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 , Staff writer

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    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.
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    IN THE RIFT VALLEY: Former South African first lady Graça Machel (l.) and chief mediator Kofi Annan (center) visit Red Cross camps for the homeless in Kenya’s Rift Valley on Jan. 26.
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    DEFENDING THE CONSTITUTION: Martha Karua was the lead negotiator for President Kibaki. A lawyer, she fought hard to keep the peace talks from usurping Kenya’s constitutional law governing elections and presidential powers.
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Kenya's peace talks have barely begun. But the atmosphere in the Orchid Room of the Serena Hotel is already toxic.

"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.

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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.

By the time Annan and his team arrived on Jan. 22, it was not clear how much of Kenya would be left to save. Starting on Saturday evening Dec. 29, when President Mwai Kibaki was declared victor by the Electoral Commission of Kenya and sworn into office an hour later, violence had spread swiftly across areas where the opposition's support was strongest.

Hardest hit was the Rift Valley, the country's breadbasket, where people of all ethnicities came to farm the lands that the white British colonialists had treasured. The violence was brutal, ethnic, and personal. Young men – urged on by inflammatory FM radio stations broadcasting in the Kalenjin language – rampaged from village to village, carrying iron rods, machetes, axes, and even bows with poisoned arrows. Their targets were members of the dominant Kikuyu tribe, President Kibaki's ethnic group. Some were given warnings to leave, others were slaughtered in their homes – or in their church.

A gang of youths set ablaze the Kenya Assemblies of God Pentecostal Church in Eldoret on Jan. 1. At least 30 people were inside, taking shelter from the tribal clashes. Kenya's leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, reported that the country is on "the verge of a complete meltdown."

Over the next three weeks the death toll would rise to 650.

Annan's arrival doesn't stop the violence right away. But the lifelong diplomat wastes little time. Within two days, he convinces the two sides to negotiate with each other with no preconditions. On the evening of Jan. 24, on national TV, millions of Kenyans see the two opponents, President Kibaki and Raila Odinga, shaking hands and sipping tea.

Over the next two days, as Kibaki and Mr. Odinga assemble their mediation teams, Annan and his team hop into Kenyan military helicopters and tour the Rift Valley's worst affected areas to assess the humanitarian needs. A spasm of violence over the weekend – including 60 murders and the assassination of a newly elected ODM legislator Melitus Mugabe Were – prompts Annan to send the mediators home to calm their grieving communities.

• • •

For his part, Mr. Odinga, the opposition leader, chooses a team of four fiery politicians, led by William Ruto. Only one among them, James Orengo, is an attorney, but the other three represent a cross section of the opposition movement's main power bases, mostly from the Rift Valley. While the ODM party had been confrontational on the streets, in the mediation board room, they would show a more professional side, referring to their counterparts as "my learned friend" or "the honorable gentleman."

President Kibaki, on the other hand, loads his team with lawyers, chief among them his justice minister, Martha Karua. His team would defend the election results based on the Constitution, the rule of law.

The members of each team know their opponents intimately. The relations between these two sides are so entangled that one member of the president's team, Mutula Kilonzo, would take time out from the peace talks to argue a civil case in court for one of the opposition team members, Sally Kosgei.

Together, these eight men and women were Kenya's brightest and most ambitious. And over the next five weeks, their debates on arcane points of constitutional law would form the sophisticated counterpoint to the images of vicious street fighting that were redefining Kenya in the eyes of world.

This is the first installment of the four-part series "How peace came to Kenya."

Part 1: Africa's elders seize a leading role

Part 2: A month of attacks, then quiet progress

Part 3: Two protagonists and the conciliators

Part 4: After two months of discord, finally a handshake

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