Kenya, despite being composed of some forty different ethnic groups, has long been known for relative stability. Its breathtaking Rift Valley and extraordinary game parks have drawn droves of international tourists, just as they once attracted British colonialists with a taste for gin and hunting lions. Through only three presidencies since independence in 1963—those of Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, and the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki—the country grew into one of Africa’s larger economies, enjoyed good relations with the United States, and attracted investment scared away from its turbulent neighbors. A booming flower export business developed in recent years. Kenya was the anti-Somalia.

But beneath the surface, tensions simmered, principally between the largest ethnic groups: the Kikuyus, with 20 percent of the population, the Luos, with 14 percent, and the Kalenjins, with 12 percent. President Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, arranged for his tribe to make extensive, subsidized land purchases in Central Province and the Rift Valley, in areas running north from the capital, Nairobi. The losers were mainly Kalenjins. Rather than first president, Kenyatta often seemed to be first tribal leader.

That, at least, is how he appeared to Barack Obama’s father, a Luo shaped by his American education at the University of Hawaii and at Harvard. He warned in the 1960s that “tribalism was going to ruin the country,” according to the Democratic presidential candidate’s memoir. Kenyatta punished Obama Sr., a civil servant, by demoting him, a first step on the road to drink and early death.

Such discrimination was often the lot of the Luos, concentrated in western Kenya. Their leading political family, the Odingas, have been a particular target. Oginga Odinga had served from 1964 to 1966 as vice-president to Kenyatta, before resigning and going into opposition. He was arrested in 1969 after ethnic violence between Luos and Kikuyus in the Luo-dominated western city of Kisumu, near the Obama homestead. The facts that a Luo has never been president, and that investment in “Luo Land” has lagged behind that in other areas (infant mortality in western Nyanza Province is three times higher than in Central Province), have stirred resentments. Luos, who identify with Obama, have felt marginalized. Kikuyus, notably cooler to the Democratic presidential candidate, continue to dominate. A popular joke in Nairobi is that the United States is more ready to elect a Luo president than Kenya.

That may be. Daniel arap Moi, the second president, was a Kalenjin who promoted his own people in the army, police, and civil service, while being careful not to alienate the largest ethnic group. Kibaki, his successor in 2002, and the head of the Party of National Unity (PNU), restored the presidency to Kikuyu hands, albeit with promises of constitutional reform that would rein in an arrogant presidency. A Kenyan saying has it that the country is one big matatu—the overcrowded minibuses that have limbs protruding from windows and doors—with the president as insouciant driver.

Kibaki’s apparent commitment to divide the president’s responsibilities attracted Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga Odinga, scion of Luoism and leader of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) in Kenya’s disputed presidential election last December. Raila Odinga was an ally of Kibaki’s in the 2002 election and became a minister in the first-term Kibaki government. (He had also served briefly as energy minister to Moi from 2001 to 2002.) But by 2005 relations between the two men had collapsed in angry recrimination over aborted reform and Odinga had resigned his cabinet position.

Odinga is as much at home firing up crowds as the reserved Kibaki is on the golf course. Once ousted he became the conduit for broad Kenyan resentment over Kikuyu domination, presidential cronyism, the spreading poverty in Nairobi’s vast slums, blocked constitutional reform, and scarce agricultural land. “Raila! Raila!” was the cry. It reflected a wave of dissatisfaction that appeared to be propelling Odinga and his ODM to a clear electoral victory as initial returns came in last December 27.

Then “a situation where Raila was leading by 1.2 million votes became one where he lost to Kibaki by 300,000,” said Salim Lone, an adviser to Odinga. “The robbery was blatant.”

Kibaki’s PNU claimed it won “fair and square,” and the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) quickly endorsed Kibaki’s miraculous surge. But American and United Nations officials saw enough tampered ballots and returns to be convinced that “flawed election” would be a generous description. Kenyans, by the millions, needed no convincing that their will had been flouted.

Luos erupted in rage in western Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city, where in late February I saw streets full of burned buildings and shattered stores that had once belonged to Kikuyus. Kalenjins in Central Province and the Rift Valley, the most ethnically mixed Kenyan areas, also reacted in fury to the election results; long resentful of losing their land to Kikuyu control, they too targeted Kikuyus. The Kikuyu response, when it came, was equally brutal. In early March, when I visited the town of Naivasha in the Rift Valley, refugee camps were still full of Luos who had fled Kikuyu reprisals. Police often sided with their ethnic groups. More than one thousand people were killed and 600,000 displaced, with victims from all the main ethnic groups.


Luos trooped back westward toward Kisumu from central areas. Kikuyus fled western towns. Factories and farms throughout the country ground to a halt because their laborers had disappeared behind emergent ethnic lines.

This was the perilous, bloody situation on January 8, when President John Kufuor of Ghana, the chairman of the African Union, approached Kofi Annan about serving as chief mediator in Kenya, alongside former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa and Graça Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela.

A month and a half later, having accepted the invitation, Kofi Annan offered a prayer. Since arriving in Kenya on January 22, he had, at the start of each negotiating session between supporters of Kibaki and Odinga, made a habit of inviting a delegate to pray. Now, on February 19, after eleven stormy meetings of the opposing four-member teams, the prayer he chose was unusual: a composition for bagpipes by Hans Corell, a Swede who had been his top legal adviser at the United Nations.

As the refrain of the pipes faded, Annan read from Kenya’s national anthem:

Let all with one accord

In common bond united

Build this nation together

And the glory of Kenya.

Bonds and togetherness, not to mention glory, had been in short supply since Kibaki claimed victory, and Odinga claimed robbery, and violence broke out. Invoking God, the former United Nations secretary-general made a terrestrial point: “Lord,” Annan said,

May you make the parties to this Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation realize the seriousness of the situation and see that they have an obligation to find, in the interest of all people of Kenya, this one accord. And may you lead them that they may unite in a common bond not only to build their nation together but now also to bring their nation together. Amen.

Genocides in Rwanda and Darfur these past fourteen years with their more than one million dead did not lack for such uplifting exhortations, but ringing words caused little change. There was reason, once the malevolent genie of ethnic warfare had been released, to think events in Kenya might spiral toward comparable horror.

From Sarajevo to Nairobi, ethnic slaughter displaces large numbers of people: one dead, one thousand on the move. The math of national decomposition is implacable. Kenya, a mosaic of several dozen tribes that had somehow held together over forty-five years of independence—the beautiful East African country to which international officials returned from Somalia and Ethiopia for R&R—was on the verge of breaking apart.

Among those listening to Annan’s prayer that day were Martha Karua, the Kenyan justice minister, and a Kikuyu like Kibaki, and William Ruto, a smooth-talking Kalenjin supporter of Odinga from the Rift Valley. Minutes of all eighteen negotiating sessions were provided exclusively to me by Annan. That day’s give an idea of what he was up against.

Karua accuses Annan of being biased in favor of Odinga’s ODM. He is, she says, trying to engineer “a civilian coup” by proposing the creation of a new prime minister’s post for Odinga with substantial executive powers that would compromise Kibaki’s as president. Ruto, clearly exasperated by the condescension from Karua’s PNU, says, “If it was not accepted that the parties were on equal terms then there would be nothing to discuss.”

So much for prayer: daggers were out. Annan knew the evidence of electoral fraud and this prompted sympathy for the ODM. On the other hand, there was also evidence that some post-electoral violence was coordinated by ODM agitators. Neither side was clean. Accusations could be traded forever, but it was paramount to look forward.

“What was in my head,” Annan told me, “was that we can’t let this happen to Kenya! We’d seen a lot of destruction in the region—Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Darfur—and Kenya had been the safe haven for refugees. And suddenly Kenya itself was going! I think we’ve learned that when you have ethnic violence, if you don’t mediate quickly, you get a hopeless situation. That’s why I stayed five weeks.”

There were deeper reasons. For a decade now, Annan has been pushing the notion that “Never Again!” is a meaningless phrase if, in circumstances of genocide, ethnic cleansing, or gross abuse, outside powers defer to national sovereignty and refuse to intervene. As he said in 1998, national borders can no longer offer “watertight protection” for “mass murderers.” Sovereignty invests states with responsibilities as well as rights. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which established the unfettered power of a state within its jurisdiction, has had a long run, but in an interconnected world, it’s anachronistic.


Annan’s efforts in this regard reached formal fruition at the 2005 World Summit, which adopted the “Responsibility to Protect,” known as “R2P,” a global commitment to come to the aid of people “in a timely and decisive manner” when their governments prove unable or unwilling to safeguard them. As a last resort, “should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly failing to protect their populations,” such intervention could, with UN Security Council approval, take military form.

Fine sentiments, and an important ethical and juridical benchmark, but they happened to coincide with the Iraq war, whose ex-post-facto invocation of humanitarianism discredited such interventions. Just as R2P came into being, noninterventionism of the kind reflexively espoused by China and Russia enjoyed a Baghdad-boosted bonanza.

For many developing nations, humanitarianism was seen as a pretext for a bellicose post–September 11 Bush doctrine and Western imperial designs, or so despotic leaders from Khartoum to Yangon to Harare have argued. The liberal notion that we have a duty to intervene when large humanitarian crises are taking place, a proudly supported principle when I covered the Bosnian war in the 1990s, was now more often a phrase used with disdain or derision.

To Annan, shaped by the experience of Rwanda and Bosnia, these were painful developments. In Kenya he saw an opportunity to give some new credence to interventionism. “I saw the crisis in the R2P prism with a Kenyan government unable to contain the situation or protect its people,” Annan said. “I knew that if the international community did not intervene, things would go hopelessly wrong. The problem is when we say ‘intervention,’ people think military, when in fact that’s a last resort. Kenya is a successful example of R2P at work.”

Certainly, the agreement brokered by Annan on February 28, nine days after his prayer, stopped the country from splitting up along ethnic lines. Kenya today has a functioning government led by Kibaki as president and Odinga as prime minister. An independent committee suggested by Annan is investigating the election and subsequent violence. Another committee will oversee the crucial task of constitutional reform. The cabinet of more than ninety ministers and assistant ministers is unwieldy—the price of placation—and relations between Kibaki and Odinga are uneasy. But under Operation “Rudi Nyumbani” (“Return Home”), the displaced have begun to retrace their steps.

“If we’d had five thousand dead, the entrenchment of displacement would have reached a point where you could never walk it back, and that would have laid the groundwork for genocide later on,” said Meredith Preston McGhie, a senior official from the Geneva-based Center for Humanitarian Dialogue who helped Annan.

How this reconciliation was achieved bears close scrutiny at a time when, from Burma to Zimbabwe, the appropriateness, nature, and effectiveness of interventionism is a subject of heated debate among prominent Americans, including Madeleine Albright in a New York Times Op-Ed, who recently said that “the concept of humanitarian intervention has lost momentum.”


At the sixth session of talks, on February 6, Annan’s fellow negotiator Graça Machel said something important, according to the minutes. Karua and Ruto had been going at each other, as usual, with the justice minister insisting that Kibaki had won by 6.6 million votes to 6.3 million, and Ruto retorting that the government had “stolen the election.” At this point, Machel declared that her husband Nelson Mandela had “sent his best wishes and sought to remind them that all of Africa was watching the process.” He wanted them to “deliberate with a constructive spirit and a sense of urgency.”

Not so long ago, the notion of the African continent watching the consequences of an African president’s dubious power grab would have seemed risible: What else, after all, did African leaders do? They won second terms after their first terms by whatever means necessary, and life, often a miserable form of it, slouched on as the leader’s Swiss bank accounts swelled. They did what Robert Mugabe is now doing in Harare.

But beyond Darfur’s and Zimbabwe’s agony, important changes are occurring on the African continent. Annual growth has accelerated to over 5 percent, cell phones have brought communication, and democratic government has spread. One thing the Chinese appear not to have grasped in their “no-strings-attached” grab for resources in Africa is that African commitment to democracy is stronger than many believe because the memory of despotism is visceral. China may not care how African states are governed, but more than 800 million Africans have begun to care a great deal.

It was in this shifting African setting that Annan had accepted the invitation conveyed by Ghana’s president, John Kufuor. He knew the Kenyan stomach for international intervention would be greater if it came from fellow African states rather than from the United States or Britain. As has been evident in Darfur and Zimbabwe, not to mention Burma, the colonial legacy is inescapable. The “white man’s burden” is an intolerable notion to most Africans and Asians. Intervening in a country’s domestic affairs, in a world where the West seems in relative decline, is most acceptable when a regional organization takes the lead, the UN Security Council issues a supportive statement, and US power is used not in the sledgehammer mode, but with some sensitivity and precision. This is the model Annan used in putting R2P into practice. Interventionism is least palatable when someone like Paul Bremer appears as viceroy and tells the Iraqi natives to get with the American program.

“People want an America that listens better,” Annan suggested. “They want an America that uses more of its soft power—and it has plenty—than hard force.”

Still, Annan believes enough in US power to know the importance of harnessing it to his effort. On his way to Geneva airport on January 15 for a flight to Nairobi, he was taken ill and had to spend a week in the hospital. This left him with time to place calls to leading US, European, and African officials. His message was: “We have to make sure there’s just one mediation process. Otherwise you have the protagonists trying to bottom shop, looking elsewhere if they don’t like what you’re offering.”

Coordination was particularly intense with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. McGhie, Annan’s assistant, said that draft US statements were sent to Annan’s team by the American embassy in Nairobi. “I mean, come on!” McGhie said. “This was unheard of! I would give the statements to Annan and he would approve them before they went out.”

So much for with-us or against-us diplomacy: the Bush administration has learned something over almost eight years. After briefly appearing to accept Kibaki’s victory, the United States became emphatic in backing the power-sharing accord Annan envisaged. Washington gave Annan significant leverage.

During February, Rice said there could be no “business as usual” with Kibaki if a power-sharing accord was not reached. The US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Renneberger, announced that “those who supported, funded or in any way aided the violence would not be allowed to travel to the United States.” When Bush started his African tour on February 16 in neighboring Tanzania, he said he wanted “a power-sharing agreement.” In Kenya two days later, Rice insisted on a “grand coalition, so that Kenya can be governed.” There was no threat of military action, as with the 1990s debacle in neighboring Somalia, but Kibaki knew his choice was isolation or compromise.

Martha Karua was incensed. When I saw her in Nairobi on February 27, the day before a power-sharing accord was announced, she was furious about Western pressures. “Why are your countries superior to mine?” she asked. “There is a class issue and kind of racism in the world: I am a Kenyan minister and nobody listens to me. The election was not rigged. The whole world fell for propaganda. Why should Washington run the world?”

The invective was delivered with brio, but, as events would prove, it was empty bluster. Kibaki’s room for maneuver was limited, because Annan was flanked by other prominent Africans, because the African Union and the United Nations had backed Annan, because diplomats and NGOs coordinated their efforts, and because Europeans and Americans spoke with one voice. There was enough international unity for Kibaki to see he would be a near pariah if he balked.

But getting him to this realization took patience. The minutes of Annan’s opening negotiating sessions, from the first on January 29 to the ninth on February 11, read like a protracted exercise in hair-splitting. Securing agreement on the need to end violence and deliver aid was easy enough, but consensus dried up there. As the talks proceeded, violence steadily diminished. The very visible negotiations, Annan’s presence, and calls for restraint from both sides helped.

The minutes show both sides agreeing that some sort of recount should be possible, but disagreeing on how. It took nine sessions of dispute over the election itself before attention could turn at last to the heart of the matter, what James Orengo, a negotiator for Odinga’s ODM, called the “imperial presidency”—how to dilute the president’s power, share it, reform it, and change its nature. For Luos like Odinga, it was way past time.

Raila Odinga has an easy manner, so when he began chatting to me about the travails of being uncircumcised, he could scarcely contain his amusement. The Luos differ from most tribes in Kenya because they keep their foreskins, a tradition that opens them to ridicule. “Circumcision for many tribes is a rite of passage,” Odinga told me over lunch at the Nairobi Club. “So they dismiss us as ‘Kihii,’ or uninitiated youth. The insult was used against my father when he was eighty! This is nothing other than racial discrimination.”

During the campaign, Odinga faced some of the same ridicule. The tribal hostilities throughout Kenya seemed to me strong. But when I met Auma Obama, Barack Obama’s Heidelberg-educated half-sister, at the family homestead in the village of Nyangoma-Kogelo in western Kenya, she insisted I had it wrong. The Kenyan crisis was not simply an ethnic thing, she said. It was about the inequitable distribution of resources and the fact that Luos believed the election had been stolen from them. “People voted for change and they felt cheated,” she said.

For her, in other words, the issue was money, not foreskins; resources, not tribal prejudice. I thought it was a bit of both, maybe more of the latter. We were sitting under a mango tree at the end of red mud road beside the grave of Obama’s father. It took an almost hallucinogenic mental leap to grasp that this rural setting was a part of the background of the possible next president of the United States. But then it occurred to me that such ocean-leaping juxtapositions were emblematic of our world.

The tribalism of which Obama’s father had warned in the 1960s had, earlier this year, plunged Kenya into its worst post-independence crisis. His American birth had allowed Barack Obama to escape it. Nobody cared about circumcision in Hawaii or Cambridge or Chicago. Obama had come to intuit and represent the open borders and interconnectedness that are determining characteristics of our age. Yet tribal perceptions hold sway in Kenya, evident in Luo love for him and Kikuyu suspicion; and if Obama becomes president, the main forces he will face in the world are precisely the momentum of globalization and the tribal reactions to it, whether in the assertion of religious, national, linguistic, racial, or ethnic identity.

To visit the Obama family’s simple Kenyan home, as he has, and contemplate his far-flung family—spread from China to Britain to Hawaii—is to glimpse something fundamental about a world in flux. The twenty-first century is already very different from the twentieth. Informal networks matter more. Acting alone is harder. On-line sociability can propel political movements. The Clinton campaign never grasped this. Obama did. Odinga told me he is happy about that. Still, as a Luo, he believes he beat Obama to becoming a president. “I just wasn’t sworn in!” he said.

“A prisoner of peace” is what Annan called himself. For five weeks he holed up at the Serena Hotel in Nairobi. Preventing genocide takes concentrated, painstaking effort: Rice has shown no inclination for diplomacy of an intensity last demonstrated by Richard Holbrooke in making Bosnian peace at Dayton in 1995.

The nub of the fight was the nature of the prime minister’s post. Should it have executive or nonexecutive powers? Would he serve at the pleasure of the president? Did the constitution have to be amended to create the post? Martha Karua, speaking for Kibaki and the Kikuyus, was clear: “We support a nonexecutive prime minister within the constitution.” ODM wanted executive powers for Odinga as a prime minister free of the president’s whim, with the new power enshrined by a constitutional amendment.

At a stormy seventeenth session on February 26, William Ruto, speaking for the ODM, protested that the constitution “has acquired an almost holy status!”

“Yes,” Karua retorted. “The constitution is a holy document!”

She was furious by now, sensing the way Kibaki was being cornered by international pressure. “The international community has pushed an agenda that has resulted in loss of life and destruction of property,” she exclaimed. Annan objected vehemently, calling her words “unfair and insulting to the international community and African leaders who have come forward to help Kenya.”

Not so, insisted Karua. “We could have reached an agreement without outside involvement.”

Annan had exhausted his patience. He suspended the proceedings, saying he must talk to the principals. He had Hans Corell, his former UN legal adviser, draft an accord with disputed wording in brackets. Annan asked Corell, McGhie, and other advisers to come up with a bracket-free draft to present on February 28 to Kibaki and Odinga. “I couldn’t let them hide behind the mediators any longer,” he told me.

McGhie was skeptical. The only way, Annan insisted, was to get the main actors in a room, get them to agree, and get them to go public immediately. When the Kenyan foreign minister said he’d be there, McGhie and other Annan aides blocked him from coming. In the end five African leaders—Annan, Kibaki, Odinga, Mkapa, and the Tanzanian president, Jakaya Kikwete—met in Nairobi.

Karua was kept out. Kikwete described how his powers as president in Tanzania were not compromised by having a strong prime minister. Annan told Kibaki his choice was simple: he could divide or reconcile Kenyans. One major issue—what would happen if the coalition was dissolved—was simply set aside.

“Five elders for five hours and they got there,” said McGhie. “All that was missing was the village tree [i.e., the proverbial tree under which peace is made]. This was an African solution to an African problem.” But behind those Africans stood an international community united in purpose, for once.

The deal was based on a National Accord and Reconciliation Act that was passed with amendment to the present constitution but will lapse with the creation of a new constitution. According to the act, the post of prime minister was created “to coordinate and supervise the execution of the functions and affairs of the Government of Kenya.” He can be removed only through a majority vote in the National Assembly or the dissolution of the coalition.

“Better half the loaf than no bread,” Odinga told me. “On paper, it’s 50-50. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.” He has a foot in the door, and believes that can be the base for a Luo to break through to the top post in the next election.

The national unity government— with Karua as minister of justice and national cohesion, no less, and Ruto as agriculture minister—was sworn in on April 17. There are already tensions— like over whether to grant an amnesty to the more than 100 prisoners still detained in the Rift Valley who have not been charged. There are also more guns in the country these days. Kenya’s capacity for violence has increased. But so has Africa’s ability to tamp down such violence when intervention is fast.

At an early session of his peacemaking effort, Annan recalled that “the United Nations had in 2005 passed a resolution to the effect that the international community could take action when a government failed to carry out its responsibility to protect its people.” R2P, his baby, has had a rough start. But on a Kenyan model—with strong regional participation, committed leadership, prompt intervention, insistent dialogue, and a more discreet if no less vital role for the West—it might have a brighter future.

Some may quibble that Annan’s gambit was not really “interventionism.” There were no foreign soldiers on the ground, no threat of their coming. But outside powers intervened “in a timely and decisive manner,” as the World Summit urged in 2005. What has been missing in Zimbabwe and Burma is the sort of regional unity that bolstered Annan. South Africa, under Thabo Mbeki, has been unwilling to take a strong position toward Mugabe. Burma’s membership in ASEAN—it should never have been admitted— and closeness to China have given the junta cover although it has been belatedly obliged to allow aid in.

What Kenya illustrates is that coerced consent to negotiation can be achieved if outside powers are sufficiently united. That could possibly be as true of Harare today as it was in Nairobi. Dialogue, of course, is one of Obama’s big words. No wonder Annan told me he believes an Obama presidency “would be inspirational, an incredible development in the world.” Not least, of course, because it would be a first for the far-flung Luos.

—July 16, 2008