The searing heat in Juba was getting into the heads of a delegation of more than a dozen men who wanted to find a peaceful solution to the South Sudan conflict that had been raging for decades.
As the former generals, most of whom had known nothing but violence as a form of dispute resolution shouted at each other and banged tables, an outsider sat quietly in a corner.
His head, with the characteristic white hair motionless, he was keenly hanging on to each word that was uttered even though he didn’t understand the language. Then from his table he cleared his throat and said:
“Gentlemen, it is the people in this room who can bring peace to your nation. If you fight everyone will fight. If you talk and agree, your people will do the same. It is your choice.”
After that, the discussions were less fiery and those who were at the meeting said Bethuel Kiplagat’s calming effect percolated through everyone. He was one of the people tasked with midwifing the new nation.
“He was that kind of a man. He was a humble man of peace,” South Sudan Deputy ambassador to Kenya Jimmy Deng Makuach said.
Kiplagat, who has been described as a ‘global citizen’ by some of those who worked with him in the diplomatic corps, served at a time when Kenya played a crucial role in negotiating for peace in the region and further.
Aiming to maintain her regional superiority, Nairobi had her fingers in almost every conflict around the region. In some instances, giving an ear to rebels while at the same time posing for photo ops with ruling parties.
Skill and guile
From Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, Mozambique, Ambassador Kiplagat in many of these instances was the man dispatched to sooth the egos of governments under siege and boost morale of rebels with little to live for apart from their causes.
“Ambassador Kiplagat is a citizen of the world whose respect transcends national borders. He is credited with bringing Ethiopia’s two warring parties to the negotiating table in 1990 as well as facilitating peace talks in Mozambique and Uganda,” former Foreign affairs minister and NASA co-principal Moses Wetang’ula said.
Diplomats who walked into such negotiations required both skill and guile. But most importantly they had to make sure the interests of their countries were well taken care of. In the Mozambique conflict for instance, although Kenya was busy canoodling with President Joaquim Chisano, another diplomatic party had been dispatched from State House to meet the then rebel leader Afonso Dlakama.
In fact, the rebel leader had been a beneficiary of monetary support from a private firm associated with former power brokers in the Moi government. Dlakama, the Renamo leader, was being supplied with housing, cars, upkeep that included maintaining his household and paying school fees for his children in Nairobi, all with State knowledge.
But playing both sides had its dangers too and sometimes played out in embarrassing situations for diplomats outside the influential circle of power as it did one hot Wednesday afternoon in 1990.
On this day, Windhoek was pregnant with expectation. The country was buzzing with news of its independence from South Africa and celebrations were nearing a crescendo.
On the sidelines though, before Sam Nujoma was sworn in as president, a visibly angry Joachim Chisano approached former President Moi away from the glare of press and the chants.
“You tell me to negotiate peace with this man Dlakama, who is he? I don’t know him. Introduce him to me,” he said.
After that, the Dlakama team that had Kiplagat and other diplomats was disbanded, before Chisano accused Kenyans of acts of aggression against his state.
“He has left us at a time when we needed him most,” Ambassador Deng said. “We have just begun our national peace dialogue and Kiplagat was an integral part of it all. He knew us and our complexities intimately. He knew all corners of our country and the problems we face.”