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To avoid wars, give diplomacy a chance - Mr. Sampaio

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To avoid wars, give diplomacy a chance - Mr. Sampaio

Zipporah Musau
Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal. Photo: UN Photos
Photo: UN Photos
Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal (right), receiving the inaugural United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, and Dr. Helena Ndume, a Namibian ophtalmologist, are the first ever winners of the United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize. The prize is an honorary award presented once every five years to recognize two individuals (one female and one male) who have dedicated their lives to the service of humanity by promoting the purposes and principles of the UN while honouring and paying homage to Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life and legacy of reconciliation, political transition and social transformation. Zipporah Musau and Bo Li of Africa Renewal spoke to President Sampaio soon after the award ceremony on 24th July 2015.


Congratulations on winning the first ever United Nations Nelson Mandela Prize. How did you feel when you first heard the news?

When I first heard the news I was rather taken by emotion. It came as a surprise, a fantastic surprise. It was obviously inspirational in the sense that the prize has the name of that charismatic and decisive figure of the 20th century. Also in a way it justifies what one has been doing throughout their life, as it was the case with me. I am proud to be connected with this name of a personality I met several times because I also participated in anti-apartheid movements in Europe, in my country and outside.

Can you share with us a bit about your work that won you this prize?

I have done many things in my life. It all started when I was a law faculty student in the beginning of the 1960s. I was then involved in the fight for democracy in the students’ union. At that time Portugal was involved in colonial wars. It was a dictatorship – no press liberty, no political parties. It was a rather under-developed country. So students’ unions were very important at that time, along with others, of course. I participated in the renewal of the country after the 1974 revolution, which opened the way to democracy and liberty. I was 34 then.

I had lived my adult life as a lawyer defending political prisoners, participating in underground activities of what was then called the ‘opposition’. So the 25th of April 1974 was rather a kind of fulfilment of one’s dreams.

I left my law practice and went into politics and became a Member of Parliament for several years. I then became leader of my party then mayor of Lisbon before I decided to run for presidency. I won twice at the first round, which was important. And then of course, I participated in European Union’s expansion and peace making. I participated a lot in health affairs, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and children’s issues.

I’ve participated in international political affairs because I’m a believer in diplomacy, cooperation and multilateralism. One country is too small to do everything, it’s impossible. So the prize that came today is also to be shared with all those who sometimes work in modest ways without any publicity, to fulfil promises, to improve the lives of the poor and marginalized.

You played an important role in promoting dialogue between military leaders and civilian groups that eventually led to transition to democracy in Portugal in the 1970s. What drove you to take a route that appeared difficult to many at that time?

The first two years of transition were difficult. The military was divided. One must remember that the revolution started with a military coup, because people were fed up of the colonial war. They wanted a political solution. The younger military officers saw that there was no possibility of winning the colonial wars, so they staged a coup. After the coup, the military was divided on how to get to a democratic path. Civilians were also divided.

My position then was that we needed the support of the moderate elements of the military even though many thought otherwise. It all came to a stop when the country voted in 1976 for the first time for a constituency assembly to draw new constitution. We did the constitution through parliament, followed by government and presidential elections. In 1976 life returned to normal.

What are the lessons from Mandela?

Today what honours me very much is this very charismatic figure, Mr. Mandela, who in spite of being detained for 27 years, and that is a tremendous time, he in fact forged a society with a pluralistic view and a majority rule. He did not rub away the minorities that was growing and sometimes challenging democracy.

His legacy is absolutely outstanding. How he came out of that jail and immediately opened up the path of conviviality and the country was restored without apartheid is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. I think we should have his ideals and his perseverance and continue to advocate for peace, liberty, reconciliation and dialogue.

Mandela was respected globally and considered a role model by many in Africa. Which of Mandela’s values and ideals do you consider most important?

Mr Mandela can be seen as having given the world many important contributions. But one of his essential characteristics is to never say no, to always persevere and to always have this kind of approach that you must continue. He used to say that there are still many hills to climb after the first one.

The second one was that after leaving jail after 27 years, Mr. Mandela comes out, unites the people and rebuilds his country, which many thought could not be done.  Of course he did not do it alone. He needed the cooperation of many others, but the fact that he pushed forward this ideal of an open society, a pluralistic society of acceptance of the black majority and white minority with similar rights, equal rights, the human being aspect of it all, that is absolutely outstanding.

Thirdly, I was at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki, who came after Mr. Mandela and to see this charismatic figure handing over power was an extremely good example. It’s not many who have done it in Africa and I think this is extremely important because it helps to strengthen the region's institutions. It helps to strengthen the constitutional approach to problems, and it helps to really consolidate democracy. I think these three characteristics were overwhelming in a personality so rich and so forceful in everything he did.

What can be done to keep alive Mandela’s extraordinary legacy of reconciliation and social cohesion?

It takes a lot of patience to begin and continue to pursue negotiations. You need many mediators and instruments. The practice of those instruments is very difficult – you can have many books telling you what you have to do, but it is the day-to-day business of negotiations which creates problems. I always thought that there is no substitute to diplomacy. 

So the only way to avoid wars is to really give diplomacy, compromise and tolerance a chance. With that, hope increases. You need the knowledge of the people – with the new tools, with radio, television, Internet, blogs and the like. If you have some degree of literacy which gives you access to a broader range of information, then you can distinguish what is good from bad for yourself and your country. It helps a lot. These trends have to be pushed forward as much as possible. If I can put it in a blunt way: give politics, in its broad sense of openness and pluralistic approach to life, a chance. Take that extra care to be near the people, to understand their demands.

If you don’t give diplomacy and all that it takes a chance, then we are in big trouble. Whether it’s here, whether it’s there, it doesn’t matter. It’s big trouble. And now the repercussion of what happens in one part of the world to another part of the word is so quick and so definite.

You need open, educated minds to help choose viable options. You need better inter-connections between citizens and the politicians. If people don’t believe in the politicians, if they elect people in whom they have no confidence in whatsoever, then you’ll have less and less people who will bother to vote. 

Now that you have won the prize, what do you plan to do to keep Mandela's ideals and values alive?  

I’m dealing with a platform I created to provide emergency help for Syrian university students affected by war to finish their education. You can’t simply wipe out the youth in Syria, you have to equip them as much as you can.

I also belong to a global platform on the new drug policy, which is a commission looking at what is happening to the drug policies of the past, what can be improved. This occupies my time.

The rest is giving testimony to some of today's political, economic and social issues and challenges.  My intense political life, well… there are no more public responsibilities for me but there are all sorts of issues where my experience can make a contribution.