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When Kofi Annan was a schoolboy, his teacher took a big, blank sheet of white paper, drew a black dot in the top right corner and asked the class of wriggling Ghanaian children what they could see. "A black dot," they all chorused, confident of getting a gold star. "Not one of us saw the blank white space," Annan recalls, "Just that single black dot. And news from Africa is a bit like that. It hones in on the bad things."

This week, however, the focus was on Africa's good things. Well, one good thing to be precise - Africa's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, whose first winner is Joaquim Chissano, the former President of Mozambique.

The Achievement in African Leadership, to give it its proper name, comes with US$5 million ($6.68 million) in prize money, making it the world's largest individual award.

While the financial gains leave the real Nobel (with its comparatively paltry US$1.5 million pot) for dust, the African version lags behind the Oslo original in one respect. It is not quite so slick at getting hold of the winner. "It has been difficult to reach the former President," Annan, the former UN Secretary-General who led the panel of six judges, said with a sheepish grin.

Yet there was no need for embarrassment. The absence of Chissano from the ceremony in London was, in fact, entirely in keeping with the Mozambique leader, who is the antithesis of the stereotypical African Big Man. While egomaniacs would be waiting by the phone for that all-important call, Chissano was in southern Sudan on a UN mission to broker peace between the Ugandan Government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army.

"It shows the dynamism of the ex-President that he is still travelling and doing his good work. But we will find him," Annan promised.

Chissano is living proof that power doesn't have to go to the head. Perhaps his zen comes from the transcendental meditation he is said to practise. Indeed, Chissano is quoted as saying: "First, I started the practice of transcendental meditation myself, then introduced the practice to my close family, my Cabinet of ministers, my government officers and my military. The result has been political peace and balance in nature in my country."

After winning Mozambique's elections in 1994 and 1999, Chissano could have run again in 2004, with the backing of not only many supporters but also the constitution. But he decided to stand aside and let someone else take over the reins. Contrast that with Omar Bongo, who has clocked up 40 years as President of Gabon, or Chad's leader Idriss Deby, who recently changed the constitution to maintain his iron grip on power.

"Chissano's decision not to seek a third presidential term reinforced Mozambique's democratic maturity and demonstrated that institutions and the democratic process were more important than the person," the judges said, explaining their choice. And ramming home that message is essentially the goal of these awards.

While Western leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair enjoy a lucrative retirement full of lectures, after-dinner speeches and consultancies, some former African leaders cannot even afford to rent an apartment in their own capitals. Thus comes the temptation to cling on to power.

By effectively paying the winner a pension of US$500,000 a year for a decade and US$200,000 annually after that, African billionaire Mo Ibrahim, the man behind the awards, is trying to provide an incentive for good governance that will help pump newer blood into the political system and create the space for democracy to thrive.

Chissano is credited with having turned war-torn Mozambique into one of Africa's most successful democracies, but his political life started as a revolutionary straining against the yoke of Portuguese colonial rule.

Perhaps the seeds were sown at secondary school, where he was the first black student to enrol at the Liceu Salazar in the capital, Maputo. Afterwards, he began studying medicine in Portugal but his politics were starting to get him into trouble and he fled to Tanzania. His debut on the political scene was as one of the founding members of a guerrilla group, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) that pledged to fight Lisbon until it won autonomy. That fight lasted for decades but the Lusaka accord of 1974, in which Chissano played a fundamental negotiating role, finally paved the way to independence in 1975, and he became the Foreign Minister to Mozambique's first independent President Samora Machel.

It was Machel's sudden death in a plane crash in 1986 that thrust the quiet and unassuming Chissano into the full glare of leadership, and into the heart of a bitter civil war raging across the country. Renamo, the rebel group fighting the Government, was effectively being run by the much more powerful apartheid regime in South Africa. It was a well-known Pretoria tactic to destabilise neighbouring countries that were tempted to support Nelson Mandela's African National Congress movement.

When Mozambique's 16-year war finally ended in 1992, it had claimed almost a million lives and uprooted hundreds of thousands of others, left the economy and infrastructure in tatters and society deeply divided. The treaty signed by Chissano earned him the moniker "Peacemaker" at home and plaudits for his quiet brand of compromise abroad, most notably for offering half of the places in Mozambique's 30,000-strong army to rebel soldiers.

Far from gloating and moving to shore up his power base, within two years Chissano had organised Mozambique's first multi-party elections and faced his old Renamo adversary, Afonso Dhlakama, in a 1994 poll.

"That is what was rare about Chissano," said Aicha Bah Diallo, the former Education Minister of Guinea and another judge. "He managed to speak with the opposition, to respect them and to bring them to the table. That is where he showed his force of character, his leadership. How many leaders have done this?"

Peace was the first thing for which Chissano fought. The second was to reduce poverty, which became the main theme of his second term after winning re-election in 1999, although his efforts were hampered by severe flooding in 2001. He played an important role in pushing debt relief up the international agenda, culminating in Mozambique finding itself among the countries which had £22 billion ($60 billion) of debt written off after the G8 Africa summit in 2005.

Although Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries, poverty levels have fallen and foreign investment, including tourism, has grown.

Of course, Chissano's profile is not totally without its blemishes. Critics point to his close friendship with President Robert Mugabe - at whose wedding he acted as best man - and allegations that swirled around Chissano's son Nyimpine following the murder of of the prominent journalist Carlos Cardoso. Witnesses at an inquiry testified that Chissano junior promised more than US$50,000 for the killing.

In any case, Chissano's selection as the first recipient of the Achievement in African Leadership award ensures he will enter the pantheon of African role models, alongside his great friend Nelson Mandela.

Some sceptics question the wisdom of offering such a large sum with no strings attached as a way to rid Africa of corruption and kleptocracy. But if the testimony of those Africans who have worked with Chissano and his post-retirement role as "elder statesman" is anything to go by, it is unlikely that his deep sense of responsibility will desert him in his twilight years.

"What I love is his unobtrusiveness, his simplicity, his humility," Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian minister and panel judge, said. "Some people, especially heads of state, are so self-important. But with Chissano, you would hardly remember this is an ex-President - and that's good."

- Independent