Kenya warms to Kofi the peacemaker

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The Independent Online

Before Kofi Annan had even arrived in Nairobi to try to persuade Kenya's leaders to begin peace talks, one of President Mwai Kibaki's more hardline ministers made the government's view quite clear.

"If Kofi Annan is coming," said John Michuki, a member of Mr Kibaki's inner circle, "he is not coming at our invitation. As far as we are concerned, we won an election."

But more than four weeks later, the Kenyan government's uninvited guest is still here – and shows no sign of leaving. Living in a suite in Nairobi's luxury Serena hotel, Mr Annan has been working 14-hour days, cajoling, arm-twisting and occasionally threatening negotiators for the government and opposition.

Despite the odd outburst and threatened walkout, Mr Annan has managed to draw concessions from both sides, edging them ever closer to a political compromise that could solve Kenya's crisis after December's deeply flawed presidential election.

Even Mr Annan himself did not expect to still be in Kenya. But now that progress is being made he is determined to stay as long as necessary. Kenya, he said, is "too important to be allowed to go to the dogs".

His style has impressed Kenyans. "He's a mild-mannered and quiet man, but he is putting his foot down," said Gladwell Otieno, the head of the Nairobi-based African Centre for Open Governance. "In a small way, he's showing Kenyans another model of leadership."

Previous international mediators had come and gone – ignored and humiliated by the government. John Kufuor, the head of the African Union and the President of Ghana, was originally refused entry. Once formally invited, days later, the government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, appeared to ridicule Mr Kufuor's mission, claiming he was merely coming for a "cup of tea".

Mr Annan looked like he was heading towards a similar humiliation. Mr Kibaki refused to meet him at the airport. Mr Kibaki ignored Mr Annan on his first full day in the country, finally agreeing to meet him almost 48 hours after his arrival.

But the government quickly realised that most Kenyans view Mr Annan as second only to Nelson Mandela in terms of eminent African leaders. "Kofi has the sort of standing that makes it difficult to attack him personally," said Ms Otieno.

After persuading the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, and Mr Kibaki to meet and publicly shake hands, Mr Annan flew to the Rift Valley to view for himself the displacement camps. On his return he saw Mr Kibaki and told him in no uncertain terms that Kenya was in crisis. Within days, the government had agreed to talks.

For the past three weeks, negotiators have spent most of their days holed up in a meeting room at the Serena. The talks have not been without problems. Dead-lines imposed by Mr Annan have come and gone. Much-heralded "major breakthroughs" have turned out to be little more than agreements to continue talking.

As well as appealing to the government's "better angels", Mr Annan has some more threatening cards to play.

Publication of the European Union's election observer mission report has been delayed by the ongoing talks. The report is expected to say that President Kibaki's margin of victory was smaller than the number of "not credible" votes cast in his favour. Mr Annan is said to have a copy, which may be deployed if he believes the government is preventing progress.

Several Western countries, including Britain, are preparing lists of senior politicians who may face visa bans and asset freezes if the negotiations do not succeed.