Saturday, August 31, 2013

My Times and Life in the Presidency: Just Soup!

January Makamba
August 31, 2013

In May 2006, President Kikwete made his first visit to the United States as President of Tanzania. He had a busy program, including invitation for a lunch with a select group of United States Senators. The lunch took place at the Senate Dining Room, billed as exclusive wheeling-and-dealing spot where the actual Senate business takes place.

The President was asked to bring along two people for the lunch. He brought along Hon. John Cheyo, a Parliamentarian and the then Chairman of Public Accounts Committee, who was part of the delegation. He then asked me to come along – to take notes and coordinate follow-up to the meeting, if that becomes necessary.

The Senators sent one of their own to receive the President outside on arrival and escort us to the dining room. This Senator had a certain aura and bouncy, confident walk. He chatted-up the President as we walked through the corridor to the dining room.

The dining room was not as auspicious as I had imagined. It was busy and informal, with people eating and chatting as we walked through to our table. As a student of American politics, I recognized many faces.

At our table, there were five or six Senators including Russell Feingold from Wisconsin, who had interest in human rights and Great Lakes region of Africa; Senator Thad Cochran, who was the host, from Mississippi, back then Chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriation Committee; Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana, a statesman who was then Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Senator Dick Durbin, from Illinois. Many others passed by our table to say hello as the lunch proceeded. 

I had soup only as I had to keep up taking notes as the principals conversed. The Senator who sat next to me, the one who came to pick us up outside, insisted that I should order lunch. I summoned enough confidence to joke that a better lunch is waiting for me somewhere in town. He got the joke.

The Senators sought the President’s advice and insight on many issues in Africa.  The President was extremely eloquent about his vision for Tanzania and many issues on Africa and the kind of partnership that we can pursue. I believe that the outcome of the lunch contributed to the new dawn in the United States –Tanzania relations, which has been lukewarm for many years (no USA President had visited Tanzania before, except Clinton briefly in Arusha to support Mandela’s effort on Burundi peace process).

The lesson I came away with was that in other democracies, people elect extremely accomplished and intelligent people as their representatives (performance and honesty is a different debate). People who go into politics are those who have gone through the intellectual rigour that top schools (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc.) or the discipline that military service, provides. They don't always succeed but Americans at least attempt to assemble the best amongst themselves as their leaders. A smart and successful Prosecutor, for instance, is prodded to go into politics.

 What was interesting about this lunch was how much leaders (not just Presidents) in other countries are curious about the world and how it operates. We have [TV] stars in our Parliament, and are local celebrities, but it is critically important that they are curious and attempt to understand how this new brave world work and what are new dynamics shaping the future. The Senators we had lunch with engaged us abstractly and intellectually and also on bread-and-butter issues. 

The lunch concluded with Senators confident that they have found a new friend in President Kikwete and all promised to keep in touch and keep engaged (my first task after lunch back at the hotel was to draft for the President thank-you letters to each Senator).

Nine months later, in February 2007, the Senator who picked us up and escorted us to lunch, who prodded me to order lunch, who talked less at the lunch, was on TV announcing that he is running for President of the United States. Against all odds, with only three years in the Senate, he would go on to become the President.