After two months of discord, finally a handshake

In January, one of Africa's most stable democracies was violently ripping itself apart. How was it saved? In Part 4 of a four-part special report, the key players tell what happened.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    AT LAST, A DEAL: Chief mediator Kofi Annan (l.) applauds as President Mwai Kibaki (c.) shakes hands with his new prime minister, Raila Odinga. On Feb. 28, five weeks of peace talks brought an end to the violence between political and ethnic groups.
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On Tuesday, Feb. 12, chief mediator Kofi Annan leaves the hotel to address a special session of Kenya's Parliament, where more than 200 newly elected parliamentarians have gathered for the purpose of getting an update on the peace talks.

The two mediation teams are there, too. Both Mr. Annan and Graça Machel, South Africa's former first lady, brief the assembly.

"Africa cares. Kenya's pain is Africa's pain," Mrs. Machel tells them. This is a political crisis. It can only be addressed through a political solution."

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A member of Parliament asks Annan where he sees the mediation process heading. Annan responds that a "grand coalition" – a power-sharing agreement between the president and Mr. Odinga's party – is one possibility for resolving the crisis. "I expect that we shall conclude our deliberations ... this week."

Visibly angered, President Kibaki's lead negotiator Martha Karua storms out of the room. Within hours, all the major newspapers receive a faxed photocopy of a stinging letter of protest signed by Ms. Karua.

"My team is alarmed at some serious inaccurate statements made by Your Excellency at the briefing of parliamentarians today. Namely you stated that 'the dialogue team had agreed to have a transitional government for two years after which we shall hold Presidential elections' which position has not been discussed or agreed upon," Karua's letter read.

"He was trying to preempt the decision," recalls Karua. "Instead of being the mediator, he was actively campaigning for a government of national unity. At that stage we had not discussed it. We were agreed on a shared government, but not the type that he [Kofi Annan] was discussing."

Kofi Annan is a famous workaholic. At night, he conducts staff meetings in the courtyard of the Serena Hotel, where a pond full of chirping frogs prevents conversations from being overheard. On weekends, he briefs foreign diplomats and meets separately with President Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga to test their willingness to compromise. He has deliberately kept these two principals out of the direct negotiations. They're his fallback plan if the team talks hit a stalemate.

It would be hard to find someone better suited to the task of pulling Kenya back from the brink. He has global stature and continental credibility. A former UN secretary-general, he has experience in mediating conflicts in Iraq, East Timor, and Israel-Palestinian territories. At his side are mediation professionals who work for an independent Geneva-based group called the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue.

To Karua's protest missive, Annan responds quickly and diplomatically, telling reporters, "Unfortunately, it appears that one of the parties may have misunderstood remarks made during the question-and-answer period" in Kenya's parliament.

The spat over Annan's "grand coalition" plan carries into the next day and threatens to undermine his plan for a fresh start.

To break the impasse, he'd already planned to move the peace talks to a new, secret location. The two teams gather on the morning of Feb. 13 at the Kilaguni Serena Lodge, located deep inside a national park on Kenya's southeastern border with Tanzania.

A new venue serves two purposes. It breaks the monotony of meeting in the same boardroom to discuss the same issues and it also takes the two teams away from the constituencies who may be urging each side to fight on. At Annan's request, all access to Tsavo National Park is sealed off, and the Kenyan Air Force closes off airspace above the park – to keep out the media.

Perched on a ridge – with a boardroom overlooking a massive watering hole and Mount Kilimanjaro visible on the horizon – Kilaguni is a perfect break from the kind of war of attrition that has been fought, politely, in the Orchid Room.

On one night, as the two teams strain to hear the soft-spoken Annan explain a point, a group of elephants leave the watering hole and creep up close to the lodge, as if they wanted to listen, too.

On the first morning after Karua's letter hits the press, Annan gives her team time to vent. But not much time. After a few moments, he changes the subject. "He wasn't going to let this derail the talks," says an Annan staffer. "He let them air their views and then he said, 'Let's move on.'"

But the change in venue isn't working – even the team's conciliators are stymied.

When the teams meet again the following week, back at their old digs in the Orchid Room, it is clear that the Kilaguni experiment has not sped up the talks, but rather slowed them down. Odinga's team has backed off of many of its demands, but the president's team has not budged an inch.

The realization that the two teams were at a complete stalemate was not immediate, but cumulative. Team leaders would seem close to reaching an agreement, but then come back the next day and ask to revisit old issues settled days before. "It felt like we were walking uphill in the snow and not actually getting anywhere," says an Annan staffer.

Any solution, Karua tells Annan, must abide by the current Constitution. Anything else will undermine Kenyan institutions. If the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) wants to join the government of President Kibaki, she says, they must accept that Kibaki is the duly elected president.

It's a point that Karua has repeated throughout the talks. But coming again now, so close to a possible agreement, even some of her own team are appalled. "Oh, come on, Martha," teammates mutter. During a break, Ruto complains to Annan: "We are making no progress here."

It's midday on Feb. 26, and Annan can see that there is no use in continuing. Both teams have given in where they can. When asked to give in some more, the teams say they must "consult" with the principals, President Kibaki and opposition leader Odinga.

As always, Annan is soft-spoken, polite, and firm. "If this is as far as we can go forward as team, in my capacity of mediator, I will suspend the talks and go to the principals," he says.

The reaction is instant, and from the president's team, angry.

"Sir," Mutula Kilonzo protests, "if you had told us that you were going to suspend the talks, we would have tried harder to come to an agreement."

But after Annan leaves, the anger gives way to relief. The sheer exhaustion of five weeks had bonded the two teams. "I had got these guys laughing and hugging," Mr. Kilonzo recalls.

On the other team, ODM negotiator James Orengo says that he welcomed the move, but he adds, "It was a big gamble." If Odinga and Kibaki failed to reach an agreement, the country was in deep trouble. The BBC was reporting the nationwide death toll now at 1,500. The ODM announced it would stage nationwide protests within two days if no deal was reached.

"People don't realize how close this came to breaking down," says a Western diplomat who was regularly briefed on the talks. "Kofi was about five hours from boarding a plane and leaving Kenya. And there was no one else who could come in and take over."

Today, Annan says he never doubted that Kibaki and Odinga would eventually agree to a compromise. He had been briefing the two leaders throughout the talks, and despite the obstinacy of their mediation teams, he felt they were both ready to abandon their maximum positions for the common good.

But on Feb. 27, when Annan met the two principal leaders in the inner sanctum of the president's office at Harambee House, Annan's staff, sitting outside in the cramped lobby, were not so sure. Surrounded by nervous, pacing politicians from both sides, Annan's assistants clutched their laptops and sipped sodas while Annan laid out the details of a power-sharing deal to the two leaders.

By this time, Graça Machel had returned to South Africa. But former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, the hotel hostage, and Mkapa's successor, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, had come to help Annan close the deal.

As he had with the two mediation teams, Annan led Kibaki and Odinga through the proposed agreement line by line, occasionally sending for an assistant to incorporate new language at each stage.

President Kibaki's main objection to the deal was the proposal to make Odinga a prime minister with executive powers, including "authority" over the cabinet. President Kikwete snorted. "Hey, you've got it easy," he told Kibaki. "In Tanzania, our prime minister has much more power than that, and that doesn't diminish my powers as president one bit."

At 2:30 p.m., after five hours, Annan had his deal; a 50/50 split of all the cabinet ministries between the two sides and an agreement to hammer out a new Constitution within a year (see story at right).

ODM team members were jubilant, for they now had power – or at least half of it. Kibaki's team members were largely relieved. But Karua was livid. "I had to wonder whether the locations of heaven and hell had changed," she recalls.

Throughout the previous two months, Kenya's news media have portrayed Karua as a tough Lady Macbeth with a political agenda and ambitions of running for president herself in 2012. But Karua sees herself as a defender of principles, such as the notion that sovereign nations should govern themselves and that institutions – in this case the Kenyan Constitution – should be reinforced, not undermined by gentlemen's deals such as the Annan peace process.

"It was a terrible process, but a worthwhile goal," she says now. "At the end we were able to support it, because it restored a sense of normalcy. The agreement stopped the violence and brought back a semblance of peace. It restored our sovereignty and control over our own affairs."

Few, if any, experts will assert that Kenya has definitely achieved a lasting peace. The ethnic, economic, and political divisions are not easily bridged. Seven months after the troubles began, an estimated 350,000 Kenyans (more than half of the homeless) remain displaced by the violence, with only a few of the communities ready for reconciliation and healing.

The distrust that set these two parties against each other remains as well. At a recent Nairobi ceremony, the president's special guards got into a shoving match with the guards of Prime Minister Odinga.

But significantly, Justice Minister Karua – one of those who fought hardest against the power-sharing pact – says she is confident that the fractious Kenyan government will achieve its goals. "We are doing well and we are going to continue our work until we get it right," she says today.

The day after the new cabinet's swearing in ceremony in April, Annan told the Monitor that only the Kenyan people themselves can solve the chronic problems that sent the country to the brink.

"They will have to do the heavy lifting, they will have to do the work," says Annan. "This is their responsibility, the leaders working with the people of the country. No outsider can want peace more than the Kenyans. They are, at the end of the day, all Kenyans."

This is the fourth 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 Kenyan protagonists and the conciliators

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

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