WANJOHI KABUKURU, NAIROBI – It is common for sweeping statements to be made by politicians whenever they take to the podium. And when one clinches the ultimate prize of assuming the highest office in the land then the stakes are even higher.
On April 14 2004, President James Alix Michel took the reins of power of the idyllic Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles from retiring President France Albert Rene. On this day President Michel made only one statement that has characterised his presidency ever since, “Judge me by my actions.”
It is a statement that has resonated with him all along and seen him walk the tight rope to try and keep albeit solemnly. One wonders why would a president use such a seemingly simple yet hefty promise as his clarion call. To fully grasp why President Michel who is a former trade unionist, teacher and journalist would use such a statement to define his presidency one needs to dredge through the history of Seychelles. And all these are now captured in the Michel’s first book (word has it more are on the way) “James Michel: A Man of the People”. This 215 page full colour coffee-table book is not just a collection of speeches by President Michel but a glimpse of what he has stood for, for the last six years.
James Alix Michel was not born on a silver platter. He came from an extremely poor background of walking barefoot and lacking the basics and rose to be President. His is but an inspiring tale of persistence and dogged determination. As he took over as the third president of Seychelles he insisted “I have my own vision and I have my own style of government.”
It is not difficult to see why Michel stubbornly stuck to this message. Government critics, opposition leaders mainly from the Wavel Ramkalawan led Seychelles National Party (SNP) and the Democratic Party (DP) under the leadership of Paul Chow and even the international community were all expecting Michel to stick to the trodden past of his predecessors, James Mancham and France Albert Rene. Michel was written off as a chip of the old block. After all he had been a minister (actually the longest serving minister) in the Seychelles government since 1977. Add to this a chequered and abrasive career as a party mandarin in the Seychelles Peoples Progressive Front (SPPF) for the last 36 years. With such a record it is easier to understand why critics would expect nothing but same old tradition.
Well Michel took office twice, first when President Rene retired in 2004 and secondly when he was elected in August 2006. On winning the Seychelles Presidential Elections of 2006, Michel promised to increase democratic space, restore Seychellois pride, liberalise the country’s economy, establish the island’s first ever university and in the international stage lobby the global community on the plight of island nations. To many this was a tall order. To Michel, these are what his presidency were all about. In the six years Michel has been at the helm he has stuck out as his own man, confounding both foes and friends alike.
Many expected Michel to continue reveling in the hard line stance that his predecessor was well-known for, but Michel has turned out to be an accommodating politician giving the opposition a free hand in the country’s affairs and letting the economy flourish with minimum governmental control.
Of the promises that Michel made when he took over the establishment of the University of Seychelles (the first one ever) in 2009, the floating of the Seychelles rupee, the revitalization of Seychelles economy in 2008 and his persistence lobbying of the international community on the vulnerabilities posed by climate change, sea level rise and global economic recession of Small Island Developing Nations (SIDS) are the four that stand out.
I experienced all these first hand. The floating of the Seychelles rupee was one major achievement as it ensured the complete collapse of a booming black market in Seycheles. A couple of years back it was pretty difficult to trade in forex in Seychelles, leading to a strong black market economy. I know these as I was a partaker of the fruits of the black market until Michel’s bold move to free the rupee.
“Which country believes in people centred development that values the welfare of all its citizens, from the newborn to the elderly, that cares deeply about social justice? Which country gives its citizens the opportunity to own their own homes and o own shares in businesses; to share in the country’s wealth? Which country ensures that development takes into account the natural environment, for the benefit of its people and humanity? Which is the country of 83,000 people that has a national airline and a fleet of tankers plying the seven seas? Which country promotes the Creole culture that excludes no one, that brings people together and creates unity in diversity? As the song goes, which other but Seychelles.” Michel admonished his countrymen on the 30th anniversary celebrations in 2006.
Acknowledging his country’s sea-faring fishing tradition and its role as an island state Michel’s government has laid emphasis on this and plays a crucial role in the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA). In the first meeting of GLISPA way back in 2007 (two years before Copenhagen climate talks) Michel pointed out: “The effects of climate change are being felt already in small island states. When you live on an island, climate change is a reality that you wake up to face every day. The fisherman sees it everyday as he takes to the sea. Every child sees it when returning to his favourite beach to play. But it is perhaps much harder to see from the aisle of a supermarket in the western hemisphere.” Small wonder in 2009 he won UNESCO’s Gold Medal for the Five Continents in recognition of his devotion to sensitizing the global community on the vulnerabilities of Small Island developing States (SIDS).
Turning rhetoric into action is the pillar of this book. Seychelles has plenty of lessons to offer the mainland continent, especially her thriving and extremely successful social welfare system which has seen this country appearing in the coveted list of Middle Income Countries. While critics are bound to term the book as excellent PR in time for the forthcoming elections in 2011, the reality is that “James Michel: A Man of the People” is a peep review of who Michel is and an invaluable historical collection for Africa. Perhaps the only book by a sitting president this year. The 215-pages completely illustrated by 170 pictures are a wholistic portrayal of Michel’s six year’s leadership.