Meet the Leader – Benjamin William Mkapa


Uongozi institute, a Tanzania based facility that moulds and sharpens the leadership skills of African Leaders, has a popular series of interviews titled 'Meet the Leader' which features current and former heads of state as well as other major leaders from around the world sharing personal insights into their careers and the qualities of successful leadership. The programme is usually broadcast on national television in Tanzania, via satellite television across the continent and made available on DVD, YouTube and the Institute's website. Today, we are publishing an interview conducted by the Institute's Host Felix Mlaki, with Mr Benjamin William Mkapa, the third phase President of Tanzania, who dwelt on leadership and its importance for sustainable development.

 Given your vast experience, in your view, what makes a good leader?

Well, I would say, in Africa certainly, a good leader has to be both a nationalist and a pan-Africanist. He must be a person of learning; and I don't mean some academic qualifications but learning in the broadest possible sense. Thirdly, he/ she must be a person of integrity, disposed towards openness, and interaction, in the sense of participatory leadership in that sense, others helping you to lead. I should think those are the key characteristics of a good leader.

It is very much believed that family background influences leadership styles and aspirations. In your own experience, how did your background influence your leadership style and disposition?

I would say it probably influenced me by stealth rather than consciously. My mother wound up being the eldest born at the time I was growing up. There had been two elder children who had passed away, and in that position she used to be the person rounding family contradictions, used to be centered and she would have to give counsel, and I noticed that she listened very carefully and usually her decisions were honored by members of the family. My father was a catechist and he liked to share knowledge very much, but he was also a very good listener and that may also have influenced me by stealth. But again they were able in spite of differences always existing in families, in spite of their own differences from time to time, they were able to live together in conditions of tremendous integrity, mutual respect and common regard and love for their children.

Your Excellency you joined the government as a journalist and later in your career you assumed the role of High Commissioner in Nigeria, in countries like Canada, you assumed even the role of Foreign Affairs Minister. How did this help you shape your leadership style when you assumed the presidency of the United Republic of Tanzania in 1995?

The exposure to diplomacy made it easy for me to engage diplomats accredited to Tanzania, quite obviously. So I learned the nuts and bolts of presentation in those places, but I also got to know the politics and governance of those countries; Nigeria, Canada and the US. And this helped me to understand how the world was disposed, towards Africa and towards my own country. It was a good background to carry with me into the presidency, and I must say it was extremely useful in making it easy for me to make the case for Tanzania in these countries where it was necessary. But in addition, my stay in Washington of course gave me a little exposure to the international financial institutions, the World Bank and IMF, and that also was good preparation for the time that I had to deal with them from the presidency.

You then became the 3rd president of Tanzania in 1995 and you served your full two terms till 2005. At the time you assumed the presidency in 1995, what was your vision of the country as a president?

Well, what I wanted to do specifically was to lead a process of sorting out a series of very very pressing challenges of that time. First, the challenge of reaffirming and strengthening relations with bilateral partners in our development, or bilateral donors if you like, because those were immensely soured when I got into the presidency. And secondly, was to do the same thing with regards to the international financial institutions, specifically because of the IMF and the World Bank, because we had over-borrowed immensely and we were not paying back our debts. So those relations were also greatly soured. But also I thought that the relations between government and the trade unions on the one hand and the cooperatives on the other, which institutions, nationalist institutions had been major pillars of the independent struggle, relations with them had also been greatly soured. Therefore I came really to try to see if we could really reaffirm or rediscover those working relationships which are very important indeed for development. And then I also did know for a fact that financial discipline, fiscal discipline and public expenditure discipline was somewhat low. The discipline was low, and that was one of the reasons why relations both bilateral as well as multilateral had been soured. So I was determined to face up to these challenges, and I must say that we did succeed to restore those relationships.

 Do you think at the time you assumed the presidency this vision was well understood by your assistants and public at large?

The public at large and I think even the bulk of the civil service were quite aware that we had major challenges or problems at hand. Whether they thought I was capable in leading the efforts to correct those shortcomings, and if you like, to really mobilize the people to face the challenges, I do not know. I think they must have been somewhat hesitant, because I had not led a public life very much in the limelight. You see, an Ambassador is a low-key person, however widely informed and decisive he may be, and although I had been a member of parliament and a minister, it was in a ministry which does not acquire a very large profile inside the country. I was Minister of Foreign Affairs for the greater part of the time I served in government, and so I wasn't really known. And so within the party, although I started off being the managing editor of the party's newspapers, the Nationalist and Uhuru, as you can see it is a low profile job, however important and decisive it may be. So I think there must have been those who kept wondering whether (I) could really face these challenges that I have outlined.

With the benefit of hindsight, now you have left the presidency gracefully, do you think maybe you were a little bit too optimistic on what possibly you could have achieved?

No I do not think I was too optimistic. Why? Because having worked with the party, I knew that we could explain issues to the public, and with a government of integrity you can mobilize the population to face any challenge - as Mwalimu had illustrated when we were invaded by Iddi Amin. The issues he spelled out clearly, he called on everyone, and everyone felt that it was an honorable thing to do to line up behind him and get rid of this invader. So similarly with these other challenges, I felt that with a party that is so strong, even though we were just breaking into a multi-party system, but a party that was strong it had a network of workers, of offices, it had newspapers and although it was a government radio station but it could use that media also to explain the challenges, problems that we faced and how it would be done and that it was not going to be easy but that if we tightened our belts we could restore the economy. I was confident that this could be done but as I said that there must have been those who wondered whether I would have the courage to take on these problems.

How did you go about selecting your key assistants, ministers their deputies, permanent secretaries, regional commissioners etc etc?

There's no other way but to talk to your close associates in government, to get the instruments of government to vet the obvious candidates, to see whether they performed their duties in whatever position they were with great integrity and competence and then to produce the kind of political balance as well as competent energy to tackle these problems. It was mainly through consultation and vetting, that's how you decide, and then you produce the political balances as I said and the competencies.

To when you assumed the presidency in 1995, the economy was in a very bad shape and a lot of macro indicators weren't good. So was the inability of government to collect revenue where it was supposed to collect revenue, did this add any extra pressure, when you assumed the mantle of the presidency?

It did actually constitute great pressure upon me. And so, what did I do? I just pressed for efficiency in the revenue collection processes. But in the end I had to accept that the civil service had imploded too much, it was too big, and that it could be cut back to size. Then we had to set up the revenue authority, which we did, and empower its efficiency. In cutting the size of the civil service, I had to look at our bilateral friends and partners or donors, and say to them look, I can't just cut the staff and put them on the streets, they must leave office, even the incompetent ones, must leave office with a certain degree of certainty of how they are going to live and survive with their families. Can you give me a grant that we can use to allow people to retire early if they choose to do so? And we did.

A great number chose voluntarily to retire because of the retirement package that I was able to put together through finances given by bilaterals, and that cut back on the government budget and helped to discipline expenditure. The other thing that we did do was to review the tax structure because sometimes people are inhibited in paying their taxes because it is too cumbersome, the process is too cumbersome. Sometimes it is unreasonable in the sense that the rate is too high, and so I was able to meet individual big business people but also their organizations and talk very freely, what do you think of the tax structure? And they would say, this is a bad tax, this is a good tax, this one so on and so on, and from there we would arrive at a budget that would not be agreed upon by them but at least they would see that it not an imposition upon them. So that's another thing that we did.

One area that perhaps there is a feeling about your administration is the way the privatization process was handled. There is a feeling, rightly or wrongly that privatization process wasn't properly handled and this may seem to be a criticism to your administration. I don't know how you would respond to this criticism and whether this criticism is rightly leveled against your administration?

I have to say that there was no alternative to privatization. There's this mythology that this public sector was performing very well, those that were supposed to make profit, were making profits, there's who were regulatory were regulating well - that is wrong. They were one after the other resorting to the treasury to receive subsidies, even those that were commercial enterprises, and that is not doing well. So, we had to privatize.

But how did we go about it? We set up the Private Sector Reform Commission and they would look at the finances of one public enterprise after another, look at the figures and see how it could be turned around. They would get independent assessors on what the values were, the financials as well as the fixed assets and so on and then they would put out to tender. It was open tender. And the Commission would look at these, they would interview, and so on. It was not as secretive as it is sometimes presented. So that was a very fair process indeed. The only thing I regret is that after you have privatized there should have been a greater effort to monitor the performance of the enterprises. That I accept and to the extent that it is a shortcoming, it is a shortcoming.

But it was not for lack of recognizing that it had to be done, it just wasn't done. That's it. (Laughs). So it wasn't done, so the other thing is, the other criticism that is lodged against the privatization process is that we are supposed to have privatized to foreigners. That it is the foreign bidders that won these enterprisers. That is not true. A total of 330 public enterprises were privatized.

Out of those 330, 180 were privatized to Tanzanians nationals, to Tanzanians. 180, more than half of them! And then 27 only, were privatized entirely to foreigners, the remaining ones which is what eighty something, they were all privatized on the basis of partnerships, Tanzanians and foreigners together in a company bidding for it. So it is a myth saying that we privatized to foreigners. And of those it is said the South Africans were most, I don't think that is true because the biggest I can think of is the Elovo Sugar 9 INTERVIEW UONGOZI Institute, a Tanzania based facility that moulds and sharpens the leadership skills of African Leaders, has a popular series of interviews titled 'Meet the Leader' which features current and former heads of state as well as other major leaders from around the world sharing personal insights into their careers and the qualities of successful leadership.

The programme is usually broadcast on national television in Tanzania, via satellite television across the continent and made available on DVD, YouTube and the Institute's website. Today, we are publishing an interview conducted by the Institute's Host Felix Mlaki, with Mr Benjamin William Mkapa, the third phase President of Tanzania, who dwelt on leadership and its importance for sustainable development. Plant in Kilombero, that was the biggest South African ones, but otherwise what else did we do? So I know there's that criticism but I think it is just a way out for, but I know I am not liked when I say this, but for people who just don't like to think and face up to reality.

What was the single biggest crisis that you faced as a president that you can recall?

I think for me the most difficult one was the effort towards the end of the year 2000 to change the constitution of Zanzibar in order to allow for an end to term limits. As you know the presidency is limited to two terms, this was for me was a major crisis because it ran counter to the philosophy of government of the party and certainly it ran counter to the counsel we had received from our founding fathers. So that was a major crisis, I had to explain and explain and explain but ultimately when it came to the crunch we were able to overcome that problem.

African unity or a united Africa as a dream, that has not been achieved. And of late we are seeing some trend and now we have to get your thought on this. For example, the best they could achieve is to separate the two countries, so as Eritrea and there is a likelihood Mali could follow, there's a section that want to separate. What are your thoughts on this? Why Africa now is going on the trend of succession?

I can only speak on the Sudan, because I led the UN referendum observation team. Historians will tell you that in 1956, which is when the Sudan became Independent from Britain, the South had already said that it was a mistake to consider Southern Sudan and Northern Sudan as one country, and they worked hard on the British, they even sent a delegation to Britain to tell them it is unwise, they deserve their own Independence. And to show that really they were serious, three years later, they started a war of liberation.

So it's been on and off, the war on and off until they reached the comprehensive peace agreement in Nairobi in 2001. So there it's not really a question of separation, it is a recognition of the reality at that time. The British ruled Sudan as two countries really, and it just asserted itself. I have to say I am very sorry that the tensions still continue between Sudan and South Sudan. I am hoping that the efforts of the African Union to help them resolve these remaining issues of territorial boundaries, revenue sharing and the oil business, citizenship and currency, they can sort these out.

And it will be wrong in my view to think that only war can sort out that problem, no that's not true. With Eritrea also, you know Haille Selassie annexed Eritrea. It was not originally a part of Ethiopia and the UN knows it, so all together it is not a surprising development. With Mali I do not know enough, but I do not think there is a general trend towards separation but what it does highlight therefore is the continuing challenge of nation building.

You see Independence created the states, but the nation building had just started. In the Independence struggle you just united to say to the British go away or to say to the French go away, give us our Independence, and it was a rallying cry that united everybody. After that you start to build a basis for cohesion, for unity and in some instances because of the range of ethnicity in the country, it must be a deliberate effort to try to make sure that the unity is truly strengthened, that a sense of nationhood evolves. We here in Tanzania have been fortunate because the administration was not as rigid as it was in other countries and therefore civil servants served in all parts of the country regardless of their ethnicity.

Similarly we had the common language of Swahili and also the status of a United Nations territory also helped us to build the sense of nationhood. And yet we in Tanzania still face the challenge of nationhood, particularly after the union with Zanzibar. What are the elements that keep us together, that necessitate, we strengthen our unity, we recognize ourselves as a nation not just as a state because you have a flag and so on. So for me all these separatist tendencies are really an indictment of the leadership that it hasn't done enough to recognize that there must be, there is truly diversity to build unity out of that diversity and entrench it with policy and administration.

Your Excellency, what is the single biggest achievement you are so proud of as a president if you looked back to your 10 years in office?

Just one? (Laughs)

 A single important one that you can recall and say here we did it.

For me it rarely for me it was the..I don't know if we achieved it fully..but for me it was the sensitizing of this nation and its people to the reality of a changed world. It was a bi-polar world until 1990 when the Soviet Union dissolved and so on. It was a changing world.

The economies of the world were changing and a public sector driven economy such as the Soviet Union or China was changing and you couldn't just abide by what had been pronounced at our Independence or seven years after our Independence. We had to rethink. And therefore I think I helped us to know, first, that globalization is not, however it was started, but now it had to be changed and we had to be part of the changers of this globalization because there is no way in which you could withdraw economically or politically from the world that I helped I think.

The other thing I did was to recognize or to at least to impart the necessity of self reliance, doing things for ourselves, what we could do. We were blessed in the first 30 years or so of Independence to have many friends who were generous in their assistance to us. I am afraid we got into a mindset where we thought this was our right to receive this aid, but in fact as I kept saying throughout my travels in the country we had to rely on ourselves because the Lord did not create other nations in order to help us, no. And so self reliance, and for me the greatest illustration of the capacity of self reliance was the TASAF programme, the Tanzania Social Action Fund.

I have to admit I learned of this proxibility from my brother from Malawi, President Bakili Muluzi, he had started it there. But I realized structurally that we were more placed to be able to use this business, where the people of a community whether it's a village or a ward and so on, list their priorities, the challenges as they see and look for development.

They list and say we are going to contribute 20 percent of the cost of realizing this project and the rest will be received from the central government, but the administration of that implementation, and the financial management of the project is undertaken by the committee of the villages, people themselves. For me this entrenched the notion that we can do things for ourselves, and it is for that reason that when we start getting surpluses on our revenues, I said we are going to direct them in the field of communications, to start building roads, because we were in the kind of attitude of mind that the World Bank because it was the lead institution, they are going to build these roads for us. So that's how we started building roads from Shinyanga to Nzega, Nzega to Singida and so on, with our own funds.

Which leader in the world, who is perhaps alive today or deceased, influenced you most?

Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, obviously. I was very fortunate to be identified by him as a serious worker, someone who could be trusted. I had just been in the foreign service for two and a half, 3 years I think it was, when I got a call one evening from Mwalimu, and said he had been looking for a Managing Editor for the Party Newspapers and he thought I could do it. I said well how can I do that? I haven't done this? He said no, I think you can do it. We are ready for you to go to England for a couple of months to be attached to a newspaper there and see how it is working out and then you can come back. So that was the beginning of my relationship with Mwalimu. I came back he handed over the papers to me, he displayed enough trust. I think we did a good case of advocacy with the party newspapers, and from there onwards, I became a party person, I became a Member of Parliament, I became his Press Secretary. At every stage it was his influence in his hand that affected my life and my future.

What would be your advice to the current leaders and aspiring leaders, in our country as we build up our nation because the nation needs both the public and private sector?

Well in the public sector I would urge that cooperation be more manifest. One should always consider how ones work is impacting on another and how togetherness or cooperation can produce better results. You can distinguish yourself by going on your own and making your decision but in cooperation with others, you may be torn down or be worked up that's the way it goes in the public sector. I think there should be more consultation, more cooperation, more discussion and so on, but once that has been done, you must leave it to the proper authority to make the decision and respect it.

With the private sector I should think there should less suspicion of government. The private really think that governments are oppressive they do not allow them to express themselves or even to build their enterprises freely, and particular the burden of succession is always the point that is raised. I will urge them to be more forthcoming with their suggestions about how economies should be run, about the tax structures, about implementation projects and so on. They should have more courage to put this forward and to do so with respect to authority, not just in a condemnatory manner, no, no.

We all have tasks, and we all have positions and challenges in building this nation, and we must respect each other's responsibilities. Once that is done, I think countries can be stable. There is nothing that I hate to hear, from the so called developed countries, such as a description as a failing state, an unstable state, a failed state. We should never allow that description to be given to our countries, to African countries.

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