Africa's peace seekers: Lazaro Sumbeiywo
Kenya's top general brought the wisdom of a tribal chief and the ingenuity of a modern mediator to negotiations that ended Sudan's 21-year civil war. Part 1 of three.
Until a single phone call from the president of Kenya changed the trajectory of his life, Lazaro Sumbeiywo had spent the whole of his illustrious career focused on making war.Skip to next paragraph
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When the phone rang in his office in October 2001, this towering son of a village chief was Kenya's top general.
"I have an offer for you," he recalls the president saying, "and I order you not to refuse."
General Sumbeiywo was fiercely loyal to then-President Daniel arap Moi. During a 1982 coup attempt, he'd raced to Mr. Moi's home to protect him. Off and on since 1987, he had sometimes been involved with the Sudan negotiations. But the president's order caught him off guard.
"I want you to find peace in Sudan," Moi said.
The general was dumbstruck. This was Africa's longest civil war - a seemingly intractable 18-year conflict between Muslim Arab northerners and mostly Christian black southerners. Some 2 million people had died. Four million had been forced to flee their homes. And at least five major peacemaking efforts over 13 years had failed. Yet if peace could be found in oil-rich and populous Sudan, it could usher in a new era of trade and prosperity in neighboring Kenya and across northeast Africa.
After stammering something, Sumbeiywo hung up. Then, he phoned back to try to reject the assignment. But Moi wouldn't take the call. So, Sumbeiywo did the only thing he could think of: He started a three-day fast "to get very close to God."
It was not the last time he would seek divine help. Over the next 3-1/2 grueling years of peace talks, he would muster the persistence of the biblical Joseph, the wisdom of an African chief, and the ingenuity of a modern mediator. And eventually the process he led would become what many now see as a gold standard for making peace in Africa.
"General Sumbeiywo should win the Nobel Peace Prize," says former Sen. John Danforth, who was President Bush's special envoy to Sudan from 2001 to 2004. "His ability to stay there in the talks and be an honest broker - and to listen to all the back and forth over such a long period of time - was essential, and was very largely responsible for the result," says Senator Danforth by phone from St. Louis.
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As a boy, Sumbeiywo would walk past one of the biggest trees in his rural village and see his father, the chief, sitting under its sprawling branches, surrounded by neighbors. His dad would listen for hours as people aired disagreements over such things as who owned a particular cow. Then he'd dispense his wisdom. Like many African chiefs, he'd stay under the tree until every villager had spoken.
Decades later, standing at the front of a conference room at a Kenyan resort hotel, Sumbeiywo drew upon his father's ways: He let the two sides vent.
The tall oak of a man with broad shoulders and a deep, soothing voice started his "ventilation sessions" in June of 2002 with a basic question for representatives from the Khartoum government in the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLA) in the south: "Why are you at war?"
For two weeks, they "steamed out" as Sumbeiywo filled page after page of flip-chart pads. He'd scrawl things like "oil" and "sharia" and "religion" and "self-determination" on the pages, and then tape them up around the room.
The words were shorthand for the root causes of conflict in Africa's largest country - a place more than three times the size of Texas that straddles the continent's great north-south divide between Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and Christian. Among the issues: How to split up Sudan's oil wealth; whether Islamic law (sharia) should be imposed on the south, where most people are Christian or animist; and how to assuage southern feelings of political and economic exclusion from power. (Similar feelings of marginalization also sparked the separate 2003 rebellion in Sudan's western Darfur region, which led to US charges of genocide against the Khartoum government.)