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Africa's elders seize a leading role

In January, one of Africa's most stable democracies was violently ripping itself apart. How was it saved? In a four-part special report, the key players tell what happened.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / August 5, 2008

REBUILDING AFTER VIOLENCE: In Eldoret, Kenya, the town most riven by violence earlier this year, local leaders in May discuss their differences. Chief mediator Kofi Annan is shown here on Jan. 22.

MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN – STAFF

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Nairobi, Kenya

Kenya's peace talks have barely begun. But the atmosphere in the Orchid Room of the Serena Hotel is already toxic.

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"You stole the election," shouts William Ruto, a fiery, big-framed politician.

"We didn't steal it," shoots back the Kenyan government's negotiating team leader, Martha Karua. She's the Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady," of Kenyan politics. She's not giving an inch.

In fact, Ms. Karua will be the most intractable of those seated at the table over the coming days and weeks. "We won it fair and square." says Karua.

But there's another African woman present, an authority figure beyond reproach, who brusquely cuts Karua off: "If that is the case, then why the violence?"

Graça Machel, the wife of former South African president Nelson Mandela, presses the point home. "Why the swearing-in ceremony at the State House at night? You have to acknowledge that you have a problem."

A problem, indeed.

One of Africa's most stable democracies was ripping itself apart. In the month following Kenya's closely contested presidential elections, more than 700 people had died in the ethnic-political conflict. The media were starting to compare the spreading violence to the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.

Just days before the peace talks began, Ms. Machel had personally visited camps for refugees of the violence in the Rift Valley, where a church had been deliberately torched with some 30 women and children inside. After hearing one grandmother's tale of tragedy, Machel and the woman hugged and cried, their foreheads touching.

So, when Machel addresses all the Kenyan negotiators on Jan. 29, her voice now rising with emotion, the room falls silent.

"Your country is bleeding," she tells them. "You need to act."

• • •

In the next five weeks, led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a team of African statesmen and women, known as The Panel of Eminent African Personalities, they achieve what few thought was possible: a cessation of fighting and a power-sharing deal to put Kenya back together again.

Machel's presence, along with Mr. Annan, and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, would provide important ballast. Machel and Annan are part of The Elders, a dozen experienced leaders from around the world, set up in 2007 by Mr. Mandela and others to address global problems.

At a time when Kenya's angry "young turks" were whipping up the emotions that fed violence, these African elders had the calming influence of a stern grandparent, in front of whom one doesn't misbehave.

"I came in at a time when there was so much mistrust," recalls Annan in an interview later. "The two blocks had dug in. One felt they had won the elections fair and square, the other maintained 'you stole it.' "

"With that sort of attitude, getting them to come together, and getting them to begin to think of coming together, and ... thinking in terms that we are all Kenyans and we are one Kenya, and we need to work together to put it back together, was not an easy task," he says with a large dose of understatement.

Today, five months later, an uneasy alliance is holding. Even Annan predicted it would take at least a year to get a fully operational government of national unity, especially given the ugly underlying issues of class, ethnicity, and wealth which had set off the crisis. But the fact that Kenya has a government at all shows that international pressure and African-led mediation can work, say experts.

To understand how peace came to Kenya, the Monitor conducted interviews with many of the key Kenyan players on both mediation teams, along with the African statesmen who steered it toward success. This story is based on their memories of the events inside the negotiation room, along with Monitor reporting of the violence that continued to brew outside – a daily reminder to everyone in Kenya of the potential costs of failure.

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