By Staff Writer Joseph Collins
The African nation of Mozambique is a poor but growing nation, with a long and difficult history. For centuries, it was a Portuguese colony deeply involved in the African slave trade. When it finally gained independence in 1975, Mozambique quickly descended into a brutal and lengthy civil war that lasted more than 15 years. Fortunately, in the midst of the war, new leadership emerged that would transform the country and set it on a new path toward peace and stability.
In 1986, Joaquin Chissano became president and implemented a wide range of political and economic innovations. During his tenure, he negotiated for peace, created a more dynamic, free-market economy, initiated widespread democratic reforms, and worked to reduce poverty throughout the nation. His vision, intelligence, and compassion, made him one of the most admired African leaders of the 20th century. And in 2007, he became the first African leader to receive the Mo Ibrahim Prize for outstanding achievement in African leadership.
Over the course of his presidency (1986-2005), Chissano turned Mozambique into one of the most successful democracies in Africa. Today, it is a stable, peaceful nation, with strong democratic institutions. But Chissano was no ordinary leader and his methods were often more innovative than most could have imagined. For instance, he introduced a mandatory transcendental meditation policy throughout his country for all police and military personnel. His goal, he said, was to create “political peace and balance in nature in my country.” And despite the skepticism of critics, the policy was highly successful. In fact, the program soon became a part of life for over 30,000 civilians as well. In 2001, his Defense Minister said that “the effect was overwhelming,” and had reduced crime and created three times the average economic growth.
After his 19 year presidency, Chissano stepped down to ensure a peaceful transition of power. As he move on, however, he remained in public service, going on to become an elder statesman, an envoy and diplomat for Mozambique and the United Nations. Chissano’s commitment to his country and democracy and peace has earned the respect of other leaders in Africa, and he continues to speak out for democratic principles and human rights. To this day, Chissano is an inspiration to many throughout Africa and the world.
FROM POVERTY TO POLITICS
Joaquim Albert Chissano was born October 22nd, 1939 in a remote village (Malehice) in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. He and his family lived in desperate poverty and survival was a daily struggle for them. Despite the hardships he faced, however, Chissano completed his early schooling and went on to become the first black student to attend high school in Mozambique. Upon graduating, he went on to study medicine at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon in Portugal.
Although Chissano was an excellent student, he became increasingly politicized during his time in Portugal. A passionate supporter of Mozambican independence, he began organizing students for political action. In 1961, he founded the National Union of Mozambique Students, a group which tried to draw the attention of foreign sympathizers towards the depleted condition of his homeland. It was during this period in his life that he began to develop his natural leadership qualities.
Eventually, his political activities got him kicked out of Portugal. He returned to Africa and became involved with a group of exiled Mozambicans living in neighboring Tanzania, who were plotting to fight against the Portuguese to gain Mozambican independence. In 1962, Chissano and several other rebels formed the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) – a group that would become on of the most powerful political parties in Mozambique.
Over the next decade or so, Chissano became a major part of the movement for Mozambique’s independence, taking on various roles in the leadership of the FRELIMO party. In the mid-1970s, he played an important role in negotiating the Lusaka Accord (1974), an agreement that set up the terms for Mozambique full independence and autonomy from Portugal. In1975 the agreement went into affect and Mozambique became a free and sovereign nation. As a new Mozambican government was established, Chissano was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs – to reward him for his important role in negotiating the nation’s long-sought independence.
The new government tried to reform the nation, but stumbled along the way. They initiated programs that helped the poor gain greater access to food, education, and welfare. At the same time, however, they set-up a Marxist-style, one-party system that limited political freedoms and suppressed any forms of dissension. The country declared itself a socialist nation, and quickly got caught up in the international politics of the Cold War. As the Mozambican government turned increasingly to the left, a strong opposition movement formed, sparking a bloody civil war that would last for more than a decade. Anti-government rebels, known as RENAMO, gained support from the powerful white-minority governments in South Africa and Zimbabwe (the Rhodesia). Over time, the war became increasingly brutal and vicious, with both sides committing severe atrocities. More than 5 million people were displaced by the fighting, and more than 1 million died from the fighting and from mass starvation.
CHISSANO THE REFORMER
Although Chissano served as Foreign minister for more than 11 year, he did not fully agree with all of the government’s Marxist ideals. He was also eager to form alliances with nations on both sides of the Cold War. Known for his warm and courteous manner, Chissano earned widespread respect internationally. He was not only popular in his own country, but was well regarded and appreciated on the global stage. Therefore, when the president of Mozambique – Samora Machel – died in a plane crash in 1986, Chissano was the clear choice to replace him. He ran for the position and won the election easily, becoming the second President of Mozambique.
As Chissano assumed the presidency, he announced that his main objective was rejuvenation of the economy and to end the country’s long and bloody civil war, which had destabilized the nation and disrupted its financial growth. On December 17th, 1987, Chissano announced that he was offering amnesty to the rebels and a reduction in jail sentences in order to move peace negotiations forward.
By 1992, a peace treaty had been negotiated between Chissano and the rebels, officially bringing the sixteen year war to an end – to the relief of Mozambicans nationwide. Not long after, Chissano had a new constitution drawn up, which got rid of the old 1-party system and replaced it with a fully democratic, multi-party system.. Two years later, in 1994, Mozambique held its first truly democratic, multi-party election. Due to the enormous progress he brought to his country and his popularity, Chissano, easily won a second term as president.
FIGHTING FOR THE POOR
When Chissano was re-elected, his primary goal during his second term was to eradicate poverty in his country. During the civil war, the nation’s poverty rate increased significantly, due to the extensive economic disruption. Chissano hoped to get the country back and track, renew economic growth, and get assistance to the needy. However, his initial efforts were thwarted by severe flooding in February and March of 2000 due to Hurricane Eline, a massive storm that hammered South Africa. After five weeks of steady rainfall, causing rivers to overflow, Mozambique suffered severe flooding, with 700 to 800 people losing their lives and some 44,000 losing their homes. Under Chissano’s guidance, the government distributed 15 million dollars to its citizens to accommodate for property damage and loss of income.
In spite of this catastrophic set-back, Chissano continued to fight to reduce poverty, eventually achieving significant progress. Due to his anti-poverty initiatives, about 15% of the country’s citizens – nearly 3 million people – were raised out of extreme poverty. While other African nations saw their poverty remain stagnant or rise, Chissano made major in roads.
Determined to make additional economic gains, Chissano initiated a wide range of reforms, transforming Mozambique’s economy from a tightly controlled socialist model to more of a free market-based system. In addition, he played a large role in convincing other countries to forgive some of the nation’s debt. All of these successes helped his country to achieve an economic growth rate of 8%, which was remarkable at the time. More impressively, his antipoverty programs helped to lower child mortality rates for children under age five by 35%. To no one’s surprise, when Chissano ran once more for a third term as president in 1999, he won once again.
BEYOND THE PRESIDENCY
After three terms as a successful president of Mozambique, Chissano decided not to run again and stepped down, a testament to his devotion to the basic ideas of democracy and free elections. However, he remained actively involved in politics to continue to help his country. In the years after 2005, Chissano became an elder statesman and worked hard to champion for peace as an envoy and peace negotiator for the United Nations. He also served as Chairperson for the African Union from July 2003 to July 2004. As someone who spoke several languages, including English, French and Portuguese, and a man with an affable personality, Chissano was well suited for the job. And in 2006, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, appointed Chissano as Special Envoy to resolve the conflict between Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan.
For his efforts in promoting and negotiating peace, Chissano was awarded the $5 million Prize for Achievement in African Leadership by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in 2007, an organization started specifically to recognize excellent leadership in Africa. Although he could not be there in person to accept the award (due to ongoing peace negotiations in Sudan), one of the judges honored Chissano by pointing out his maturity and effectiveness as a leader.
Throughout the years that followed, Chissano continued to work to advance the prosperity of his country, its people, and its wildlife. Chissano actively looked for groups that needed protection and did his best to help them. In 2013, a wildlife preservation initiative was launched at the Joaquim Chissano International Conference Centre, in Maputo. A year later, in 2014, he spoke out in favor of human rights for the lesbian and gay community in Africa, a boldly progressive move on a continent where oppression based on sexual preference is still widespread.
Chissano remains active to this day. Currently, he is the Chairperson of the Joaquim Chissano Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting peace, economic development, and culture. He is also an active member of The Hunger Project, International Crisis Group, Peace Parks Foundation, Goodwill Ambassador for CPLP (Portuguese Spoken Countries Community) and Global Partnership Initiative Youth Ambassador.
Joaquim Chissano, someone clearly dedicated to helping others, has risen to the occasion, time and time again, to improve the conditions of his country and its people, as well as people from other nations. His commitment to peace, prosperity and reducing poverty and hunger has earned him a reputation as an honorable and effective leader, and he has received the highest awards and several prizes from many countries. Chissano is living proof that one man, with high ideals and through hard work, can make a great deal of difference in the world for millions of others.