‘Mr Permission’ – the man who opened up Tanzania

Ali Hassan Mwinyi

Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Tanzania’s second president, was fondly known as ‘Mzee Rukhsa’, or ‘Mr Permission’.

The former leader, who died on Thursday at the age of 98, had a reputation of allowing a long list of things which had been denied by his predecessor, such as multiparty democracy, independent media, free trade and the private ownership of televisions.

In 1985, when he was first sworn in, Tanzania’s economy was struggling, reeling from the ruinous effects of founding president Julius Nyerere’s socialist policy, known as ujamaa, as well as the war against neighbouring Uganda that toppled Idi Amin.

Ujamaa, Swahili for ‘familyhood’, involved collaborative working, where everything was communally owned, including land, while people lived in communal settlements.

But after more than two decades under Nyerere, the country faced a shortage of essential goods, including food and clothing.
Foreign exchange was scarce and Tanzania was deep in debt.

Mwinyi had been hand-picked by the charismatic Nyerere.

Nyerere’s vision had managed to unite the country made up of more than 120 ethnic groups.

His successor was seen as a shy, compromise candidate who was unlikely to rock the boat.

Some saw him as a puppet of Nyerere, who, despite stepping down as president, stayed on as the leader of the ruling party, which still had a tight grip on the affairs of the state.

The Economist magazine is quoted as saying at the time that people should not “expect many changes in Tanzania’s lacklustre economy when [he] takes over as president… Mr Mwinyi is Mr Nyerere’s man”.

Nyerere himself had introduced Mwinyi as “a righteous man, impartial and respectful, who has never sought fame or used his position to advance his ambition”.

But Mwinyi soon dismantled the ujamaa policy and many of the restrictions under his predecessor’s regime.

He opened up the economy, allowed other parties to run in elections, enabled independent media to exist, and permitted the sale of televisions to individuals, which previously had only been communally owned.

He also began talks with the International Monetary Fund about getting financial support.

With the economy on the brink of collapse, the reforms were seen as having saved the economy.

Joseph Warioba, who was the prime minister during Mwinyi’s presidency, recounts how the president’s “brave” leadership helped resolve the economic crisis, including severe food, fuel and foreign currency shortages.

“He appointed ministers and valued our input greatly. He encouraged everyone to contribute ideas to find solutions,” he told the BBC.

Ibrahim Lipumba, an opposition politician who worked as Mwinyi’s economic adviser, remembers him as a calm person who respected human rights.

But Mwinyi’s leadership was not without criticism.

Some of his policies, including allowing political leaders to run private businesses, were criticised for paving the way for high corruption levels during his presidency.

Mwinyi also faced accusations that he favoured Muslims in government jobs. He wrote later in his memoirs that these allegations hit him hard.

And although he introduced multiparty democracy, allowing opposition parties to contest elections, none of them have managed to dislodge the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party from power.

He stepped down from the presidency in 1995 at the age of 70, having served two terms at the helm.

From then on, Mwinyi kept a low profile, but was occasionally present and spoke at public events with some of his presidential successors.

In 2021, Tanzania’s current president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, described him as a leader worthy of emulation, saying he was “a reformist [and] a role model to many of us”.

She was speaking during the launch of his memoirs, aptly called ‘Mzee Rukhsa – the Journey of My Life’.

Mwinyi was born on 8 May 1925 in Tanganyika, which was then a British colony.

In 1964, three years after independence, it united with the island of Zanzibar to form Tanzania.

When Mwinyi was four years old, his family moved to Zanzibar, where his father wanted him to study Islam and become a religious leader.

But instead, he took up teaching, before entering politics in the 1960s.

He then held a number of government positions, including as a minister and an ambassador before becoming Zanzibar’s president in 1984, and then succeeding Nyerere the following year.

Mwinyi is survived by his two wives and a number of children, including Zanzibar’s current president, Hussein Mwinyi. – BBC News

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