Interview with Joaquim Chissano

Interview with Joaquim Chissano. All photos in this post courtesy of Hannah Kelley

In the conference room of the Chissano Foundation, the former president began to speak to the students about Mozambique, focusing more on its history than democracy. Eventually he touched on the country’s early attempts to establish democracy, and then multi-party democracy. In a quiet voice, he held our attention for nearly an hour before we began to ask questions. When a student asked about the early years of Mozambique before democracy, the group took copious notes and sat mesmerized even though they had studied this topic already in the class lectures back in Detroit.

For the next thirty minutes, the African Democracy Project Mozambique students sought to advance their knowledge about the country that was set to hold its fourth election since independence from Portugal. They had come here prepared to poke around the edges of this emerging democracy, but were slowly growing skeptical as to whether it was a true democracy. Chissano acknowledged this skepticism from Americans and Europeans because of the dominance of Frelimo in both pre and post multi-party elections. As he spoke about the opposition, mostly the Renamo party, I sensed a bit of testiness regarding what more was required of Frelimo to convince outsiders that Mozambique’s democracy is genuinely multi-party. My impression is that Chissano is sincerely committed to the concept but, like many Africans, believes it is not fully achievable – not because the Frelimo leaders in power do not support it, but because the people do not truly want it.

Chissano gave two examples of Frelimo’s and the country’s commitment to multi-party democracy. He described an occasion in which Frelimo encouraged Mozambicans to support the opposition. I got the distinct impression that it was not Renamo. The second instance involved the newly established party called Movement for the Development of Mozambique (MDM). He mentioned that the chaotic situation around MDM resulted in many of their applications to establish candidates being denied because they did not follow the constitutional process. This failure left them able to contest parliamentary elections in only three of the country’s eleven provinces. MDM’s young presidential candidate, David Sammongo, was running in all of the provinces. Showing a bit of frustration, Chissano said that the West was pressuring the government to allow MDM on the ballot although they did not qualify. He saw this as duplicity – on the one hand they were being told to honor the constitutional commitment to the multi-party election, and on the other hand they were being advised to violate the constitution by overlooking the mistakes of MDM.

A growing suspicion was emerging in the ADPM students as they sensed Chissano’s uneasiness about MDM, stemming perhaps from MDM’s origins. It was an offshoot of Renamo, made up of disgruntled former members as well as some independents.

Frelimo on the move

Frelimo on the move

One point was clear as the country approached this election: There would be no change because there would be no transition of power. The platform of Frelimo was not Obama-style change. It was more “steady as we go.” There was no bold new policy, no vigorous new leader, no reaching out to the multi-party democracy to which Chissano had committed preceding the 1994 election. Sadly, Mozambique was not evolving into a multi-party country. Renamo had not become a worthy opponent because it seemed unable to gain the confidence of the south. Frelimo did not have to change because, seemingly, the people had not changed. Tired of war and conflict, they already had their villain and their hero – so why change? Yet Frelimo does have one feature in its favor: There is true passion among its supporters. Guebuza, the standard bearer and the incumbent, is seen as safe and confident, and the people appear to crave no more than that.

I had admired Chissano immensely before I met him, and even more upon this second meeting. I identified with him on many levels, the most immediate being as former president. But that was not the main or the closest similarity between us. I understood and sympathized with him deeply in being identified as the first of one’s race to do something. You always know that you are thought of that way both positively and negatively.

Children and church in Chissano's birthplace

Children and church in Chissano's birthplace

Chissano was the first black student to attend the only high school in the colony, Liceu Salazar in Lourenço Marques (present day Maputo). He became a member and subsequently the leader of the Mozambican African Secondary School Students’ Organization (NESAM). I could only imagine what a curiosity he must have been at his secondary school when he arrived. Do you stand out or stay back? Do you try harder or simply try to survive? Do you overcompensate by being less like members of your race and more like the others, or do you try to dispel the stereotypes locked in the minds of the majority?

Stereotypes have frustrated me the most. The fear of being stereotyped gave me the greatest motivation to succeed and to know within myself the standards to which I would adhere. There were those who implied that ethnic minorities were a part of an inequitable system that allowed us to get where we were at the expense of someone else who rightfully belonged there. There were others who felt we were there rightfully because of the injustice that we had endured, and this was an opportunity to make it up. Neither view felt quite right to me. I honestly felt that the reason for my success was a decision early in my life to formulate my own standard of success. Being the “first” was an opportunity not to be squandered, because it could make the difference to so many others who would follow. But being a “first” places an enormous burden on you. I learned to harden myself against the opinions of others in evaluating myself. I was not as good as some people said I was, and I was nowhere as bad as others thought. This knowledge made a lot of difference in my early life transitions and sustained me to the end of my second university presidency.

I still wonder what sustained Chissano as he made transitions in his own life. Rumors had it that he had not stepped down voluntarily. If so, it seemed not to have mattered to him. He is a man of enormous personal discipline who practices meditation and once had his entire cabinet doing the same. The morning newspaper on the day of his birthday gave me insight into his greatest loss: the mysterious murder of his son. That deep loss no doubt must have made this transition more difficult. Nevertheless, he is one of the two most respected African leaders today. The other is Kofi Annan of Ghana, who made Chissano a special envoy during the time he served as Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Our students were a bit disappointed that they did not see in Chissano the fiery warrior that must have existed when he organized and headed up the African student group at his secondary school, or the emerging Frelimo leader who fled to Paris from Tanzania. No, this was the just-turned-seventy-year-old statesman speaking softly about his country’s history and his own frustration with the judgments of the West about African democracy.

He had only become animated when I bought up MDM, which is a grassroots opportunity for change. Through its young leader and many of its enthusiastic and more highly educated members, MDM had captured the excitement of university students and intellectuals. There were no hard statistics, but I felt a definite awareness of this. Perhaps the old warrior was sensing an adversary that might ultimately be the true successor to him and Frelimo. At this moment, there appeared to be in his transition a pause to statesmanship and a temporary throwback to warrior.

A new generation of Frelimo supporters?

A new generation of Chissano supporters?

Transitions are never straight lines; they are often zigzagged or curvilinear. Many people have come out of retirement to continue the work they had left. Corporate executives have tried to return to take over their old companies from perceived heretics. Like a prizefighter, they want one more fight beyond their last glory.

I turned on the television the day after the election to catch up on the campaign, and there was Chissano in the bright yellow and green colors of Frelimo, dancing at a rally. Apparently that dance with the tribal group the night of his birthday celebration was a mere warm-up for the Chissano on the election battlefield. Bring it on Renamo, MDM, and anyone else. Is Chissano back?