Augustine Mrema, who died aged 77, was an orthodox political figure in Tanzania. He was a former Civics teacher and Bulgarian-trained intelligence officer.
He led a spirited campaign against Tanzania’s grand old party Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) in 1995, finishing second with close to 30 per cent of the vote.
Considering this was Tanzania’s first multiparty election since the system was reintroduced just three years before, in 1992, this electoral performance and nationwide mobilization were precedence-setting. Mrema’s political journey, however, ended where it all began – CCM.
Mrema’s exploits in the political matrix of Tanzania saw him quit CCM six months into the general election in 1995 to join the opposition National Convention for Construction and Reform-Mageuzi (NCCR-Mageuzi) party and run for the presidency.
He will be remembered as a populist feisty politician who betrayed the opposition.
The 1995 general elections elevated Mrema to perhaps his best spell in politics. Mrema served as government minister between 1990 and 1995.
He served in the powerful Home Affairs docket before being demoted and later being expunged from the cabinet after accusing President Ali Hassan Mwinyi of corruption.
During his time as minister, Mrema was tough-talking, condemning corruption and other financial crimes. Described as the Mrema Phenomenon, his tenure as minister for Home Affairs saw him exposing tax evading syndicates.
He rewarded people who exposed illicit and criminal networks. He also recovered lost monies from companies that exported products out of Tanzania.
Mrema demanded civil service accountability and, in 1993, for instance, ordered the confiscation of chairs used by government officials if they were found absconding duty.
On September 29, 1995, Mrema spoke vehemently against government corruption in the hitherto only TV debate pitting the four candidates cleared to run for election that year.
CCM had picked the unpopular candidate Benjamin William Mkapa, the Civic United Front (CUF) candidate was Ibrahim Haruna Lipumba and John Cheyo was the United Democratic Party (UDP) candidate with Mrema representing NCCR-Mageuzi.
During the debate, Mrema spoke on corruption within CCM, building on his previous attacks while serving as a cabinet minister. He used anti-foreigner rhetoric while castigating the CCM government for siding with rich foreign investors at the expense of the locals.
He branded himself as a candidate of the hoi polloi or the Walalahoi (poor and downtrodden), a rhetoric that was later used by President John Magufuli. Mrema embraced the indigenization concept in his campaigns.
Pulling massive crowds
It is widely claimed that Mrema borrowed or copied the indigenization policy agenda from the firebrand Reverend Christopher Mtikila. Mrema managed to pull massive crowds while campaigning in 1995 appealing to urban youth and those in the informal sector.
Tales are told that his popularity scared Mwalimu Julius Nyerere who had fronted his protégé Mkapa.
Nyerere went public to endorse Mkapa, warning that Mrema was not fit to be president because the country would be “thrown into the dogs” with Mrema as president.
Thomas Fisher, who has written a PhD thesis on Chagga Elites and the politics of ethnicity in Kilimanjaro, contends that Nyerere’s intervention was a sign of Mrema’s popularity and dwindling CCM fortunes.
NCCR-Mageuzi announced on July 31, 1995, that it had settled on Abdulrahman Mohammed Babu, the veteran Zanzibari politician as Mrema’s running mate. Babu was a fiery critic of Nyerere.
Babu was disqualified by the electoral body on grounds that he had been tried for treason and was sentenced to death in absentia. Babu was living in the UK in a self-imposed exile after his fallout with Nyerere.
A Mrema-Babu ticket would have been a headache for CCM in the elections.
The Temeke by-election
Mrema is remembered for the 1996 by-elections in the Temeke constituency in Dar es Salaam. There were arguments that Mrema’s ‘political successes’ of 1995 were driven by the ethnic factor. Mrema was a Chagga from Vunjo, Kilimanjaro.
There were undertones suggesting that he was a “Chagga candidate” in a country where ethnicity was not a factor in the political play.
Fisher has, however, argued that the 1996 by-elections in which Mrema won by a landslide deconstructed the argument. His win in Temeke reinforced his populist appeal among the urban Walalahoi.
Mrema would later run for the presidency on the Tanzania Labor Party (TLP) platform in 2000 and 2005, performing abysmally on both occasions.
Before decamping to NCCR-Mageuzi in 1995, Mrema had approached Edwin Mtei, the Chairperson of the CHADEMA party at the time, asking him if he could join them.
Mrema demanded that he run for the presidency and also become the Chairperson of CHADEMA. Mtei was displeased with the demands made by Mrema (see Edwin Mtei biography).
CHADEMA went on to back Mrema’s bid when he joined NCCR-Mageuzi. It is believed that CHADEMA’s forays in the 2005 presidential race ate into the support of Mrema.
Returning to CCM?
In 2010, Mrema ran for the Vunjo parliamentary seat on the TLP ticket and won. In 2015, he ran against James Mbatia of NCCR-Mageuzi, his former party, and lost.
During the 2015 elections, Mrema publicly endorsed John Magufuli, the ruling party candidate.
In 2016, President Magufuli rewarded him with the position of chairman of the Prisons Parole Board. He again ran for the Vunjo seat in the 2020 elections amid poor health. He maintained a close alliance with CCM and frequented CCM party conventions in Dodoma.
In March 2022, Mrema married a young lady in a widely publicized marriage, challenging the young people with the phrase mnakwama wapi? – a phrase that became very popular in Tanzania’s everyday lingua.
In April of this year, Mrema and his new wife appeared at the CCM convention where they were received in adulation from the delegates, including President Samia Suluhu Hassan – a sign that he was well regarded where his political journey all began: CCM.
Nicodemus Minde holds a PhD in International Relations from the United States International University- Africa, Nairobi. He researches the contradictions of memory of the Tanganyika-Zanzibar Union, Zanzibari nationalism and the reconciliation processes in Zanzibar. He can be reached on Twitter at @decolanga. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.