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Joaquim Chissano Biography

Experienced Colonialism, Formed Political Interests, Formed and Joined Activist Groups, Rose to Leadership Positions



President Joaquim Chissano devoted 40 years of his life to carving a stable, independent Mozambique from a former Portuguese colonial backwater. Chissano is responsible for Mozambique's foreign policy of political nonalignment, which earned him firm friendships with both western and Marxist regimes and enabled him to replace neighboring South Africa's hostility with constructive cooperation. An articulate leader who is fluent in Portuguese, English, French, and Swahili, Chissano maintains a deliberately understated profile. He piloted Mozambique through the transition from a Communist to a capitalist ideology, won his country's first and second multiparty elections, and made history by deciding not to run for his final term in office.

Experienced Colonialism

During the 1950s Mozambique was a tourists' paradise. Crowds of vacationers, mainly from Portugal and South Africa, were attracted by its majestic wildlife, golden beaches, the warm blue waters of the Indian Ocean, and the glittering nightclubs of Lourenco Marques (which would later become the capital city of Maputo). But beneath the stunning surface of this southeast African territory lay an indigenous society deeply divided by ten language groups, ancient ethnic rivalries, and ongoing conflict between rural and urban blacks.

The rural peoples were usually subsistence farmers who tended to live by tribal tradition. Their education, if any, came from the rudimentary schools designed to give black children a smattering of Portuguese language and culture before they entered primary school; 1955 statistics showed that only 25,472 students had managed to achieve a primary school education which, at most, could earn them blue-collar status. As a result, rural dwellers were often left with no other options than to work under contract in the South African gold mines or migrate to the neighboring British-held territories of Nyasaland or Rhodesia.

Urban blacks in the Portuguese-held territory, however, fared somewhat better. With greater access to education, many were taught to read and write Portuguese well enough to hold factory or office jobs. Those Africans who seemed willing to forsake their tribal heritage in favor of the Portuguese culture, customs, and lifestyle were accepted as assimilados, an elite group of black Mozambicans who were able to straddle the line between races—and who would later play an integral part in the rise of black nationalism and the successful fight for independence from Portugal.

Joaquim Alberto Chissano was born into this splintered society on October 22, 1939. He showed his potential early. One of the first black children from the southern Gaza Province to attend primary school, he soared over the barriers of the Portuguese educational system to graduate in record time from the Liceu Salazar secondary school in the country's capital, Lourenco Marques.

Chissano was a high school student when he first met American-trained Mozambican anthropologist Eduardo Mondlane. Mondlane's job as a United Nations (UN) researcher took him to many corners of the world. Having ample opportunity to compare his downtrodden compatriots with independent people living else-where, he concluded that their future could never improve unless the stranglehold of Portuguese colonialism was shattered.

Formed Political Interests

Chissano met Mondlane in Lourenco Marques, where Mondlane had started a high school discussion group called the Nucleus of Mozambican African Secondary Students (NESAM). Before long, young Chissano became an eager acolyte, participating at first in spirited debates about Mozambique's politics and other social issues, and later stepping into the association's presidency.

At the end of 1960, Chissano left for college in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Though still in his early twenties, he was already marked for leadership by having achieved a level of education far beyond that of most black Mozambicans. His finely honed debating skills—combined with an ability to ignite political fervor in others—earned him respect among Mozambique's nationalists, many of whom had fled to other African countries as Portuguese repression intensified.

Chissano found many political soulmates in Lisbon, where anti-government discussions among students from Angola and other Portuguese colonies took place regularly. Vocal opponents of colonialism, however, faced serious consequences. Uneasy over the newly minted independence of Mozambique's neighbor, Tanzania, the Portuguese government had decided to take precautions against its own demise by stepping up the activities of its powerful and often brutal secret police, known as PIDE. Chissano and his friends soon found themselves the target of unwelcome PIDE attention. Incessantly watched, sometimes bullied, they quietly began to look for a way to leave Portugal.

Their plight came to the attention of CIMADE, a French ecumenical group whose service to humanity's refugees had begun in Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's concentration camps. Having an acquaintance with secret police squads in several parts of the world, CIMADE immediately began to plot the escape of Chissano and the other dissidents.

On Friday, June 30, 1961, Joaquim Chissano and several other students were spirited out of Portugal and smuggled over the Spanish border in a complicated rescue mission involving rented cars, forged papers, and a night in a San Sebastian jail. Bound for Paris, they were led by Dr. William J. Nottingham, an experienced guide who had previously brought 41 students out of Lisbon, as he put it, "under the noses of the PIDE." Dr. Nottingham, who recently retired from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, shared a vivid memory about the refugees' arrival: "There were only five Mozambican students in the group," he recalled, "but Mondlane showed up in Paris to greet them."

Formed and Joined Activist Groups

With Mondlane's help, Chissano formed and headed a second youth group called the National Union of Mozambican Students (UNEMO). Intended specifically to alert foreign sympathizers to Mozambique's plight, UNEMO undertook the additional goal of helping students to obtain scholarships for overseas study.

UNEMO was not the only group working for international recognition of Mozambique. Several small liberation groups were gaining support across Mozambique's borders with Malawi and Tanzania. In June of 1962 these small groups united under Mondlane's presidency, forming an organization called Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (or the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, commonly referred to as FRELIMO).

At a Glance …

Born Joaquim Alberto Chissano, October 22, 1939, in Malehice, Chibuto District, Gaza Province, Mozambique; married Marcelina Rafael; children: four. Education: Attended secondary school in Maputo, Mozambique; studied medicine briefly in Lisbon, Portugal.

Career: Lecturer, then president, of Nucleus of Mozambican African Secondary Students (NESAM), 1960; founder and head of National Union of Mozambican Students (UNEMO), 1961. Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique; FRELIMO), founding member, 1962; minister of defense, 1964–74; chief FRELIMO representative in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 1969–74; transitional government of Mozambique, prime minister, 1974–75; Republic of Mozambique, minister of foreign affairs, 1975–86; Republic of Mozambique, president and commander in chief of the armed forces, November 4, 1986–February 2, 2005; Africa Union, president, 2003–2005; United Nations, special envoy, 2005–.

Memberships: Board of directors, African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) and Harmony Gold, South Africa.

Awards: Africa Prize Laureate, 1997.

Chissano joined the Tanzania-based FRELIMO as Mondlane's secretary, a post that brought him auto-matic membership in the Central Committee. As the fight for independence progressed, FRELIMO was forced to look outside of Africa for military assistance. By the end of 1963, the Central Committee had secured weapons and instructors in guerrilla warfare techniques from China and the Soviet Union. A hit-and-run combat campaign was devised against the better-equipped Portuguese Army, and well-concealed bases for FRELIMO's soldiers were set up in the dense forests of the Cabo Delgado Province straddling the Mozambique-Tanzania border.

By mid-1964 FRELIMO had 250 trained soldiers poised to strike. Their first act of sabotage came on the moonless night of September 25, when they destroyed a Portuguese administrative post in Cabo Delgado Province. After this initial success, the hit-and-run strategy rapidly gained momentum. Railway lines were blown up, repaired, and blown up again. Beira and Lourenco Marques, the country's principal ports, were systematically isolated. Plastic landmines made road travel so hazardous that by the end of 1965 the white farming population was driven away from a 3,000-square mile area stretching between the Tanzanian and Malawi borders. For more than half a dozen years, FRELIMO continued its war for independence, using a guerrilla-based military campaign that brought them control of the entire northern section of Mozambique by late 1973.

Rose to Leadership Positions

But several other historical events converged in the late 1960s to make the tide of Mozambique's history begin to flow more swiftly. For Chissano, the 1969 assassination of his comrade, Eduardo Mondlane, propelled him into the spotlight. As the more radical forces of FRELIMO clashed with the more moderate members, Chissano became a voice of reason in the midst of political chaos. Mondlane's replacement, former defense secretary Samora Machel, had been Chissano's Central Committee co-member since 1965; the two men had enjoyed a close working relationship, which became even closer when Chissano was appointed FRELIMO's chief representative in Tanzania.

At the same time, the Portuguese government was undergoing its own changes. Longtime Premier Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was replaced by Dr. Marcello Caetano, who, by April of 1974, had been ousted from power by a coup. The military regime that took his place, however, was unable to maintain its grip on Portugal's African colonies. The antiquated Portuguese economy was severely strained and eventually collapsed.

Negotiations for a joint Portuguese-FRELIMO transitional government began immediately. On September 8, 1974, both sides signed the Lusaka Agreement, which set June 25, 1975, as the date for independence and assured FRELIMO a smooth passage to power by allotting them six out of ten cabinet posts, plus the prime minister's slot, which went to Joaquim Chissano. Standing in for president-to-be Samora Machel, who had decided to remain in Tanzania until May of 1975, Chissano got off to a brisk start.

Participated in New Marxist State

Leaving no doubt in the Mozambican people's minds about the new regime's single-party, Marxist ideology, Chissano took over two of the new republic's six newspapers and let his citizens know that no political opposition would be tolerated. Next, he nationalized medicine—a drastic move that touched off an exodus of medical personnel, leaving only 100 trained physicians to care for the country's entire population. Soon after, the legal system, agricultural estates, and most profitable businesses followed suit, causing so many white minority professionals to leave that the country's nonblack population sank from 200,000 to about 40,000 by the time independence day arrived.

As Miles Smith-Morris put it in Africa South of the Sahara: 1994, "The situation in 1974–75 was chaotic, as the Portuguese … fled the country. The exclusion of Africans by the colonial regime from almost all positions in the modern sector created a dearth of middle-level managers and others who could fill the vacuum left by the exodus of the Portuguese." Black Mozambicans—the majority of whom were denied education and training under Portugal's domination—were left with few resources to revive their staggering nation.

As the country's administrative infrastructures caved in, Chissano began to substitute as best he could. He encouraged each local population to select "dynamizing" groups, or civic action squads, whose standing with their own constituents gave them the authority to protect their districts against vandalism, and whose popularity gave them the authority to dispense advice about ways to increase and collectivize crops. At the same time, he made sure these leaders were loyal to FRELIMO, so that they could spread the politically correct ideology wherever they went.

A few minutes after the rainy midnight of June 25, 1975, the new flag went up in Maputo, formerly known as Lourenco Marques. Joaquim Chissano, the newly appointed foreign minister, listened intently as President Samora Machel uttered three eerily prophetic words: "The struggle continues!" Domestically, Mozambique's day-to-day struggle—compounded by a 90 percent illiteracy rate, a near-starving population, and a nonexistent economy—was typical of many newly independent African states. But Mozambique was more deeply split by tribal and linguistic differences than its neighboring nations; in addition, the concept of democracy was so foreign to Mozambicans that many expected their income and their prospects to rise immediately. Chissano set them straight at once. "You must not think that FRELIMO will drop like a god from the sky to solve all your problems," he warned in a speech quoted by Time magazine in 1975.

Formed Policies of Nonpolitical Alignment

Realizing that his nation's desperate needs could only be solved with outside help from both capitalist and Communist quarters, the new government sent out a strong international message of political nonalignment. Still, Mozambique came to rely more heavily on Soviet aid in the months following independence. The Soviets supplied the country with thousands of outdated but badly needed missiles, MIG-17 fighter aircraft, and tanks. Other contributions from Communist governments came from East Germany, Algeria, Libya, and Iraq, which agreed in 1978 to supply Mozambique with oil at below world prices. Even pro-western Italy, Holland, and France, with far looser ties to Marxist Mozambique, supported the Machel government with generous imports of petroleum products, manufactured consumer goods, and food.

Yet the economy continued to plummet. Within a couple of post-independence years, the loss of skilled manpower began to show up in inefficiently managed stores, an unreliable transport system, and failing agricultural estates that could no longer be run without expensive, imported machinery.

Maintaining these systems drained Mozambique's treasury. Pressure mounted even further after 1976, when UN trade sanctions against white-ruled Southern Rhodesia forced Mozambique to close its borders with the neighboring country, reducing both revenue and job opportunities for black Mozambicans. A little later, South Africa chopped 80,000 mineworkers from a previous 120,000-strong quota, depleting already meager cash resources. By 1980 Machel was forced to acknowledge that rural Mozambique could not support an economic model originally designed for the more sophisticated, urban Soviet Union. Desperately needing economic aid, he was forced to rethink his policy of idealistic Marxism by strengthening ties with the West.

Chissano's part in this was to forge fruitful relationships with western governments. His mission was complicated by the recent expulsion from Mozambique of four American diplomats accused of spying for the CIA; but he did not let the acrimonious aftermath stand in his way. Spurred onward by the worst drought ever to hit southern Africa, he went to Washington, D.C., to find help for his starving people. By 1984 Mozambique had become the world's largest recipient of U.S. food aid. In return, American mining companies seeking fresh fields for oil and mineral prospecting found a warm welcome in Mozambique.

Faced Strong Opposition

Starvation was not Chissano's only problem. Equally urgent was the Resistencia Nacional Mocambicana (Mozambique National Resistance, or RENAMO), an anti-government terrorist force that originated with Rhodesian and Portuguese intelligence officers, then spread to longtime FRELIMO opponents. The opposition brushfire expanded fast, aided by RENAMO troop training in Rhodesia and South Africa. It is widely believed that the South African government, then run by the white minority, felt threatened by even the smallest prospect of economic stability in Mozambique and feared that the former Portuguese colony—a struggling, but nevertheless independent nation—would fuel the progress of the African National Congress (the ANC; South Africa's black liberation organization) in obtaining black majority rule.

Beginning in the early 1980s, RENAMO was led by Afonso Dhlakama, a man Chissano knew well. Like his short-lived predecessor, Andre Matzangaisa, he had been expelled from the FRELIMO ranks in Chissano's own 1974 anti-corruption purge and had then plunged enthusiastically into a brutal campaign to disrupt Mozambique's population and economy. Within a year Dhlakama's troops had earned a blood-spattered reputation as the "locust people" for the ways in which they destroyed everything in their path. Operating country-wide, they went on an eight-year rampage that destroyed 1,800 schools, 720 health posts, 900 shops, and 1,300 vehicles and left newspaper readers reeling at gruesome eyewitness accounts of crushed skulls and mutilated faces, wholesale village massacres, and children boiled alive to punish parents for failing to cooperate with RENAMO troops.

Samora Machel did not live to see the full extent of this savagery. On October 19, 1986, he died in a Soviet civilian aircraft that crashed just over the border of South Africa while on its way home from Zambia. Accounts of the tragedy varied considerably. Causes mentioned by the South African media included stormy weather, outdated navigational equipment, and high alcohol levels in the bloodstreams of the Soviet crew members. Mozambican reports, on the other hand, tended to dwell on the delayed reports of the president's death, the removal of the aircraft's black box from the wreckage by the South African authorities, and the possibility that a high-frequency radio broadcasting beacon had been used to lure the aircraft off course.

Became President

On November 4, 1986, 47-year-old Joaquim Alberto Chissano succeeded Samora Machel as Mozambique's president, head of the FRELIMO party, and chief of the armed forces. Characteristically, he took office with a minimum of ceremony and a reassuring announcement that he would not make any drastic political changes. Strengthening the unsteady economy was his top priority. The high cost of anti-RENAMO defense and repeated repairs to government buildings and public transportation cut deep into the country's budget; education programs were therefore shelved, and agricultural projects were abandoned because manpower had been diverted to the army.

In 1987 Chissano established an economic recovery program in an effort to buttress the 679,000 metric tons of food aid needed to keep Mozambique alive for a year. He obtained a huge loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and devalued Mozambique's unit of currency to a fraction of its original value. In other moves, he laid off 14 percent of government employees and lifted price controls on all agricultural produce.

While all these measures were helpful, they were not enough to rebuild the shattered economy. The key was to find a way to end the war with RENAMO. Chissano's resolute policy of political nonalignment now made it possible to ask both Western and Communist countries for help in the search for peace. Both sides of the political spectrum responded. Nevertheless, by 1990 President Chissano recognized that conquering the fiercely nationalistic RENAMO was more likely at the bargaining table than on the battlefield. He announced several radical changes, most notably a deliberate shift from Marxist-Leninist ideology to multiparty democracy. He also changed his previous policy of refusing to deal with RENAMO.

Acceding to Dhlakama's demands, Chissano readily gave him a Maputo house to use as his official headquarters and allocated 15,000 places in the 30,000-strong Mozambican army to former RENAMO troops. Feeling that RENAMO could make a real contribution as an opposition party, Dhlakama signed a peace pact with Chissano on October 5, 1992. But Mozambique's troubles were not yet over. Six thousand international UN peacekeepers patrolled city streets until 1994 when peace had took hold.

Made Mozambique a Democracy

That same year Mozambique held its first multiparty elections. Chissano won the election, becoming the country's first democratically elected president. Refugees who had slipped over the borders of neighboring countries began to return home, offers of help in rebuilding the country came from overseas, and the formerly hostile country of South Africa—having ended its practice of providing covert aid to RENAMO—began making lucrative investments in the new regime. Under Chissano's leadership, Mozambique began steady progress and in 1997 he won an Africa Laureate for his work restoring his country's peace. Chissano was elected to a second term in 1999. During his tenure he attracted foreign investment in order to speed Mozambique's economic growth and also negotiated debt forgiveness to alleviate the country's payments on foreign loans.

Chissano's admired position among African leaders was recognized in 2003 when he was appointed president of the African Union and began traveling the world to speak of Africa's plight and gain supporters. When the world had turned its attention to the war in the Middle East in 2003, Chissano helped refocus efforts on aid to Africa and personally contacted international businessmen with pitches for investing in his country.

Stepped Down

Though he was well-liked and his country continued along a path of progress, Chissano announced that he would not run for the final five-year term the Constitution allowed him in 2004. His decision shocked many, for African leaders have a history of holding fast to their offices. Indeed, Chissano's decision put pressure on the enduring leaders of neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe and Malawi. But on February 2, 2005, Chissano gladly stepped down in order for his handpicked successor and the winner of the election Armando Guebuza to take office. Chissano's influence in Africa had yet to dim, however. He continued work for the United Nations as a special envoy, and by May 2005 Chissano had accepted board memberships at both African Rainbow Minerals (ARM) and Harmony Gold, two huge mining concerns in South Africa.



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Additional information for this profile was provided by Dr. William J. Nottingham.

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