The late Ben Mkapa talks about Africa’s fight for economic independence

The late Ben Mkapa talks about Africa’s fight for economic independence
  • PublishedJuly 24, 2020

In 2004 the late President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania was in London to launch the International Labour Organisation’s landmark report, Fair Globalisation, creating opportunities for all. Anver Versi took the opportunity to interview him on a wide range of subjects, from globalisation and unfair terms of trade to the blueprint for Africa’s economic emancipation

What has been your role in this vital International Labour Organisation (ILO) report?

I was co-chair, together with Finland’s President Tarja Halonen, of an independent commission set up by the ILO to look into globalisation, especially with emphasis on the social dimensions of globalisation.

There were 21 commissioners, of varied experience: Politicians, parliamentarians, business people, trade unionists, human-rights advocates, indigenous peoples’ rights advocates, and of course President Halonen and myself.

We worked for almost two years. I held various dialogues at national and regional levels and came out with a report that essentially says that the process of globalisation has great potential for producing benefits that accrue to all people and not just corporate business.

There is still hope that this process can be guided and change can take place in the direction of greater equity between nations and inside nations.

We put a lot of emphasis on the political will of governments to rethink this whole process – its rules, its participants, how inclusive it is, and then to come forward with fairer rules of trade and better balances in the protection of the weak as well as sustaining the achievements of the strong.

But more importantly, we looked at ways of evolving a global growth strategy that can benefit all countries and all peoples.

In Africa, there is a lot of controversy and also fear about globalisation, especially in the terms of trade. Is this a misplaced apprehension?

First the statistics. The statistics say that the share of Sub-Saharan Africa’s world trade is only 2%. Therein lies the problem. It’s not because Africa does not have goods and services to sell, it’s the value, the monetary value that is placed upon those goods and services. Our commodities are undervalued, their prices are low and they keep getting lower and lower. Therefore, in value terms obviously, our share of world trade is very small.

Our natural resources are being exploited, not by ourselves but by outsiders. That’s not necessarily bad, but its how that exploitation benefits not just those that invest their capital but those who own those natural resources.

Over and above that, you have the situation that even when you, as an African state have the possibility of getting into the global market, the stronger ones, the longer established corporate businesses, have promulgated rules, tariffs, quality standards that literally bar the participation of African producers from the global market.

These are the issues that we are going to have to address first: routes to access. Then we have to build the capacity to meet, for instance, the qualifications for acceptability to really make an inroad into the global market. That capacity must be built.

You and other senior leaders in Africa have emphasised the need for Africa to utilise its own resources for its own needs. This would mean building domestic markets. How do you envisage this happening?

This must be the thrust of our development and growth strategy. First, before you look for external markets, develop an internal market. That is the most secure foundation for local industrial or service production. Secondly, you enlarge those markets by reaching out to neighbours and integrating with them by establishing regional economic communities. This is a major evolution of our development strategy and we support it very clearly. Hence we have created Ecowas, SADC, the East African Community and so on.

Over and above that, as strong economic communities or as regional authorities, we can have a louder voice in the discussions and disputes about access to markets, about rules of trade etc, on the international stage. Therefore this is a very important strategy. The other pillar of this strategy must be adding value to our primary commodities ourselves. Now we produce our primary commodities but they go to the developed countries; they add value and then they sell them back to us. Sometimes they reap benefits that are six, 10 or 15 times more than that which accrues to the initial producers in our own countries.

So a strategy of adding value within our own territories, with capital accruing from our own savings but also in partnership with external investors we can get better prices on the international market.

How do you see these things happening? Do you see trade barriers coming down all over Africa?

Yes. We can start off with common customs unions. Uganda, Kenya and ourselves have just signed protocols bringing into being an East African Customs Union.

This way, we increase trade between us and the investment environment is synchronised between our three countries. The attractions become larger in their coverage. At this stage, we ourselves can mobilise our capacity to solicit partnerships external to our region – on the continent and on the world stage.

Coming back to Tanzania. The economy has been doing very well for the last few years, but unfortunately you have been facing a drought. Will it set back growth for the next few years?

The drought is a serious development. It diverts our public resources for the purchase of food because the survival of our population is paramount. But it also considerably reduces the level of our exports of primary commodities that we produce. This will have a negative effect on government revenues and family incomes. So it is a serious set back.

We have had a fairly reasonable response from our bilateral partners and friends, but it will not be able to fill the gap that will ensue because of the diversion of public resources.

To return to pan-African issues: There are still a few conflicts which are not only causing problems within Africa, particularly in the Great Lakes region, but also giving a poor impression of Africa out-side. How can we resolve these conflicts in the African way?

The biggest problem is really one of developing good governance at the national, state level. Democratisation now is an inevitable trend, and this means greater freedoms of expression of political organisations seeking political power by peaceful means. This is a culture that needs to be nurtured, and we must nurture it.

It’s a pity because in many of our independent African countries, political freedom was attained by peaceful agitation, peaceful negotiations, and not by blood letting. There were other situations where people had to take up arms. But now, even in areas where people acquired their freedom by negotiation, by dialogue, there seems to be a resort to arms to get into political power. This is a great pity, a great pity.

So let us nurture a political culture of tolerance, of co-operation, of discussion, of dialogue and an acceptance of the predominance of the majority view to obtaining governance for given periods established by law and embedded in constitutions.

If we do that I think we will avoid much of the unnecessary civil strife that characterises a considerable part of Africa presently. We on our part have tried to help those of our neighbours who have been involved in civil wars.

I think now the Great Lakes is settling down and we’ll do everything to make sure it does settle down. We will continue to do our part to make sure that stability ensues and therefore development is built upon that stability.

One of the important questions at the moment is how much of Africa’s current state is a result of its own dynamics and how much is it a result of external forces acting out their own conflicts on African soil?

Some of it is of our own making. Nepad clearly recognises this – hence the peer review mechanism which is supposed to urge us to really inculcate this sense of good governance.

But some of it is imposed from outside because there are those who profit from the kind of chaos that can obtain in situations of civil strife – dealers in minerals for instance. They don’t care whether you have an established government as long as they get their gold and gemstones out. And if they can get those more easily in a situation of instability, they will sustain that instability. There is an external part to that. But I also think that there are those who out of arrogance really do not mind witnessing an African continent enmeshed in civil strife because it proves that Africa was not ready for in-dependent statehood. Fortunately, there are few of those, but you can’t exclude the possibility that they could be stirring the fires of civil strife on our continent.

To come back to Tanzania: it is said that Tanzania’s economic performance over the past few years has been very good given all the conditions prevailing. How do you see the growth patterns over the next five years?

I think that if the rains hold, and continue to remain favourable, we are going to see a considerable growth in the agricultural sector because we have a strategy for that.

We are trying to see if we can increase the empowerment of our people in order to participate in the modernising of the economy by sharing in the investment, having a stake in the production and marketing of our commodities. That will happen if we have food security because food insecurity is always the greatest factor undermining growth in our country.

Some people say that the African Union (AU) is the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in a different bottle and that it does not really serve any function. What is your own opinion about this?

It is too early to make definite conclusions. The spirit is very strong, the will is there, but we have only been around for two years. Give it another five years and you’ll see that there is a distinct difference between the AU and the old OAU. What I want to emphasise is that the spirit and the will to narrow the orbit of the nationalism of the nation states on the continent is there. In other words, to expand the space as well as the vision of economic and political integration is much stronger in the present framework of the AU than in the previous one – but we will be judged two or three years down the road.

There is a saying that 2000 will be Africa’s millennium. Is there any truth to this?

If we translate Nepad into reality we shall certainly write our profile on the international stage deservedly and in the right size.

So the battle for economic independence has now started in earnest?

Absolutely, absolutely.

And you are one of the leaders of this new independence movement?

I have contributed my share in laying down the stones for that foundation, but I am getting out of office next year. I hope my successor will carry that task forward.

We wish you the very best of luck Mr President, thank you very much for the interview.

Thank you too. Your magazine is a vital tool in Africa’s economic emancipation. Keep up the good work.

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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