Edward Lowassa, once a colossus in Tanzanian politics, dies

Former Tanzanian Prime Minister Edward Ngoyai Lowassa.

Former Tanzanian Prime Minister Edward Nguyai Lowassa was an astute politician. That is until he ran for president.

His beloved Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party had been running the country since 1977 when it was formed from the merger of the Tanzania African National Union and the Afroshirazi Party. Lowassa misjudged his ambitions and ended up in the country's political dustbin. He wasn't alone.

But this was no ordinary man. Announcing his death on Saturday, Vice President Philip Mpango said he had died at the Jakaya Heart Institute in Dar es Salaam at the age of 70. He had been suffering from high blood pressure and lung problems, the vice president said.

"He had been unwell for a long time and had been receiving treatment at the Jakaya Kikwete Heart Institute since   January 14, 2022, after which he was taken to South Africa for further medical treatment before returning to the institute," Mpango said in a televised statement.

Tanzania immediately announced five days of national mourning for Lowassa, during which flags will fly at half-mast.

The writing was on the wall after he resigned as prime minister on February 7, 2008. A parliamentary report into the emergency power contract implicated Lowassa's hands in irregular procurement. Tanzanians call it the Richmond Scandal and he quit, saying his political enemies were out to get him.

These events influenced the 2015 presidential race. Having recovered, so to speak, from the embarrassing scandal, Lowassa thought he could win favour in the CCM. He contested the party's presidential ticket, but lost to a 'newcomer', John Pombe Magufuli, who was then Energy Minister. Outsiders saw this as an act of self-preservation by Kikwete, who had been seen as one of Lowassa's political enemies since the Richmond scandal.

After losing the primaries, he joined an opposition coalition to run against the government candidate and went head-to-head with Magufuli, but lost.

Over the years, Lowasa accepted his losing streak and moved on, even reconciling with CCM stalwarts including Magufuli before he died in 2021. But these ups and downs also caused him health problems.

At one point, he spent months in Germany, leading to much speculation about his health as the 2015 elections approached. He addressed the media at his home in Monduli, insisting that his dreams were about to come true as his health improved. The dreams were never true.

Born in the heart of Masailand in Monduli in Arusha, northern Tanzania, this man rose to the top of the country's political table through his networking skills.

CCM leadership

Such was his skill that even after he fell out of favour with the CCM leadership, he was still able to get their ear off camera.

For the general public, Edward, as he is affectionately known to his friends, came to prominence when he joined the Cabinet in the early 1990s. He became known as a no-nonsense minister, often issuing directives on the spot when he visited project sites or institutions.

In Arusha, however, they knew as early as the 1960s that this was a chick who could grow up to be a useful rooster.

Unique character

There is a perception that he had a unique character, cunning behaviour and was quick to adapt to changing situations during crises, recalls one of his classmates.

At a time when school riots were common, he mobilised students to stand up for their rights.

His schoolmates, including Abdulrahman Kinana, Hamisi Kibola, Daniel Ole Njoolay, Mathew Ole Kisambu, Walter Maeda and a host of others, said the same thing.

"He was a born leader. He liked to do his job properly," said Mr Maeda, a schoolmate who worked with him in later life.

But the chairman of the regional chamber of commerce in Arusha is quick to describe Mr Lowassa's character as one who played by the rules.

"As our prefect, he tolerated no nonsense. He was straightforward and courageous. We knew he would rise to leadership positions," he said.

To Mr Maeda and those who knew him in his early life, Lowassa had a soft side; he was a singer in the school choir and enjoyed reading literature.

From Arusha, he went to Mirambo Secondary School for his A-levels and later to the University of Dar es Salaam to study Fine and Performing Arts.

Perhaps his political career began in earnest when he was elected as a Member of Parliament on the CCM Youth ticket in the 1985 elections.

In July 1986, he took the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to task for keeping some ambassadors in their overseas posts for too long.

He would argue that some envoys had overstayed to the extent that some had become 'sultans' in their posts.

Between 1985 and 1990, Mr Lowassa was a young Member of Parliament, the backbone of the feared Group of 55, which pushed for some political reforms.

In 1989, his status in the civil service was elevated when he was appointed Executive Director of the Arusha International Conference Centre (AICC).

In December 1990, he was appointed Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office in charge of disaster management.

At the time, hailstorms were ravaging the country, flooding homes, sweeping away bridges and destroying farms.

Cheered wildly

His boss was the then newly appointed Prime Minister John Samuel Malecela under the second phase of the government of President Ali Hassan Mwinyi.

Lowassa's portfolio was not limited to disasters but also included other 'sensitive' areas for which he was mandated to defend the government at all costs.

Lowassa served in several other ministries and proved to be an outspoken administrator with political ambitions.

It was 1995, and Mr Lowassa was awaiting that year's elections with high hopes. He cheered wildly in front of live television cameras at the National Stadium as Benjamin Mkapa was sworn in to succeed President Mwinyi.

Alas! The gamble did not pay off! He was conspicuously absent from the list of cabinet ministers appointed by President Mkapa a few days later. His only job at the time was MP for Monduli.

But there was more trouble to come. In mid-1997, residents of his Monduli constituency and later Arusha City marched to Arusha City with placards saying they did not want Mr Lowassa as their MP.

To the surprise of his opponents, a few days after the march, Mr Lowassa was appointed Minister of State in the Vice-President's Office in charge of the Environment. This meant that a year later (1998) he would lead the country's official delegation to COP 4, the UN climate summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

A year later, President Mkapa appointed him to the Ministry of Water and Livestock.  That meant he could wade into Nile politics. In early 2004, he took Egypt, and to some extent, Sudan, to task over the controversy surrounding the use of Nile water. Both countries had argued for exclusive rights to use the Nile.

As President Mkapa's reign came to an end, Lowassa licked his lips, thinking he was ready for bigger things. He didn't succeed, but he was a strong supporter of Jakaya Kiwete's candidacy in 2005, something he says he has never been rewarded for.

Having served as prime minister in Kikwete's government, it was also around this time that he began to fall from grace. The Richmond scandal erupted at his feet. Some analysts believe that his resignation as prime minister on February 8, 2007, over the scandal was not the right decision.

"It was a wrong gamble for Lowassa. He thought his resignation would clear his name for a CCM presidential candidate in 2015," said Robert Kamakia, an NGO official in Arusha.

He said Lowassa didn't know he had eight years left before the 2015 presidential election, a long time for his influence in the government and the ruling party to fade. In African politics, it is sometimes better to piss on the inside.