Sunday, October 11, 2009

Life's no beach for Sir James

By Fred Khumalo: Somewhat serious, somewhat fun

The founding president of Seychelles has not been lazing on an island since leaving office.

Fred Khumalo: What do presidents do once their terms in office have expired or, in the case of the despotic amongst their ranks, they have been deposed?

ON A MISSION: Sir James Mancham, left, would like the US to take a diplomatic interest in the scenic and, in his view, strategic island archipelago in the Indian Ocean and not allow China to dominate this tourist paradise

Your browser may not support display of this image. 'We basically had a smiling, guitar-playing Seychellois under every palm tree. But when René took over, it was an AK47-wielding fighter under every palm tree' Your browser may not support display of this image.

In the latter case they usually flee to benign climes such as the south of France - a convenient hideaway which is within easy reach of Switzerland, where many of them would have stashed their ill-gotten riches while in office.

Others, in healthy democracies, start eponymous foundations that are not only protecting their legacy, but are also institutions whose raison d'être is to seek ways to further deepen democracy.

Here the names of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and others come to mind.

Sir James Mancham belongs to this club of former presidents.

But unlike the other former presidents he is neither lazing on the balmy beaches of France nor going around the world selling his own brand and interpretation of democracy under the aegis of an eponymous foundation.

In case you haven't heard of him - chances are you haven't as very little is known about his country - Sir James is the founding president of the Seychelles, an archipelago of 110 islands off the African coast in the Indian Ocean.

He led his native country to independence in 1976, and was in turn deposed by Marxists less than a year later, with the help of Tanzanian fighters.

Attempts to put him back into power - fuelled, it was reported, by the old South African government and spearheaded by the mercenary Mike Hoare - failed in 1978.

He then spent 15 years in exile.

"During my tenure, I actively sold our country as a tourist destination of choice," he told me during a recent interview when he was in South Africa promoting his latest book, Seychelles Global Citizen: The Autobiography of the Founding President of the Republic of Seychelles.

To sell his country he embarked on what came to be called "smiling PR" where the Seychellois were encouraged to extend a benevolent hand towards visitors to their islands.

"We basically had a smiling, guitar-playing Seychellois under every palm tree," he said, pausing enough to deliver the punch line: "But when René took over, it was an AK47-wielding fighter under every palm tree."

France-Albert René was the new president of the Marxist regime who deposed Mancham.

Almost 30 years later, Mancham is back to selling his country to the international community, not only as a tourist destination now but focusing on its strategic importance to the world's superpowers.

The islands are famous for natural beauty, and are the playing ground of the rich and famous. But very little is known of the region's politics and strategic importance in the world - and Mancham is on a mission to right that wrong.

During a conversation I had with him, in the book itself, and in a piece he has since written in the Washington Times, he is at pains to suggest - what, to me, comes across as a plea - that the bigger powers recolonise his country.

The fact that the Chinese have moved in gives him hope, but as an avowed anti-communist he wonders aloud why the US does not have diplomatic relations with his country, as evidenced by the fact that there is no US embassy in the Seychelles.

But you have to sympathise with and understand this intelligent man: in these days of piracy a country with a population of about 85000, a negligible army and a government still clinging to ill-defined Marxist economic theories has to be worried.

More importantly, in the newspaper piece that I referred to, he pointed out: "The growing competition for power and influence in the Indian Ocean, the world's primary energy and trade seaway, has certainly put the Seychelles at the centre of superpower rivalry, not unlike the position held by another island resort in the '50s more familiar to Americans than our nation - Cuba."

He continued: "While on the 'military basis' both the US and China could consider the situation 'balanced', the Chinese appear to be winning diplomatically.

"The Chinese are operating with full ambassadorial presence and are extremely active in day-to-day people-to-people diplomacy."

How I so wish that, even in retirement, or imposed repose as I call it, our African presidents would channel their energies towards building their countries rather than supping on sour grapes.


Anonymous said...

James Mancham is a Statesman and will always be the first President of Seychelles. The man has done so much for his country. When compared to the communist Albert Rene, Mancham will be remembered well in the annals of Seychelles history, while Albert will remain the thief who stole the country in the middle of the night toting an Ak-47 machine gun. Michel was there too that night, and he remains nothing more than an illiterate brainless fool who is there only to keep Albert and his cronies from jail.

I am happy to see Mancham finally receiving the accolades he deserves. May the world and the Seychellois people remember him well as he is the true father of the nation.

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