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A Political Economy of Noise

Kangsen Feka Wakai traces the uncharacteristic journey through a “noisy era” of one of Africa’s heralded statesmen and reveals that his road less travelled has set him somewhat apart in the hood of the neo-liberal BigMan.

Like most Big Men, Joachim Alberto Chissano has lived an eventful life. And like many of his generation, he has spent most of it as a Big Man. He was the first black student to attend Liceu Salazar in Lourenço Marques (Maputo), the Portuguese colony’s only high school, bearing the name of its former Prime Minister, António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968), and the brainchild of its Estado Novo (Second Republic). Later, as a student in Lisbon, Chissano’s political activities would cost him his medical studies, but offer him the opening to converge with other like-minded revolutionaries in Dar es Salaam to found the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo), a Marxist-leaning group whose stated goal was the independence of a territory that Salazar’s Estado Novo considered an overseas Portuguese province.

A key player in the Lusaka Accord of 1974 which ended Portuguese rule, Chissano became prime minister of the transitional government before being appointed as Samora Machel’s foreign minister of independent Mozambique the following year. His years as emissary would be marked by the Mozambican civil war pitting the ruling Frelimo against South Africa-backed Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo). As the face and voice of a frontline state teetering on the frozen rink of the transcontinental tussle between Marx and Adam Smith, Chissano would witness the intensification of the struggle against apartheid in its southern neighbour and the transformation of its western neighbour from Rhodesia to the Republic of Zimbabwe. He would also witness the Soweto uprising, the fall of Idi Amin, Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise, the Falklands war and the Olympics in Los Angeles.
During those years, Stephen Bantu Biko would be martyred in Pretoria, TPOK Jazz would blossom, President Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon would resign, Prince Nico Mbarga’s “Sweet Mother” would soar, the US television miniseries, Roots, would air, and Bangladesh would celebrate a decade of independence. But Chissano would exist under the canopy of the charismatic Machel, in an era and landscape dotted with the likes of space enthusiast and Bush family friend, Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga (formerly Joseph-Desiré) in Zaire, and, in neighbouring Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the flywhisk-wielding patriarch life-president. There were also the likes of the little Big Man in Libreville, the grey haired Big Man in Lusaka, and a revolving door of civilian and military Big Men in Nigeria. Mozambique was two-years old when horses fainted from the equatorial heat during Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa’s coronation in Bangui.
It was an era of noise – the noise of development experts and foreign aid consultants, from crowded buses in crowded cities; noise from Kalashnikovs and landmines; noise from benefit concerts, from buzzing flies, from the groans of famished children and mothers; noise from the Congolese guitar riffs of Lokassa Ya Mbongo and noise from Manu Dibango’s horn and from Yvonne Chaka Chaka; noise about peace talks and containment; Les Têtes Brulées; noise from old loudspeakers, from Big Men in suits and berets; noise from Ronald Reagan’s United States of America; noise from PW Botha’s South Africa and noise from Fela’s Kalakuta Republic.
On the night of 19 October, 1986, the noise died when the plane carrying Machel crashed under mysterious circumstances as he returned from a summit of frontline states in Mbala, Zambia, a summit convened to find ways to isolate apartheid South Africa from its regional allies, Malawi and Zaire. In the aftermath of the crash, the noise resumed, surrounding Machel’s crash, the noise of plane engines and of inconsolable mourning; the noise of fluttering flags flying at half-mast; noise across borders and from weather conditions; the noise of whispering spooks and that of aeronautic communication signals.
Chissano emerged as if rising from the ashes of that tragic night. Aware that it was futile to attempt to fill Machel’s battle-worn boots, the soon-to-be-new president brought his own pair – designer shoes that would draw compliments from the neo-liberal crowd. It is these shoes that led him into the noise of thawing icebergs, of peace summits, of coup d’états;; the noise of snoring civil servants; Koko Ateba’s song; the noise of military councils and counter-revolutions, of unmarked graves; the noise of dismemberment and silent nights; the noise from Ouagadougou.
All the noise notwithstanding, the outcome of that fateful October night – the inconclusiveness of it all – did not just mark the end of a liberation hero’s earthly narrative. Rather, it ploughed the landscape in which his myth could grow. Machel’s legend would blossom, stretching its roots from the crash site through the mined fields of Benfica (in Maputo) to Cabinda. Chissano would thus inherit not only a presidency from a card carrying member of a poor nation, but also the burden of its sorrow and a fratricidal war. In his first four years as president, Chissano would sign the Rome General Peace Accord with Renamo, open Mozambique to global capital and introduce multi-party politics to the country. With just a few strokes of his pen, the new man in Maputo would become the toast of the Davos crowd.
Like El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba (formerly Albert-Bernard) before him, this former Marxist would also turn eastward, this time to the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. If Bongo’s 1973 conversion to Islam during an official trip to Libya could be likened to a diplomatic charm offensive, Chissano’s eastward gaze would coincide with the surge of the New Age movement in the backyard of his new patrons. Not quite unlike Mobutu’s authenticité, which transformed Congo to Zaire and ordered citizens to drop their European names for African names, Chissano’s government made the president’s spiritual awakening Mozambican national policy in which 16,000 soldiers and 30,000 civilians were taught transcendental meditation, including yogic flight. But unlike Mobutu, the Mozambican conversion didn’t unfold to the accompaniment of a personality cult, nor was it implemented using the erstwhile marshall’s now shadowy methods. Post-Chissano Mozambique didn’t mutate into the nightmare which is now the reality in swaths of what was once that old leopard’s fief. Instead, it would be frequently named-dropped in donor and development circles as a poster child of post-conflict societies – a nation, to paraphrase Booker T Washington, which has cast its bucket where it is.
Chissano’s journey, from comrade to Big Man and from Big Man to yogi and statesman, is uncharacteristic of Big Manhood. For instance, even though the Mozambican constitution did not bar him from running for a third term in 2004, in a blatant violation of the tenets of Big Manhood, he chose not to run again after a mere 18 years in power, eliciting sighs and frowns from Luanda to Yaoundé. In fact, when others were piling up the knighthoods from former imperial monarchs and honorary degrees from renowned universities, including Edinburgh, Michigan and Harvard, Chissano was receiving his honorary degree from Holland’s Maharishi Vedic University, a school that brands itself as solely focused on the research of consciousness.
Yogic flights aside, three years after stepping down from power, this member of the Club of Madrid and of the Fondation Chirac’s honour committee (founded by former French president and Mobutu chum, Jacques Chirac), would be rewarded by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, becoming the first recipient of its US$5 million prize for Achievement in African Leadership.
Today, not only does Chissano head the prize jury of an organisation which three years ago unveiled the Unesco Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, he has also launched the Joachim Chissano Foundation dedicated to the promotion of peace, economic development and Mozambican culture.
This year, as president of Unesco’s prize jury, it was Chissano’s turn to reward another Big Man. On the occasion, he said:
Having assessed the dangers and the repercussions of the situation in Africa, and in Mali in particular… the jury appreciated the solidarity shown by France to the peoples of Africa… The jury condemns the violation of Mali’s territorial integrity, the violation of human rights, the taking of hostages and the destruction of the cultural heritage of humanity in Timbuktu. The jury therefore decided to award the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize to Mr François Hollande, president of the French Republic, for his great contribution to peace and stability in Africa.
Mali’s strategic location notwithstanding, the crisis provided this card carrying member of Donald Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe” an opportunity to foxtrot its way to the frontlines of global relevance, assert its greatness among great powers, and in the process steer the destiny of humankind.
The Unesco prize, named after Ivory Coast’s first president, was established in 1989 and is by no means the only legacy this “sage of Africa” – as he was referred to in western capitals – left after his lifelong role as an invaluable knight in Jacques Foccart’s Françafrique and as a ‘moderate’ voice among ‘radicals’ during the drive for political independence. Historians of a certain inclination often credit the old sage for being a necessary obstacle in Kwame Nkrumah’s pan African project.
Houphouët-Boigny’s firm grip on power can surely not only be attributed to his cunning, his French patrons and an ethnic patronage system of regional barons, but also to a heavy hand in domestic matters – something not uncommon in the Françafrique domain. Having directly or indirectly meddled in some of the regions bloodier conflagrations, in early 2011 it was the sage’s ghost, resurrected from Abidjan’s grey lagoon, loitering in the backdrop of the post-electoral scuffle pitting his former protégé and IMF executive, Alassane Ouattara, against his one-time nemesis, Laurent Gbagbo.
What befell the Ivory Coast was a testament to this former French parliamentarian’s indispensability to the Ivorian idea: an offshoot of the excesses of power, it is this indispensability, whether voluntary or coerced, that perhaps spurred Wole Soyinka, another sage and Big Man – albeit one of a different inclination and temperament – to observe in the first decade of the new century that:
Reality is indeed catching up with science fiction, or, shall we now simply say, history is repeating itself in a phenomenon that appears to have been cloned from fiction. I refer to the perennial motif of the literature of megalomania, a fascination with the notion of one individual’s obsession to dominate the world – to be distinguished from ruling, or governing, simply to dominate – that stuff of science fiction that found reality in the historic aberration of an Adolf Hitler.
And the noise of Chissano’s early days has resumed.
PULL QUOTES:
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Chissano’s government made the president’s spiritual awakening Mozambican national policy in which 16,000 soldiers and 30,000 civilians were taught transcendental meditation, including yogic flight.

CHRONIC ISSUE 2This article was originally published in the Chronic (March 2013).

In this issue, artists and writer from around the world take on the philanthropic complex to unravel the philosophies of dependency and power at play in the civil society of African states. To read the article in full get a copy in our online shop or visit your nearest stockists.

 

 

 

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