NAIROBI, Kenya — Benjamin Mkapa, the third president of Tanzania and the leader of the country during a crucial period of democratic transition, died Friday at a hospital in the port city of Dar es Salaam. He was 81.
His death was announced by President John Magufuli. Magufuli did not give a cause of death, but he declared seven days of mourning during which flags would fly at half-staff across the country.
"I will remember him for his great love for the nation, his piety, hard work and his efforts in building the economy," Magufuli said in a message posted on Twitter. "Certainly, the nation has lost a strong pillar."
Mkapa was the president of Tanzania from November 1995 to December 2005 and was the first leader elected after the return of multiparty politics in 1992.
During his tenure, Mkapa played a central role in helping the country transition from a socialist system of development — popularly known as ujamaa — into a free-market economy.
He overhauled the largely ineffective public sector, privatized state-owned corporations, widened the tax collection base, secured international debt relief and helped incentivize the growth of the private sector.
"We recognize that the government has no business on the eve of the 21st century to be in business," he said a few weeks after coming to power.
"By withdrawing from direct production activities, the government will have more resources with which to strengthen essential social services, economic infrastructure, human capital development and performance of the traditional roles of state in particular the maintenance of law and order," he added.
While Mkapa promised to wage war on graft during his campaign, his 10-year reign was dogged by allegations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds. This was especially true of the mining sector, where Mkapa was accused of overseeing contracts that benefited him and his family that were signed during his administration.
Mkapa denied the allegations, but successive governments, all of which were controlled by the same party, have been accused of an unwillingness to investigate Mkapa and his inner circle, while newspapers that mounted investigations were banned. Mkapa was also criticized for spending millions on a presidential jet even as the country struggled to reduce poverty levels.
Before becoming president, Mkapa worked in various capacities in government for almost three decades. In the 1970s, he was employed as the presidential information officer for Julius Nyerere, the founding father of modern Tanzania.
Mkapa later became a lawmaker, and he served in cabinet positions including minister of foreign affairs, minister of information and culture, and minister of science, technology and higher education. He also served as ambassador to countries including Canada, India, Nigeria and the United States.
Earlier in his career, Mkapa was a prominent journalist, serving as the executive editor of the English language newspaper The Daily News and becoming the founding editor of the Tanzania News Agency in 1976.
Benjamin William Mkapa was born on Nov. 12, 1938, in the town of Masasi, in the Mtwara region of southern Tanzania. After attending schools in Tanzania from 1945 to 1956, he completed a major in English language at Makerere University in Uganda in 1962. He also attended Columbia and received a master's degree in international affairs from the university in 1963.
Mkapa is survived by his wife, Anna Mkapa, and two children.
After he left office, Mkapa worked with a number of global organizations responding to different political, economic and social crises. He was on the board of the International Crisis Group, participated in a U.N. panel on trade and development and was the chairman of a team sent by Ban Ki-moon, then the global organization's secretary-general, to monitor a 2010 referendum on independence for South Sudan.
Mkapa also set up a foundation in his name that worked closely with the Clinton Foundation to improve maternal health and child care services, and to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS in Tanzania.
Tributes to Mkapa poured in from across the world Friday. In neighboring Kenya, leaders remembered his contribution to the mediation efforts during the turbulent postelection violence in 2008.
President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya sent a message of condolence, remembering Mkapa as "an outstanding East African who worked tirelessly for the integration, peace and progress of the region."