Professor SIMON Mhelema MBILINYI who passed on last year was one of founder President Julius K Nyerere’s most loyal and trusted lieutenants. He left footprints in five key areas of national endeavour always rising to the highest levels possible. In academia he left as a full Professor and departmental Head.
In the civil service he was Principal/Permanent Secretary in the key Ministries of Agriculture and Finance. In the diplomatic service he served as Ambassador in a major posting. He was for many years a reputable parastatal Chief in a key holding corporation. In politics he was a senior Cabinet Minister; only the Presidency bypassed him when he tried his luck in 1995.
Prof Mbilinyi was a student of the most famous Universities (Cornell, Stanford, Michigan, Dar-Es-salaam) where he majored in agricultural economics. His PhD was on the economics of the production of coffee, one of the main export commodities. He started his teaching and research career in the University of East Africa in 1967.
He was doing the same at the University of Dar-Es-Salaam (UDSM) when I first met him in 1970. I came to know him fully when I worked with, and under him, in the University’s Economic Research Bureau (ERB), of which he was Director. Under his guidance the Bureau spearheaded policy-oriented research and disseminated its findings to policy makers and managers. He authored many academic papers and books substantially improving knowledge on many aspects of agriculture in the tropics including dry land farming.
Prof Mbilinyi then moved to State House as Economic Advisor to President Nyerere in 1975, initially working alongside Prof Justinian Rweyemamu and later carrying the mantle alone. Both UDSM economists were taking over from an expatriate, Knud Svendsen. Prof Mbilinyi was not just an economic theorist but as his wife Prof Marjorie Mbilinyi once put it “a problem-solving, pragmatic economist”, quite amenable to quick nation decision- making.
Given the drought-related food shortages of the mid1970s and the astronomical five-fold fuel price increases over 1973-1979 concerns were raised even in the ruling TANU party about the huge scarce foreign exchange that was used to import food in an agricultural country that should be exporting food and other agricultural products. Thus in 1981/82 Prof Mbilinyi was appointed Chairman of a Presidential Commission on Agricultural Reform, the first since the one headed by French agronomist Professor Rene Dumont, author of the classical book False Start in Africa in the 1960s.
The Mbilinyi Commission recommended opening some space for private sector input in commercial agriculture, initiating a national land policy and strengthening the cooperatives. He was then appointed Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture to help steer implementation of his recommendations. I saw him often at his office at Pamba House where he put strong emphasis on increasing agricultural yield especially in crop agriculture.
He was one of the few agricultural experts that later put theory into practice when he engaged in commercial agriculture. Prof Mbilinyi as ERB Director also doubled up as one of nine Tanzanians who represented the country in the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA). They were nominated by the Government but endorsed by Parliament testing their wider popular appeal in the country.
The EALA was legislating on, monitoring and providing oversight of the gigantic East African Community (EAC) that controlled the East African economy through joint ownership and management of the East African Railways, Airways, Harbours and Posts and Telecommunications. He was a key member of a number of EALA’s Select Committees that probed the functioning of the Community and its corporations.
I worked with him then on many aspects that were bedeviling the EAC before its disintegration and collapse in 1977. Later after a stint at State House and Pamba House Prof Mbilinyi carried this diplomatic work to Brussels as Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Economic Community(EEC) over 1985-1989. He used to update through fat reports not just the Foreign Ministry but other important entities including the ERB on his work in Brussels especially on potential foreign private investment. He used to complain about poor or slow response from sector Ministries including Agriculture.
His diplomatic work did not end with his Brussels assignment. After retirement he served as Honorary Counsel of the Republic of Croatia, one of the ex-Yugoslavia Republics. While at UDSM, Prof Mbilinyi used to lament about the state-owned enterprises that could not break even, which he said were monsters that would swallow the economy! However he was later moved to manage them, including the largest and most complex, the National Development Corporation (NDC), where on different occasions he served both as Chief Executive and Chairman.
After retirement from the civil service Prof Mbilinyi entered the world of politics, where he had begun in the preand immediate post-independence era as he served TANU voluntarily through training its cadres over 1958-1961 and being a founder member of the TANU Youth League (alongside Joseph Nyerere and Michael Baruti). He successively vied for a Parliamentary seat becoming Member of Parliament for Peramiho constituency in Ruvuma region, 1995- 2005.
He had earlier attempted to stand for the Presidency but stood down in favour of Benjamin Mkapa who had been his senior in the political landscape. In his first Cabinet President Mkapa appointed him Minister for Finance. As a former Principal Secretary to the Ministry he was best suited for the post. He followed a trend of exPrincipal Secretaries including Cleopa Msuya and Edwin Mtei who were later elevated to Ministers of Finance.
With a technocratic background and an academic mindset he was most suited to President Mkapa’s more liberal economic reform agenda including privatization of state owned enterprises and re-establishment of relations with the Bretton Woods institutions allowing massive debt relief under the HIPC initiative, access to IMF and World Bank loans and improved relations with bilateral donors leading to increased grants, loans and foreign direct investment.
Unfortunately Prof Mbilinyi did not last long in the Ministry. He resigned upon pressure from the opposition parties following a scandal on the sale of fish in Lake Victoria for which the learned Professor was accused of benefiting materially, an accusation he vehemently denied. However, in his Memoirs President Mkapa noted that he reluctantly accepted Prof Mbilinyi’s resignation because he and his Deputy, were not working as a team.
After his resignation he continued as MP but also undertook a number of government assignments. He was for example Chairman of both the Tanzania Investment Centre and the Miners Association. As Chairman of the Council of the Open University of Tanzania, 2000-2010 he used to lament at the falling standards of education which he partially associated with the somewhat haphazard introduction of universal primary education (UPE).
He engaged in a number of community projects including in particular opening of primary and secondary schools in his constituency. This was fondly acknowledged by the current area MP at his funeral service in Dar-Es-Salaam in December 2020. It is a sign of how he was held in high esteem that when I arrived at the funeral house at Masaki in Dar-Es-Salaam upon his death President Jakaya Kikwete had just left. Ambassador Christopher Liundi was there as was former Cabinet Minister, Dr Mary Nagu.
Surprisingly there were a host of “men in uniform”, who were continuously receiving phone calls from serving and retired senior Army officers about funeral arrangements. Some were relatives but I suspected there were others remembering his contribution as a financial mobilizer and/or strategist during the 1978-1979 UgandaTanzania war and its aftermath.
The place was full of gender specialists/activists from Mary Rusimbi to Aseln Nkya paying homage to, and comforting the widow, Mrs Marjorie Mbilinyi, a talented American academic who had fallen in love not just with Mbilinyi but Tanzania and its people. In a somewhat rare act of faith she changed her nationality from American to Tanzanian way back in the 1960s, did her PhD in education at UDSM and is a leading educationalist-cum-gender specialist and activist. Prof Mbilinyi was a great son of Tanzania, with a panAfrican outlook.
His work impacted on many aspects of the Tanzanian and East African economy. He was a man of the people who used his talents to benefit his country especially the poor. He will be greatly missed. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
Prof NGILA MWASE was a student and workmate of Professor/Ambassador Simon Mbilinyi.
(ngila.mwase@yaPROF Mbilinyi hoo.com); Tel. 0752-427427