Leading article: A model for international mediation

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We come to praise a former leader who, having stepped down from high office, lent his charm and negotiating experience to the task of mediating in one of the world's most intractable disputes. No, not Tony Blair, currently trying to bring Palestinians and Israelis to a two-state settlement. We mean to pay tribute to Kofi Annan, who stood down as general secretary of the United Nations a year ago (after serving, like Mr Blair, a 10-year term that was punctuated by allegations of unethical financial dealings). This week, Mr Annan finally managed to secure a deal between the rival leaders of Kenya, a country in danger of tearing itself apart after a disputed election in December.

Mr Annan's is a huge achievement, coming after 38 days in which he dedicated himself to the cause. Of course, it is not his alone: Jakaya Kikwete, the president of Tanzania who is chairman of the African Union, shares some of the credit – as do the bitter rivals for the leadership of Kenya, President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, who is now prime minister designate. Other African leaders played a part: many of them withheld recognition of Mr Kibaki's narrow "victory" in the election, which was secured on the basis of irregularities that included, for example, a turnout in one constituency of 115 per cent. Equally Mr Annan has been supported by the UN, the United States and the European Union.

Yet, if this agreement holds – and that is still in question – it will be primarily Mr Annan's work. He had to threaten to pull out more than once, and had to use all his reserves as a conciliator, in order to secure the deal. But this is the first and most essential stage. Without some form of agreement between the parties – "It means we recognise Mr Kibaki as president and he recognises that there were some flaws in the elections," as Mr Odinga put it yesterday – no hope of an end to the bloodshed, let alone a return to stability and progress, was possible.

Mr Annan's efforts are a model for international mediation, using the authority of the UN to secure a power-sharing deal – in this case inventing an office of prime minister to assume some of the responsibilities of the president.

If the agreement holds, if it proves to be more than "just a piece of paper", as Mr Odinga described it yesterday, then Mr Annan deserves the praise and thanks of Africa and the world.