Former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano along with award-winning women farmers Carmina Pessane and Jesse Kaunde of Malawi.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
A democrat and global peace envoy
Published on January 20, 2008, 12:00 am
By Dennis Onyango
Knowing when to give up power. That, largely, is what made former Mozambique President Joaquim Chissano the good name he enjoys now and the moral authority he now commands to mediate in conflicts.
When Chissano began his second term as president in 2000, he made two promises; One to fight corruption and poverty and two, to make his second term, the final one of his presidency.
In a region where presidents were routinely changing the constitution to make themselves rulers for life, Chissano was not expected to keep his word. It would not have come as a big surprise if he did not. After all, he would have been in good company.
There had been speculation that he may be tempted to follow some of his southern African counterparts and attempt to stay in power. There was Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba and Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi. Come 2004, Chissano announced that he would not be seeking a new term in that election and asked his party, Frelimo, to start looking for a Presidential candidate.
There was pressure from within Frelimo for Chissano to change his mind, an issue that was expressed strongly at the Frelimo National Cadre Conference held in the city of Beira in September, 2004. But Chissano, at the time, said he needed time to find out whether a substantial majority of the population, not just of Frelimo, wanted him to run again.
He maintained that he had never planned to stay in power for long, arguing that "people have the right to retire at the age of 65".In the end, the ruling Frelimo party had to accept his decision. It is this action, which earned him the title of a democrat among the despots.
It is the same action that gave Chissano the standing to lead three other retired presidents into Kenya last week to help put out the fires lit by the struggle for power.
It has been a remarkable journey that appears headed to end well for Chissano. Born on October 22, 1939, in the remote village of Malehice, Chibuto district, Gaza province, Chissano was to become a rebel leader and later the second President of Mozambique.
After high school, Chissano went to Portugal to study medicine, but his political convictions forced him to leave the country. He fled to Paris in 1961, en route to Dar-es-Salaam, where he joined the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in 1962, as a founding member.
In 1963 he became a member of Frelimo’s Central Committee, having also held various important posts in the party, including Private Secretary of the President and Head of the Departments of Education and Security.
Chissano played a fundamental role in the Lusaka Accord negotiations, signed on September 7, 1974 between Frelimo and the Portuguese Government on the Independence of Mozambique. As leader of the FLM, Chissano helped negotiate the 1974 Lusaka Accord that freed Mozambique from Portuguese rule.
But the nation he freed quickly sank into civil war between his Communist-backed government and a rightist, South Africa-backed movement called Renamo. When Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, died in a 1986 aircraft crash, Chissano succeeded him.
Helped end civil war
He deftly brokered an end to the civil war and shepherded a new constitution based on democratic rule. He also moved from Marxist economic policies to market-based strategies. In the last decade Mozambique has regularly enjoyed economic growth of between seven and eight per cent annually.
On September 20, 1974, he took office as Prime Minister of the Transition Government that led Mozambique to the proclamation of its National Independence on 25 June 1975.
After the proclamation of the Independence, Chissano was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs. In his capacity as head of Mozambican diplomacy, he helped the country to acquire respect and admiration all over the world. He was also part of the team of President Samora Machel that prepared, negotiated and signed the N’Komati Accord in 1985 between the governments of Mozambique and South Africa.
Last October, at City Hall in London, Chissano became the first winner of Africa’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize; the Achievement in African Leadership Award, which comes with $5m in prize money.
But Chissano was not there to personally receive the award.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who led a panel of six judges, reported that it had been difficult to reach the former president.
At that time, Chissano was busy in southern Sudan on a United Nations mission to broker peace between the Uganda government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.
Two weeks ago, Chissano and former presidents Benjamin Mkapa, Ketumile Masire and Kenneth Kaunda jetted into Kenya to try and bring some sanity into an insane situation.
Chissano, Mozambique’s second president, was a crucial figure in ending his country’s 16-year civil war, a feat he is now trying to achieve in other countries.
Last year, Chissano won the Mo Ibrahim Prize for his "achievements in bringing peace, reconciliation, stable democracy and economic progress to his country".
Chissano’s decision to retire as president in 2004 — although he was eligible to seek a third term — was also an important factor in his selection, Annan said.
The award, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, is given only to a former African head of state who was freely elected and governed according to his or her nation’s constitution.
But it is the way Chissano left power that has clearly been his greatest strength. It landed him the Mo Ibrahim Prize which goes to an African ruler who has been elected, stepped down on time — without trying to change the constitution to remain in office for life — and made life better for his people.
Chissano beat 13 other African rulers who have stepped down in the last three years. Of the 13, six had come to power through coups and were, therefore, easily dismissed.
Chissano brought Mozambique from the depths of horror and starvation in the 1980s to a stable country with an economy growing at nearly nine per cent.
Chissano began as a rebel leader, being founder of the Mozambican Liberation Front, a Marxist guerrilla movement that battled to end Portuguese rule in the 1960s and 1970s. But he proved willing to ditch conflict and ideology at critical junctures to turn his nation from a war zone into a stable although poor democracy.
The former Mozambique President has also gone against stereotypes. He is credited with having turned war-torn Mozambique into one of Africa’s most successful democracies.
Machel’s sudden death in a plane crash in 1986 catapulted Chissano into full leadership, and into the heart of a bitter civil war raging across the country.
Renamo, the rebel group fighting the government, was effectively being run by the much more powerful apartheid regime in South Africa. It was a well-known Pretoria tactic to destabilise neighbouring countries that were tempted to support Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress movement.
When Mozambique’s 16-year war finally ended in 1992, it had claimed almost a million lives and uprooted hundreds of thousands of others, left the economy and infrastructure in tatters and society deeply divided. The treaty signed by Chissano earned him the name of "peacemaker" at home and plaudits for his quiet brand of compromise abroad.
In what showed he was not keen on the winner takes all brand of African politics, Chissano offered half of the places in Mozambique’s 30,000-strong army to rebel soldiers. It is in his role in leading Mozambique from conflict to peace and democracy that Chissano is seen to have made his most outstanding contribution.
When he signed a deal with Renamo and ended the war, Chissano had a chance to disown the agreement and shore up his power base, even if his country receded to war.
He did the opposite. Within two years Chissano had organised Mozambique’s first multi-party elections and faced his old Renamo rebel adversary, Afonso Dhlakama, in a 1994 poll.
"He managed to speak with the opposition, to respect them and to bring them to the table. That is where he showed his force of character, his leadership. How many leaders have done this?" a panellist asked while awarding Chissano last October.
Although Mozambique is still largely a poor country, Chissano played an important role in pushing debt relief up the international agenda.
His push led to Mozambique finding itself among the countries which had £22bn pounds of debt written off after the G8 Africa summit in 2005.
The Mozambique he left behind is poor but poverty levels have fallen and foreign investment, including tourism, has grown as the nation enjoys the fruits of peace he planted. Its future looks undeniably brighter after Mr Chissano’s reign than before.
After giving his country a popular constitution, he was chosen president in 1992 in the nation’s first multiparty elections, and re-elected in 1999. He chose to retire in 2004, against the wishes of some of his party officials and against the tradition set by his southern Africa neighbours.
But he left with honour and has frequently served since then as a diplomatic trouble-shooter for the United Nations and other bodies, a feat not many African retired Presidents can be trusted with.
He has been hailed as "living proof that power doesn’t have to go to the head."
Chissano is reported to be a believer in and practitioner of "transcendental meditation".
"First, I started the practice of transcendental meditation myself, then introduced the practice to my close family, my Cabinet ministers, my government officers and my military. The result has been political peace and balance in nature in my country," he was quoted saying.
In a continent that produced Omar Bongo, who clocked up 40 years as president of Gabon, or Chad’s leader Idriss Deby, who changed the constitution to maintain his iron grip on power, Togo’s Gnassingbe Eyadema, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and Malawi’s Kamuzu Banda, who proclaimed themselves as presidents-for-life, Chissano would have been in good company if he stayed on. But he did not and that is why he is free to travel the world.
Despite the fact that number 5 of Article 118 of the Mozambican Constitution allowed him to stand in the 2004 presidential elections, Chissano decided voluntarily not to do so. That decision not to seek a third presidential term was seen to have reinforced Mozambique’s democratic maturity and demonstrated that institutions and the democratic process were more important than the person, the judges said when they awarded him the prize.
Chissano’s unspoken message, which is also captured in the award he won, is essentially to urge African leaders to retire young. He stands in harmony with Western leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who enjoy a lucrative retirement full of lectures, after-dinner speeches and consultancies — a feat too hard for many African leaders.
The joke has been that some former African leaders cannot even afford to rent an apartment in their own capitals. Thus comes the temptation to cling to power till they die.After retiring from office, Chissano was in 2005 appointed by Kofi Annan Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for the September 2005 Summit to Review the Implementation of the Millennium Declaration, as well as Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to Guinea-Bissau. Not many former African presidents ever achieve that.
His highest awards have not been those he gave himself in his own country, as many African Presidents do. Chissano’s awards have come from Angola, Portugal, South Africa, Brazil, Cape Verde, Nicaragua, France, Bulgaria, Madagascar, Cuba, Benin, Romania, Uganda, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Lesotho and Mozambique itself.
He received several prizes and awards including the Hunger Project Prize, the Together for Peace Award and the Kellog Foundation Award.
He has been awarded honorary doctorates from St John’s University in New York; UniversitÈ Libre de Brussels, Universidade de Coimbra University in Portugal, University of Macau, University of Malawi, University of Batton Rouge in the USA, and Universidade Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique.
He has been awarded the Title of Professor Emeritus by Beijing University for International Affairs of the Popular Republic of China, The Higher Institute for International Relations of Mozambique (which he founded in 1986) and by Instituto PolitÈcnico e Universit·rio of Mozambique.
Chissano is member of the Club of Madrid, The Hunger Project (Board of Directors) and the Nelson Mandela Institution (for Science and Technology). He is also an Honorary Member of the Maputo Rotary Club, The Organisation of the Mozambican Workers (OTM), The National Organisation of Mozambican Teachers, and Mozambican Association of Economists. He is further the Patron of the Mozambique National Song and Dance Company and of The Mozambique Institute of Information and Communication Technology.
Currently, he is the Chairperson of the Joaquim Chissano Foundation and of the Africa Forum of Former African Heads of State and Government.
Chissano speaks five languages fluently: Changana, Portuguese, Kiswahili, English and French, while speaking reasonably three other languages: Spanish, Italian and Russian.
He is routinely described as unobtrusive, simple and humble; a former president, who does not barge in forcefully, does not surround himself with a huge entourage, a man you would hardly remember this is an ex-president.