanzania, appointed government administrative officer, 1962, became district officer, 1962, became foreign officer, 1963. Managing editor, The Nationalist and Uhuru (newspapers), 1966, The Daily News and The Sunday News (newspapers), 1972. Office of the president, press secretary, 1974; Tanzania New Agency, founding director, 1976; High Commissioner to Nigeria, 1976; Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1977-90; Minister for Information and Culture, 1980-83; High Commissioner to Canada, 1982-83; ambassador to the United States, 1983-84; Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1984-90; Minister for Information and Broadcasting, 1990-92; Minister for Science, Technology, and Higher Education, 1992-95. Nominated as member of parliament, 1977; elected to National Assembly for the Nanyumbu Constituency, Masasi District, 1985, re-elected, 1990; elected at the Chama cha Mapinduzi National Conference as the partys presidential candidate, 1995; elected president of Tanzania, 1995.

Member: Chama cha Mapinduzi (political party).

Addresses : OfficeOffice of the President, Dar es Salaam, United Republic of Tanzania.

The same year Mkapa was named high commissioner to Nigeria, thus beginning his political career as a Nyerere protege in earnest.

Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania and popularly known as the father of the nation has been credited with shaping the political history of Tanzania. That history included a single party democracy involving a form of socialism known as ujamaa, which most scholars considered a total failure. The ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM; Revolutionary Party) was, in essence, the government and thus was responsible for everything from banks, transportation, and education, to agriculture and the news media.

Lives of ordinary citizens were completely state controlled; all were forced to become card-carrying party members to avoid harassment (though party membership is no longer compulsory). As John Cooper noted in The Tanzanian Family-State: Who Belongs?, During the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, Tanzania was often presented as a paradigm of alternative developmentproof that socialism could be tailored, tamed, and put to work. At the same time, it conformed to a pattern of statism [centralized economic control], corruption, and centralization....

Following that periodfrom the late-1970s to the 1990sMkapa served a variety of ministerial positions, including Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Information and Culture. Other milestones of his career included becoming a member of parliament in 1977; serving diplomatic roles to Canada and the United States in the mid-1980s; and becoming elected to the Tanzanian National Assembly in 1985, and winning reelection in 1990.

Identified as Harbinger of Change

In 1992, the CCM began transitioning from a socialist orientation to multiparty democracy. Though Nyerere was retired, he had enough clout to hand-pick Mkapaan active CCM member much of his adult life, including serving on the partys 20-member central committee since 1987for the presidential candidacy and to actively campaign for him a couple years later. Mkapas victory, therefore, came as no surprise. Mkapa was able to take advantage of the CCM political base and structure while leveraging the tarnished image of the party, which critics felt was behind the timesand somewhat corrupt to bootto rally voters behind his cry for change.

For the first time in Tanzanias history, which included 30 years of CCM controlmulti-party elections were scheduled to take place. By July of 1995, a frenzy had begun building in Dodoma, where the CCM was convening to elect their presidential candidate. That candidate turned out to be Mkapa, who was backed by the charismatic Nyerere. Mkapa, who was then serving as the Minister of Science and Technology, promised to bring economic, social, and political reform if elected.

The October of 1995 presidential elections were hampered by many logistical problems such as a lack of ballots at many polling stations, which prompted the electoral commission to void and reschedule the election in Dar es Salaam, Tanzanias largest city. Some opposition parties protested and denounced the elections; citing a loss of confidence in the process, all 10 opposition parties withdrew from the elections in protest two weeks later. Mkapa defeated his main remaining opponents, including Prime Minister Cleopa Msuya and Minister of Finance Jakaya Kikwete, and emerged as the winner with 61.4 percent of the votes. He was sworn in as president on November 23, 1995. One supporter summed up his reasons for choosing Mkapa as reported by the Inter Press Service by saying, he has a disciplined mind, he is honest and knows how the government should work. Meanwhile, Mkapas critics wondered how change was to be effected, asking where Nyereres ideas ended and where Mkapas began.

President Mkapa immediately faced enormous problems. For instance, during the presidential elections, the CCM victory in Zanzibar was marred by fraud, intimidation, and violence. International observers noted serious discrepancies during the vote counting process and many suspected last minute vote-rigging to ensure CCMs very slim victory. Some pointed to the fact that in Pemba, even vote-rigging failed to guarantee a single legislative seat for the CCM. When the election process had been completed, 17 western countries demanded but did not get a recountthereby jeopardizing future western investment, a key to the countrys economic development.

Another difficulty Mkapa needed to address is the future of Tanzanias link with Zanzibar (also known the Isle of Cloves because with Pemba it produces most of the worlds supply of the spice). In 1964, Zanzibar and Pemba, two small Indian Ocean islands off the coast of Tanganyika, merged with the mainland to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which was soon renamed the United Republic of Tanzania. The union has since remained economically, politically, and culturally challenging, with many in Zanzibar pushing for secession. Many observers believe the dissidents demand to become independent from the republic was increasing in the mid-1990s.

To some extent Zanzibar has maintained some autonomy: Besides electing its own president, it has retained Islamic courts that handle Muslim family cases, and, while private radio and television endeavors operate from Dar Es Salaam, on the mainland, in Zanzibar, they are controlled by the Zanzibari government. But while the mainland enjoys freedom of speech and is home to a press that can be quite outspoken, Zanzibars privately owned Majira was banned at the beginning of 1997, for carrying anti-government stories. (Numerous Swahili-and English-language newspapers are available in Tanzania, but fear of being banned for writing unfavorable stories leads most journalists practice self-censorship. Nonetheless, opposition does openly criticize the government and the ruling party in public forums.)

Saddled with Social Complexities

Other civil rightssuch as workers rights, rights to privacy, and rights to assemblyremain a major issue in Tanzania as well. For example, while the constitution provides for the freedom of assembly, laws and regulations have been enacted that limit these rightssuch as not being able to run for office if one is not a member of a registered party. Thus permits to rally are often denied, particularly in Zanzibar. During the presidential elections the opposition in Zanzibar was prohibited from assembling and using their party slogans until just two months prior to the elections, and any gathering suspected of opposing the Zanzibar government was dispersed by police. Post-election harassment of the opposition has continued in Zanzibar.

Mkapa also has to contend with religious differences within his nation state: Zanzibar is largely Muslim, while the rest of the country is 45 percent Christian with another 20 percent of the population consisting of those with traditional, indigenous beliefs. During the tenure of Tanzanias second president, Ali Hassan Mwinyiwho is a MuslimChristians were critical of favoritism accorded the Muslims in appointments to government jobs and scholarships. Mkapa is a Christian, and the Muslim community was immediately claiming to be at a disadvantage in terms of civil service representation.

Human rights and womens rights are questionable as well. The U.S. Department of States Tanzania Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996 suggested that mob justice against suspected criminals is a concern as is police/judicial misbehavior ranging from some instances of torture, arbitrary arrest, and occassions where bribes determine whether bail is granted or even whether a case is judged as a civil or criminal matter. In the same vein, violence against women is not uncommon, with customs that subordinate women remaining strong.

In the same report, the U.S. State Department noted that although the [Tanzanian] government advocates equal rights for women in the work place, [it] does not ensure its practice. Similarly, female genital mutilation is discouraged, but legislation against it had yet to be introduced at the time of the report. And until 1996, girls who got pregnant were expelled from school but Mkapas regime adopted a policy allowing such girls to continue schooling. As adults, few Tanzanian women are politically active: in 1996, only eight of 232 elected members of the Union parliament were women, including 37 who were appointed. Only three of the 23 administrative ministers were women.

The nations illiteracy rate, which stands near 15 percent, represents an additional dilemma for Mkapa. Though the government provides for 7 years of compulsory education, those failing the U.S. equivalent of 7th grade lose their chances of continuing their education for good except for those few whose parents can afford sending them to private schools. With little hope of acquiring viable, life-supporting skills, theirs is a doomed future and with it the future of a country desperately trying to catch up to the rest of the world as the millennium approaches.

Perhaps Mkapas largest domestic concern, however, has been Tanzanias desiccated economy, for the nations lack of funds will likely impede any real social progress, Alison Doherty Munro emphasized in Current World Leaders. In 1997, Tanzania remained one of the poorest countries in the world, and one whose agricultural productivity was insufficient to feed its people despite the fact that 85 percent of the people farm or do agriculture-related work. Mkapas immediate predecessor was forced to implement strict reforms in order to meet International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank guidelines that included switching to a free market economy and privatization of state companies. Economic progress was also stunted by the fact that the nations industrial sector is very small. Exports consist mainly of cashews, cotton, coffee, sisal, cloves, tea, diamonds and other gemstones, and a scant amount of tourismmostly safari thrillseekers.

Proposed an African First

After assuming the reigns of government, Mkapa emphasized deregulation of the economy through increased production to widen the tax base and the implementation of strict revenue collection. He was quoted in World Statesman as saying, We recognize that the government has no business on the eve of 21st century to be in business, and urged the parliament to ratify legislation covering the sale of the National Bank of Commerce (NBC)the countrys biggest state-owned commercial bank. Mkapa advocated such restructuring since the World Bank was withholding $125 million as a punitive measure to spur quicker compliance with their recommendations.

In addition to alleviating economic stagnation, Mkapa vowed to stamp out corruption. To that end, he established an Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate and give their recommendations to him in 1997. The same year, Mkapa received much praise when he voluntarily made full disclosure of his assets, including those of his spouse. He also urged other officials to follow suitea first in the continent where so often the few rich are those in government, and the majority has little hope of striking much beyond the poverty level. In a Transparency International newsletter, chairman of the board Peter Eigen declared that Mkapas action has implications that go well beyond the boundaries of his country, though judging by the messages of excitement reaching us from Tanzania, his people, more by this single act than by anything else, now believe that meaningful change is on its way.

Despite such positive maneuvers, many still view Mkapa solely as a devout CCM party man. His tactic has been to retain his alliance with the party, while attempting to buff its tarnished image. Spelling out his governments goals as reprinted by World Statesman, Mkapa said: My government is a CCM government. My economic program is a CCM economic program as set out in the partys program for the 1990s.... It is the same program that guided the previous government, and it is the same program that will guide my government. In other words what has changed are personalities and hence questions of emphasis, direction, and stylebut not policy, substance, or national goals.

In spite of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles, Mkapa inherited an extremely proud and relatively peaceful nationindeed, one of the few on the African continent that has never incurred a military take-over. Universal use of the Swahili language, which is not specific to any of the more than 130 tribes, has been one factor greatly lessening inter-ethnic conflict and has made Tanzania a haven of ethnic peace. Notably, Tanzania has traditionally maintained a generous open border policy with regard to asylum seekers, the U.S. State Department related in its 1996 Tanzania Report.

Ironically, this led to some immense problems when more than 500,000 people flooded into Tanzania during the ethnic and civil strife aftermath of a single plane crash late in 1994 that killed the presidents of neighboring countries Burundi and Rwanda. Tanzania was forced to close its borders early in 1995, turnning away many more refugees. By the end of the yearand the beginning of Mkapas tenuremost of the influx had returned to their homelands or went elsewhere, while a small number were permitted to stay. Meanwhile, Tanzanias brief moment in the global spotlight conveyed to the world an exemplary constituency.

As Mkapa strives to bring economic and political reform to the citizenry as well as to stamp out hunger, illiteracy, and despair, he was quoted in World Statesman as saying, I welcome everyone who can join us in promoting the sustainable development of this potentially rich country.... Transparency Internationals Eigen stated succinctly, If the momentum now created by the president can be sustainedand no one doubts that the task is formidablethen Tanzania may, indeed, be on the brink of restoration.... The whole of Africaand the wider worldis watching and hoping.



(editor) Mossman, Jennifer, Current Leaders of Nations, Gale, 1997.


Business Times, November 24-30, 1995.

The Economist, September 23, 1995, pp. 39-40; November 11, 1995, p. 40.

Reuters News Wire, Tanzanias Bank Privitisation Is Urgent, President Says, August 3, 1997.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from The Tanzanian Family-State: Who Belongs?, ONline Wisconsin, October 30, 1995,

Tanzania Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996, U.S. Department of State, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30,1997,

Tanzania-Politics: Ruling Party Finds Its Champion, Inter Press Service, (accessed August 5, 1997).

A Transparency International newsletter, March 1996,

A forrth quarter 1996 World Statesman site on African Development, (accessed August 5, 1997); Benjamin Mkapas curriculum vitae as provided by Tanzanian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Doris H. Mabunda

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