I watch Chissano, a peacemaker with humility and compassion, in action. He is standing in the muddy rice paddy fields. He is surrounded by subsistence farmers, men, women and children from the villages of Macia and Mahelice in the Gaza province in Mozambique. They are poor, barefoot, dressed simply and yet with a dignity of a life of labour under the burning sun. No-one would guess he was a president. No big entourage. No fancy cavalcade. No ego of self-importance; just the epitome of humility and compassion.
And like a farmer, his heart is in the land and the well-being of his people. And as in countless occasions where I have seen him across Africa, the people trust him and gravitate to him. The peasants listen. They offload their woes on him. He listens patiently to everyone.
As we leave they agree enthusiastically to have a picture taken with their leader. He fusses around them, making sure everyone is in the photograph. He reminds me of a conductor of an orchestra. I think that is a role he was born into. I silently wish we had more leaders like him. The world would be a better place.
Born in Malehice in 1939, Chissano went to Portugal to study medicine in 1961. Forced to flee because of his political activism, he left to Tanzania and became a founding member of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). Key in the transitional negotiations, he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs when Mozambique became independent in 1975. With the tragic death of President Samora Machel in 1986 in a suspicious air crash over SA, Chissano was elected as his successor.
With a raging 16-year civil war that saw a million lives lost and wanton destruction of the country, he took the bold step to sign a peace settlement with the former rebel movement, Renamo, in 1992. He led the re-drafting of the Constitution that led the country into multi-party democracy. Immensely popular, he won the election in 1994 and was re-elected in 1999.
Then, with his characteristic humility, although he was allowed by the constitution, he stood down in the 2004 presidential elections, believing that the country needed “new blood.” But he continues in a powerful role as the voice of reason in Africa.
In 2004, President Chissano was the first recipient of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Achievement in African Leadership award. When informed in a BBC interview ahead of the prize ceremony, Chissano did not even seem to be aware that this prize was bigger than the Nobel Prize. His surprised response was, “What? It’s worth how much? Five MILLION dollars?”
At the formal ceremony to hand over the prize, Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General who led the panel of six judges, informed those attending of Chissano’s absence from the ceremony. “It has been difficult to reach the former president. He was busy in southern Sudan on a United Nations mission to broker peace between the Uganda government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.”
Unlike so many leaders, Chissano chose to be where he was most needed. As Mo Ibrahim said in awarding the prize, “Although Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries, poverty levels have fallen and foreign investment, including tourism, has grown. Its future looks undeniably brighter after President Chissano’s reign than before. As a man who has reconciled a divided nation and built the foundations for a stable, democratic and prosperous future for the country, he is a role model not just for Africa but for the rest of the world.”
In January this year, Chissano, the current co-chair of the High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), wrote a courageous open letter to Africa’s leaders, saying: “I encourage leaders to take a strong stand for fundamental human rights, and advance the trajectory for basic freedoms.”
He added, “We can no longer afford to discriminate against people on the basis of age, sex, ethnicity, migrant status, sexual orientation and gender identity, or any other basis – we need to unleash the full potential of everyone. As an African who has been around a long time, I understand the resistance to these ideas. But I can also step back and see that the larger course of human history, especially of the past century or so, is one of expanding human rights and freedoms. African leaders should be at the helm of this, and not hold back. Not at this critical moment.”
It was sentiment shared by many African citizens.
But Chissano also has a penchant for mischief. In 2004, in his farewell speech as the Chair of the African Union, he threw a meeting of Heads of State into confusion when he addressed them in Swahili. Officials scrambled around looking for interpreters, while Chissano jokingly offered to translate himself, saying: “I make this farewell address as AU chairman in Swahili to further the AU pledge to promote African identity and languages.” Chissano is not a native Swahili-speaker.
Sharing his views at the third Congress of World Elders in 2013, he said: “Children of today face the consequences of climate change and the risks of armed conflict. They are most likely to die of hunger, face displacement…”
Reflecting on the amazing progress humankind has made in technology and space travel, he ponders on failing human values, “Every human being carries highly-charged positive qualities, and they carry a power all of their own. In contrast, anger or hatred diminishes the individual and family, eroding life wherever they occur. Empowered individuals need not manipulate anyone and their perspectives become far-reaching, visionary and effective.” It’s a message to all of us. And hearing him speak lovingly of his wife, Marcelina Rafael, with whom he has four children, I can see that he practises what he preaches.
If only we could see such leaders rise to the top of our countries. Mozambique, not unlike many of our countries in Africa and the world, shows signs of a breakdown of social cohesion again, the rise of new elites and a growing corruption. But Chissano remains tireless. Perhaps like our own precious founding father Nelson Mandela, he reminds us that “[t]o be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” DM
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