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Ali Hassan Mwinyi: The Tanzanian Former President Who Oversaw The Transition To Market Economy

The Oasis Reporters

March 2, 2024








Former Tanzanian President Ali Hassan Mwinyi died on 29 February aged 98. ALEXANDER JOE/AFP via Getty Images


Nicodemus Minde, United States International University


Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Tanzania’s second president who has died aged 98, pushed through tough economic and political reforms that transformed the East Africa nation from socialism to an open economy and a multi-party democracy. He was president from 1985 to 1995.




He did all of this in the shadow of Julius Nyerere who had led Tanzania since independence in 1961 and turned the country into a one-party socialist state. Tanganyika joined together with Zanzibar in 1964 to form the United Republic of Tanzania. Nyerere stepped down in 1985 but remained chairman of the party that had ruled Tanzania since independence.



Mwinyi’s presidency was always going to be a test, coming at a difficult period. The country was in a serious economic turmoil. Nyerere had admitted that the Ujamaa policy – Tanzania’s socialist experience – had failed. Nyerere decided it was time the country tried another leader. He stepped aside in 1985. During that period, the country had experienced drought, the impacts of the oil shocks and the Kagera War, which Tanzania fought to oust Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin.



As a political science scholar, I have studied the politics, political parties and democratisation of Tanzania and Zanzibar in the last 10 years. It is my view that it took Mwinyi’s careful balancing act to ward off Nyerere’s influence after taking the presidency. He had to take bold decision amid the shadow of Mwalimu Nyerere who remained as the chairman of the ruling party CCM.



Mwinyi will be remembered for steadying the economic ship and setting ground for President William Mkapa to consolidate economic liberalisation. Although there are controversies as to whether he was truly a Zanzibari. This notwithstanding, his elevation as the first Zanzibari Union president somewhat helped to ease the Union tensions. In the postscript of his memoir, Mwinyi reflects on several issues and prided his legacy on the economic reforms he initiated.



Early life


A trained teacher, Mwinyi was born on 8 May 1925 in Mkuranga, Coast region, Tanzania Mainland. Between 1933 and 1942, he attended primary school at Mangapwani and Dole – Zanzibar. He studied for Diploma in Education from 1954 to 1956 at the University of Adult Education in Dublin, United Kingdom. He specialised in English and Arabic languages. He taught at Mangapwani and Bumbwini schools in Zanzibar. He later served as an ambassador, and minister in various government ministries before becoming president of Zanzibar.



A rank outsider, Mwinyi’s elevation to the presidency of Tanzania was rather fortuitous. Nyerere had other preferred successors. Aboud Jumbe, the man who Mwinyi succeeded as president of Zanzibar in 1984 was Nyerere’s preferred successor. Nyerere had always wished a Zanzibari to succeed him as a way of galvanising the Union which was formed in 1964. However, the tense political period between 1983 and 1984 culminated with Jumbe falling out of favour, and being kicked out as the president of Zanzibar and as vice president of the Union government. By virtue of being president of Zanzibar and vice president of the Union, Mwinyi became Nyerere’s compromise successor. Nyerere had described Mwinyi as honest, humble, and a loyal socialist.



The reforms


Mwinyi was not a socialist. At the time he was taking over as president of Tanzania, Mwinyi compared himself to an anthill, succeeding the colossal socialist ideologue. He carefully negotiated and struck a balance between loyalty to Nyerere and driving the reforms. Chief among his reforms was re-initiating negotiations with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – two institutions Nyerere had fallen out with. These negotiations meant that Tanzania was transitioning to a liberal market-led economy.



During Mwinyi’s first term in office, he launched the three-year Economic Recovery Program in 1986. The aim was to spur positive growth, reduce inflation and restore sustainable balance of payments.



With this programme, there was an upturn in the country’s economy with the GDP growing at an average rate of 3.9% compared, to 1% during the 1980-1985 period. There was also a 4.8% increase in agricultural productivity, a 2.7% upsurge in manufacturing as well as a significant growth in external investment. The downside to these reforms was the rise in corruption and misappropriation of public funds. These economic reforms necessitated political reforms. President Mwinyi was able to rally the ruling CCM party, which was reluctant to accept International Monetary Fund and World Bank conditions.



In 1992, the Mwinyi administration acceded to constitutional amendments with a return to multiparty politics.


Foreign policy


Mwinyi also changed Tanzania’s foreign policy. Tanzania had modelled itself as a champion of pan-Africanism and African liberation. This was the key pillar of the country’s post-independent foreign policy.



In line with Tanzania’s position regarding apartheid South Africa, Mwinyi called for tough sanctions as a means of defeating white minority rule.



The transition from Nyerere to Mwinyi in 1985 heralded a new foreign policy with major conflicts in the Great Lakes Region. As President Mwinyi was settling into his second term, conflicts in the Great Lakes began, with Tanzania feeling the need to act as a mediator. In the 1990s, Tanzania was the key facilitator in the Rwanda domestic crisis. The Rwanda Genocide of 1994 had immediate impact on Tanzania with massive inflows of refugees.



President Mwinyi admitted in his autobiography that the Rwanda Genocide was one of his greatest foreign policy challenges. He recalled the circumstances leading to the events of 6 April 1994, the start of the genocide. He had called for the meeting to discuss the peace and security in Burundi and Rwanda in Dar es Salaam.



After the meeting ended, Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira and Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana left in one plane which was shot down, sparking off the genocide in Rwanda. Tanzania received many refugees fleeing the killings. In 1995, Tanzania’s city of Arusha became host of the UN backed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to investigate those charged with genocide. During Mwinyi’s second term in office, plans to revive the East African Community began with the signing of an agreement to establish the permanent commission for East African Cooperation in 1993. This process culminated with reformalisation of the East African Community in 2000.



But it is Mwinyi’s contribution to liberalisation that will be his enduring legacy.The Conversation



Nicodemus Minde, Adjunct Lecturer, United States International University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Greg Abolo

Blogger at The Oasis Reporters.

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