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The life and times of Basil Mramba

The life and times of Basil Mramba

Basil Pesambili Mramba who has just passed on was one of Tanzania’s long serving public servants and politician, who reached the pinnacles of power including as Minister for Finance in President Mkapa’s administration.

He was one of founder President Julius Nyerere’s most illustrious and trusted lieutenants.

He served in the Cabinets of Presidents Nyer- ere, Mwinyi, Mkapa and Kikwete. He graduated from the University of East Africa at Makerere in the mid-1960s at a time when Tanzania was facing an acute shortage of manpower especially after the 1967 Arusha Declaration and the ensuing nationalizations of banks, industries, import- export trade, etc.

His first major assignment was with the National Devel- opment Corporation (NDC), then a holding corporation of various industrial, commercial and trading enterprises but also an initiator of new industries and companies.

His mentor was the NDC Chairman and CEO, the renowned industrial and commercial guru “Sir” George Kahama.

I first met him in 1969 when as the NDC’s Group Training Manager he was go- ing up and down the country recruiting staff for the NDC and its affiliated companies.

In 1973 he became the founder CEO of the Small Industries Development Organization (SIDO), an outfit tasked to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

He put in his best and became very much identified by it, so much so that neighbour- ing African countries often tapped SIDO and Mramba’s experiences.

SIDO was a favourite of President Nyerere given his emphasis on home-grown products especially of ordinary folks in rural and peri- urban areas.

Mramba often wrote and made presentations at work- shops on various topics espe- cially on industrial develop- ment and the role of SIDO therein.

When studying the 1970 Presidential and General elections we borrowed from stuff written by Mramba on the 1965 one-party state elections.

Mramba’s work at SIDO and his intellectual in- put in seminars is said to have endeared him well to President Nyerere.

Mwalimu plugged him from SIDO and made him both an MP and Minister for Trade and Industry. It was an important portfolio especially given the many industries and trading companies run by the State. Both the Board of Internal Trade (BIT) and its Regional Trading Companies (RTCs) and the Board of Ex- ternal Trade were under this Ministry.

Hitherto the Ministry was essentially entrusted to the expert hands of three seasoned Senior Ministers - Mohamed Babu, Amir Jamal and Cleopa Msuya, a future Prime Minister.

Henceforth Mramba sought a parliamen- tary seat in his own right and was retained in Cabinet by President Mwinyi in the same capacity.

At the peak of his career in 1995 he lost his parliamen- tary seat. It was rumoured that he was earmarked for the Pre- miership in Mkapa’s adminis- tration.

Although it was said that he used a boastful lan- guage during the campaigns which angered the clergy who are very influential in the area but he might also have been adversely affected by a wave of pro-NCCR-Mageuzi party then led by the populist politician Augustine Mrema, who had made a strong impression in the country as Minister for Home Affairs and Deputy Premier.

President Mkapa ap- pointed him Regional Com- missioner for Mbeya where he served over 1995-2000.

After successively re- claiming his Rombo constitu- ency seat in the 2000 elections he was appointed Minister for Finance in Mkapa’s second term.

He assisted the Presi- dent in his continued policies of privatization, deregulation and private sector develop- ment as well as cultivating a stronger bond with bilateral and multilateral donors lead- ing to increased concessional aid and foreign private investment.

In his enthusiastic sup- port for party and government policies he sometimes used a language at variance with his audience.

This would later put him in trouble with the electorate in his constituency.

Strongly defending a government decision to buy radar for our airports and a Presidential plane he angered some MPs and constituents when he insisted that “the President’s plane will be bought even if it means people eating grass”! Years later when I had an opportunity to talk to him about this episode he regret- ted his phraseology in the Na- tional Assembly.

I reminded him that it was a former Paki- stan Prime Minister Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto who when pressed by USA Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s not to seek to produce an atomic bomb because Pakistan could not afford it, Mr Bhutto retorted that they will finance production of the atomic bomb “even if it means the people eating grass.” Dr Kissinger told him you will see. There was a coup d’état ushering in a military regime which hanged him. We did not know whether to laugh or cry about it. Mr Mramba retained his Parliamentary seat in the 2005 elections. And true to being a “kigogo”( a politician who is always there come sun or rain) the new President Jaka- ya Kikwete appointed him to a key newly created Ministry of Infrastructure Development overseeing the con- struction and management of key transport facilities such as ports and airports.

Being a cautious politician he was one of the first government leaders to voluntarily declare that there could be a conflict of interest in being a Minister in a docket that was incharge of air transport given that he owned shares in the leading privately owned airline, Precision Air.

Possibly for this or other reasons Hon Mramba was dropped in a Cabinet reshuffle. But he was not alone.

Other long-serving Senior Ministers including Joseph Mungai and Bakari Mwapachu were also dropped.

Henceforth he con- tinued his support for the rul- ing Party and its government providing advice behind the scenes so much so that in the 2010 elections President Kik- wete went to Rombo to cam- paign for him.

Despite this Mramba was defeated pos- sibly due to a pro-Chadema wave in the constituency and in Kilimanjaro as a whole. Further misfortunes fol-owed him while he was in semi-retirement.

Together with another ex-Minister for Energy and Minerals Development Hon Daniel Yona he was arrested, locked up and prosecuted for causing the government a loss of Tshs 11.5 billion through abuse of office.

They were accused of awarding tax exemptions to a British mining company, Alex Stewart Assayers and sentenced to three years im- prisonment and a fine of five million shillings. On a positive note there was no evidence of financial or other benefit accruals to them.

The sentence was slightly reduced upon appeal; but they served seven months in prison before they were allowed to serve the rest of their sentence through community work.

Talking to him after he completed his sentence he showed no hatred to anyone despite his belief that it was a cooked up case.

Mramba has died when the government is speeding up infrastructure development; when through VETA some of the work that SIDO undertook is being expanded and when the youth are increasingly starting their own SMEs and linking up with the parastatals for which he dedicated much of his working life.

As the current Rombo legislator and Minister Adolf Mkenda noted he leaves behind an outstand- ing record as an MP.

When I had an opportuni- ty in and out of prison to urge him to write his memoirs he was positive but he was not in a hurry.

He was still making history. Hopefully a book of his extraordinary rich life as a parastatal chief, an MP and Cabinet Minister will come out in the foreseeable future to enrich Tanzanian history.

*Prof NGILA MWASE knew Hon Basil Mramba and witnessed his zeal and determination in discharging his responsibilities as MP and Cabinet Minister. (ngila.mwase@yahoo.com)

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Author: Prof NGILA MWASE

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