Exactly eight years ago today, Kofi Annan strode out of Harambee House and declared: We have a deal.
Those words brought a sense of relief across the country. At that time, remember, things were falling apart everywhere in ways both big and small.
A Sh250 airtime scratch card was going for Sh500 in Nairobi. Most restaurants in town kept their doors shut, spelling agony for those who still had to go to work amid the crisis.
Many companies could not distribute their wares across the country, creating shortages and also suggesting mass layoffs of workers were on the cards if the talks failed because most employers were not making any money.
Most of all, the memory of the mass killings and displacements which had rocked the country from Naivasha to Kisumu to Uasin Gishu the previous month were fresh on the minds of a shocked nation – and everyone knew worse was to follow if the politicians could not agree.
What did we learn from it all? I agree with columnist Rasna Warah that it is a shame that Kenyans don’t write more books on current affairs. There is enough material from all the drama that unfolds in the country to provide fodder for dozens of books – and not the academic type that few wananchi ever get to read. On this score, the South Africans are doing much better.
As it happens, the best account of the tense talks which Annan presided over from January 29 was written by the American writer Roger Cohen, who obtained access to the minutes of all the meetings.
His New York Review of Books article on the subject contains a few gems. The principal lesson is that never trust a Kenyan politician. And if you shake hands with them, remember to count your fingers afterwards.
The two guys who were most opposed to the signing of a deal throughout the talks were William Ruto – at the time one of Raila Odinga’s staunchest supporters and Martha Karua – who was then bitterly opposed to any deal with Raila.
In one exchange on February 26, Karua, who adopted an especially hardline stance, kept insisting that the constitution could not be changed to accommodate an executive prime minister.
Ruto, described as “smooth-talking”, shouted that the constitution “has acquired an almost holy status!” “Yes,” Karua retorted. “The constitution is a holy document!”
When Karua and Ruto went after each other’s necks on another day, Graca Machel had to intervene by informing them her husband Nelson Mandela had called her and sent his best wishes and sought to remind them that all of Africa was watching the process. He wanted them, she said, to “deliberate with a constructive spirit and a sense of urgency”.
Today, of course, Ruto and Karua are on very different sides.
Ruto is the one politician who has only unkind words for Raila Odinga while Karua is now often to be found by the Cord leader’s side.
This is both good and bad. On the one hand, it shows that the political class are not truly sworn enemies and their ability to cross over from one side of the divide to the other is a good safety valve because it means they are not likely to try to burn the country down. Of course on the negative side, it shows how far supporters have to go to catch up with their leaders and avoid seeing politics as a life and death affair.
In my view, the biggest missed opportunity from the 2007/8 crisis was the failure to create a governance model that makes competition for power among ethnic elites less fierce and poisonous.
END ETHNIC DOMINANCE
The writers of the 2010 constitution meant well when they prescribed a 50 per cent threshold to achieve the presidency in the hope that this would end ethnic dominance over State House, which brews only instability and resentment.
Is it time to rethink this model now that it is obviously flawed? Why not form a coalition between the various parties that score votes above a set threshold as the Germans do?
Winner-take-all politics is a mess when implemented in a still heavily divided country.
The other lesson is an easy one to draw.
The country in time should recognise that it owes a debt of gratitude both to Raila and Kibaki, who refused to listen to the radicals in their camps and decided to compromise.
Kibaki, whatever his mistakes, could easily have behaved like Cote d’Ivoire’s Gbagbo and flatly rejected the talks and Raila, who strongly felt he had been cheated of victory, could have chosen a long war like Ouattara’s supporters did.
The fact that they ignored the Rutos and Karuas of this world is to their credit.
[email protected] @mutigam