NOT once, but many times, did the recently fallen retired minister for Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation, Mr Bernard Membe make briefings with journalists, usually at wee hours past 1am in any global capitals wherever he had engagements at a given time.
It could be at a high level meeting at the Africa Union in Addis Ababa or somewhere in New York at the United Nations or at other capitals around the world where Tanzania had an interest to advance, whether for itself or for other countries based on shared values.
Courtesy of ‘Daily News’, I was fortunate to have witnessed firsthand some of Mr Membe’s titanic approach to matters of international cooperation, at least on a few geo-political nature assignments that I executed in capitals like Addis Ababa, Kuala Lumpar, London, New York, Washington DC, Maputo, Pretoria among other places.
Regularly in exchanges with journalists, with a tinge of humor and a quiet mien of a rigorous intellectual, Mr Membe often allowed free engagement and a contestation of ideas on matters of diplomacy and security.
On many good days, he would allow journalists to express their thoughts but was ready to counter their views with an official response in case of disagreement. When he spoke, it was always with clarity about a position Tanzania was taking, with powerful justifications based on the country’s history, current affairs and the future.
With this approach, he tended to leave no room for vagueness, thus deterring potential risks for other versions of narratives in public spaces.
Often with responses which were punctuated with prior brief facial reflective gestures, the retired minister was well measured in both his content and form of delivery.
Its quite generally understood that the nature of country to country engagements, at, for example, multilateral meetings tend to have high-level discussions with tight deadlines and outcomes sometimes resulting from high tension meetings.
In Mr Membe, some of these meetings had the right match in his workaholic nature. He usually came out of such meetings, exceedingly passionate about presenting Tanzania’s calculated positions on multilateral matters that had been discussed, sometimes, first checking into his hotel with his team to discuss and draft final documents well into late nights of 1am or 2am.
“Tanzania’s position is…”, so he would usually quip back.
As a junior reporter, my first opportunity to engage the minister, quite from a distance, was in 2009, when Tanzania (as it had often done), was engaging Zimbabwe in a post election situation that had turned chaotic following disagreements between outcomes of the election between the two warring sides of ZANU-PF and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
During this time, as a long time friend of Zimbabwe, Tanzania had to cut a tight balance between its concern for the safety of Zimbabweans amidst the friction between the two political parties and solidarity with Zimbabwe and its leadership.
Another opportunity was in 2009, when President Jakaya Kikwete convened a meeting at the State House in Dar es Salaam to intervene between Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo over relations that had briefly soured around the Albertine region.
Given the nature of the friction, it was important for Tanzania’s Foreign Affairs Minister to severally ‘jump’ out of the closed door meeting to brief the media through out the day behind the State House. The objective of these briefings almost after every 3 hours was to send a message to the ground that an understanding between the two sides was on the way and give assurance that there was progress.
From these bouts of experiences, it was clear that the man understood ‘timing’, precision and impact of urgent messaging in such circumstances.
Fast forward, a few years later, I had moved from The Citizen to Daily News, where my superiors, including Mr Mkumbwa Ally, Ms Tuma Abdallah and Mr Gabriel Mgaya gave me some opportunities to cover the country’s global engagements through President Kikwete’s entourage.
Undoubtedly, the dilemma of a journalist on such an entourage is that one has to be too close to understand inner workings and briefings for more precise reporting, yet tactically remain slightly distant to retain the required relative journalistic objectivity.
More importantly though, generally, it’s a great opportunity to experience first hand the usually unreported efforts on how a Head of State and his/her ministers juggle complex waters of global geo-politics to win a fair share of the world cake in any way possible in order to cascade those benefits down and impact to their own citizens back at home.
Naturally, these opportunities offered me a better chance for more intimate professional engagement with the works of such teams and Minister Membe who was the country’s diplomat number two at the time.
Another such moment was in early March 2011 on an engagement in Addis Ababa, when President Jakaya Kikwete was given a responsibility by the African Union(AU) as part of the leadership on the panel that sought to find a solution to a post elections crisis in Ivory Coast.
In executing this particular mandate, President Kikwete had travelled to the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa and subsequently to Mauritania to find a peaceful resolution to an electoral contestation between the two candidates then, namely the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara.
At the time, the situation in Ivory Coast was getting dire, thus necessitating the AU to be on its toes in frantic efforts to find a solution for the subsequent days.
Any journalist will attest from experience that such meetings seeking solutions of this kind necessitate late workings into the night as leaders and their structures craft ways to handle situations that involve security and lives of people.
This first meeting in Addis Ababa resolved to give Tanzania and South Africa the responsibility to craft the AU statement that would harmonize the situation in Ivory Coast.
We would, in the next three days, more than four times, witness Mr Membe work for hours into late nights, delivering to reporters’ briefings past 1am and at times past 2am, to ensure we delivered information to the public that would release tension in Ivory Coast.
Ultimately in Addis Ababa, the panel recommended the formation of a government of national unity involving all political parties and civil society, while an honorable exit was found for incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo. As a result of these efforts by President Kikwete’s panel then, the country came back to order.
In delivering such information on this and many other foreign matters that Tanzania was involved in, Mr Membe often exuded admirable experience in statecraft and how Tanzania navigated its deserved place in the community of nations.
On this particular case for Ivory Coast, he explained Tanzania’s interest in wanting Ivory Coast back to stability in line with democratic principals of governance, arguing that they did not want West African countries to infect themselves with anarchy that could potentially take those countries through break down cycles to the detriment of the local populace
As I end this humble tribute, I must add that Mr Membe had a unique way of illustrating the linkages between Tanzania’s international relations and the state of domestic affairs and how the country always tries to leverage its soft power in navigating its current economic diplomacy stance. May the soul of this great Tanzanian rest in eternal peace.