African Democracy Project


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?

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

Joachim Chissano, second president of the Republic of Mozambique, entered the conference room of the Chissano Foundation in Maputo to the nervous voices of twelve students from Wayne State University singing “happy birthday to you, Mr. President.” I felt an extraordinary sense of pride in what we had accomplished since I had visited the former president less than a year ago in his study one flight of stairs down. Here we were with the “John Adams” of Mozambique. He is also the first African recognized for his commitment to democracy by a panel of international statesmen including Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson, among others. I felt it a personal honor to be in his presence a second time.

I had actually been with him and Mrs. Chissano the night before at a special mass in the Catholic Cathedral of Maputo in honor of his seventieth birthday. Following our planning meeting, my staff members and I had been invited by Dr. Leonardo Simao, Executive Director of the Chissano Foundation and former cabinet member under Chissano, and the former president’s advisor and personal assistant, Tomas Mabuiangue. We arrived at the Cathedral to find one of the most exciting services I have ever experienced. Looking almost regal, Chissano was seated with his wife just below and to the right of the altar. We were shown to special seats, but quickly left them to ascend a small staircase to obtain a better vantage point for pictures and videos.

For the next two hours, the place rocked with what can only be described as a unique treatment of the Roman Catholic mass. The singing and dancing were followed by processions around the church with the Chissanos participating every step of the way. Then came the most dazzling moment of the evening: a delegation, apparently from Chissano’s tribe, performed for him on the opposite side of the Cathedral. The Chissanos could not resist the tribal dance and rushed over, pausing only to genuflect before the altar. This man of seventy and his bride got right in rhythm with the group, much to the delight of the entire congregation. After another hour or so we left with the clear feeling that this would be no ordinary Catholic service in form, content, or duration. It must have gone on until midnight.

Joaquim Alberto Chissano was born 22 October 1939. He served as the second president of Mozambique for nineteen years from 6 November 1986 until 2 February 2005. He was raised in the remote village of Malehice, Chibuto district, Gaza Province in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique (then called Portuguese East Africa). After leaving secondary school, he studied medicine at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. Because of Chissano’s political activism, his studies there came to an abrupt end, and he fled to Tanzania via France.

Chissano represented Frelimo, the Mozambique independence movement, in Paris during the 1960s. He was known there as a soft-spoken diplomat who worked to reconcile radical and moderate Marxist factions of the Frelimo party. He went on to fight in the Mozambican War of Independence against the Portuguese colonial government and its authoritarian Estado Novo regime, which was engaged in a multi-front colonial war. By the time Mozambique finally achieved its independence in 1975 as a result of the liberation struggle and the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, Chissano had risen to the rank of major-general.

The new president of Mozambique, Samora Machel, appointed him foreign minister, a position he held for the next eleven years. In 1974, Chissano participated in the Lusaka talks that paved the way for the independence of Mozambique, and subsequently became prime minister of the transitional government.

Joaquim Chissano became president in 1986 when Samora Machel’s presidential aircraft crashed in mountainous terrain in South Africa. In 1999, he defeated the former rebel leader, Afonso Dhlakama, by 52.3% to 47.7%. Chissano served as Chairperson of the African Union from July 2003 to July 2004. He chose not to run for a third term in the 2004 presidential election, although the constitution allowed him to do so. Frelimo instead selected as its candidate Armando Guebuza, who defeated Dhlakama by an even bigger margin of votes. Since stepping down as president, Chissano has become an elder statesman and is called upon by international bodies, such as the United Nations, to be an envoy or negotiator. He currently chairs the Joaquim Chissano Foundation and the Forum of Former African Heads of State and Government.

At a ceremony in London on 22 October 2007, Chissano’s sixty-eighth birthday, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that he had been awarded the inaugural five million dollar Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. This award is given annually by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to a former African leader who has shown good governance. The five million dollars are distributed over the course of ten years, plus $200,000 per annum subsequently.

Several of the participating students at a pre-trip potluck

Several of the participating students at a pre-trip potluck

Our twelve Wayne State students are an extraordinarily diverse group comprising three students born in other countries (Korea, Liberia, and Pakistan), three African American females, one student who is part Japanese and whose American-born Japanese grandmother was interned during World War II, another part Native American, one white male, and three white females. They had previously traveled to more than 31 countries. Yet the group includes two students who had not previously traveled outside of the U.S. at all. To me, these students represent America in so many ways, but none as much as its diversity.

Chissano accepting the Ibrahim Prize (source: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org)

Chissano accepting the Ibrahim Prize (source: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org)

In the spring of 2008, Joachim Chissano, former president of the Republic of Mozambique, won the Ibrahim Award in recognition of his commitment to democracy. I wanted to visit Chissano and invite him to speak at our university. At the time, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to ask him to do.

While I was elated with the inaugural lecture for FOCIS by Vicente Fox, something had been missing. It bothered me that the students did not become involved with the project until the former president arrived in Detroit. I had only taken a doctoral student with me to visit Fox in Mexico, but it would have been great for a group of students to have traveled there to learn more about our southern neighbor from its former president and to explore the immigration issue in more detail outside of the U.S. I wanted students to be more involved with Chissano. I wanted them to see more, to own the project, to immerse themselves in some aspect of the former president’s life and country, and to have access to Chissano over a longer period of time.

So my thinking began to jell. What did American students know about Africa? Not very much. What is Africa’s image? Probably they thought only of war, pestilence, tribalism, autocracy, genocide, non-democracy, etc. I had heard Chissano’s acceptance speech as the first recipient of the Ibrahim Award, and decided to propose that a group of students come to visit the former president at the Chissano Foundation to learn about democracy firsthand. Then Chissano would come to Wayne State University as a speaker in the lecture series by former heads of state, spending about a week on campus in various venues with students, faculty, and others.

My assistant, Michael Hicks, contacted the Chissano Foundation in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, extending my invitation. A reply came that very afternoon welcoming such a discussion. In November of 2008, I visited Chissano at his Foundation in Maputo. We were joined by the Foundation’s executive director, Dr. Leonardo Simao, in the library. I appreciated Chissano’s graciousness in seeing me, particularly since he had just arrived home from Europe in the early morning before the meeting.

With Joaquim Chissano in Maputo

With Joaquim Chissano in Maputo

When I told them about my desire to bring American students to Mozambique, both men gave me a rather curious look. I realized that Americans rarely go to Mozambique. I learned later that Chissano could only vaguely recall one other group of American students, and he was unsure of the purpose of their visit. Simao, who had served as foreign minister in the Chissano administration, suggested rather matter-of-factly that I consider bringing students during the 2009 presidential election. Wow! This was precisely the kind of involvement I wanted for a group of students from my university. Obviously I was very excited and anxiously asked the date of the election. They told me that the date had not yet been determined, but it definitely would be in 2009.

I was amazed because “first Tuesday in November every four years” stuck in my mind. I had the naïve idea that all presidential elections were held on fixed dates, and learned that the American democracy was an exception. Regardless of the date, I wanted the students to witness in person democracy in this part of the world, which was relatively unknown to most of us. It would be the opportunity of a lifetime – so different that they should have a way to document their experiences, to extend them beyond the length of the trip. If they made a documentary, it could be a part of Chissano’s visit when he arrived on campus in September 2010.

Joaquim Chissano in his office in Maputo

Joaquim Chissano in his office in Maputo

The former president’s face grew serious as he wondered what the previous group of visiting American university students had accomplished during their time in Mozambique. It was a sobering thought, and I vowed that my students would be different. This project would have substance and meaning for them. I could not bear the idea that given this great opportunity, we would waste the time of the former president of the republic.

Two faculty colleagues and I set out to design a yearlong course called African Democracy Project Mozambique (ADPM). We enrolled a diverse group of 12 students and inaugurated the course in late August of 2009. At the end of this month we will depart on a 12-day trip to Mozambique, preceded by two days in Johannesburg, South Africa, loaded with a broader knowledge of Mozambique than they could have imagined just a few months ago. Imagine what they will experience and learn about democracy, Africa, America, each other, and themselves.

We need to think long and hard about how our students learn about the rest of the world, and how that learning can affect their places in the world. For most of us, Africa is remote – but it is not irrelevant. We are better persons over time because we relate to each other: family, friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens of our country and of the world. This is the lesson about our own democracy that I want our students to learn from the democracies of others.