- Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat, who passed away in Nairobi last week, is one such career diplomat who has laid hands on almost all the conflicts within the region and beyond.
Arusha. He would slip in quietly, speak to the parties concerned and off he would go, almost unnoticed. What would follow is a peace deal or rather some sort of reconciliation by the conflict ling parties.
Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat, who passed away in Nairobi last week, is one such career diplomat who has laid hands on almost all the conflicts within the region and beyond.
His long career in conflict resolution has taken him to some of the trouble flashpoints in East Africa and around the continent, including Burundi, South Sudan and Somalia. The East African Community (EAC) has described him as “a towering figure of our time who left an indelible imprint on the history of the region through his untiring efforts in peace building”.
With the hand grenade attacks still a major security concern in Burundi, the gunfire still roaring in conflict-hit South Sudan and terror explosions ruling the day in Somalia, the Community has every reason to remember the fallen peacemaker.
Perhaps his mediation skills did not begin with the conflicts, which reigned in the region from the 1990s, specifically the civil war in Sudan, the Great Lakes crisis and bloodshed in the Horn of Africa.
In the early 1980s during the period of uneasy relations between Tanzania and Kenya, Ambassador Kiplagat would took a quiet flight to Dar es Salaam to meet President Julius Nyerere on how the two neigbours can reconcile after many years of acrimonious ties.
Press cameras captured him in late 1983 holding talks with Mwalimu in what the state officials would only remark as a meeting during which he brought a special message from President Daniel arap Moi to Mwalimu. And that was all.
It was the seventh consecutive year that the common border between the two countries had remained closed after the collapse of the former EAC in 1977.
One of the major consequences was the suspension of direct commercial air flights between the two countries.
Tanzanian students studying in universities in Kenya had to fly first to Addis Ababa before connecting to Nairobi. Kenya Airways, which currently rule the EA skies, could not land anywhere in Tanzania.
Although the border was closed, the hostilities between the two countries was not as serious as was the case during the pre-1977 years when the two states often disagreed on the financing model for the cash-strapped Community.
Matters were worsened by the ideological differences between Tanzania, which was pursuing a socialist path for its state-controlled economy, an anathema to the Kenyan capitalism.
What Ambassador Kiplagat discussed with Mwalimu during his October/November visit to Dar es Salaam was not made public. At that time, the career diplomat was probably the permanent secretary in the foreign ministry.
However, sooner or later it was to be realised that their tête-à-tête centred on the normalisation of relations between the two countries, which could see the re-opening of the long common border closed for many years.
But it dawned that this could not be accomplished without the two countries (and Uganda) going back to the root of problems, which led to the disintegration of the once mighty economic community in Africa.
There must have been intense but quiet shuttle diplomacy between the three countries before an extra-ordinary summit of heads of states of Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda was organised in Arusha on November the 16th.
It was the first such meeting of regional leaders to be held since the collapse of the Community nearly seven years back, and the forced exit of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin from power four years earlier.
To the outsiders, the three countries met in order to take stock of the collapse of the EAC and agree on the assets and liabilities of the dead regional organisation.
But in reality what ruled the day was the re-opening of the Tanzania and Kenya border and the beginning of formal normalisation of then soured relations whose negative impact extended beyond the bloc.
Although the re-opening of the border was welcomed with glee on both sides, not much details have been made public on the conditions each country made to the other.
The common overland border was actually closed by Tanzania in February 1977 allegedly in retaliation to Kenya confiscating most assets of the Community as EAC was about to collapse.
Kenya, on the other hand, closed its airspace for direct flights to and from Tanzania, impacting on the latter’s tourism industry and easy connectivity to the world through air travel.
What the officials of the two countries have not made public, however, is that the re-opening of the border followed exchange of political fugitives.
Ambassador Kiplagat never spoke in public about scores of Tanzanian officials wanted for an alleged coup plot and who fled to Nairobi the same year (1983) and were exchanged with two Kenyan airforce pilots who masterminded a failed coup against President Moi in 1982.
EAC secretary general Ambassador Liberat Mfumukeko appeared to be one person touched by the death of the Kenyan diplomat. He recognised the fact that he was actively involved in peace talks and negotiations that led to the independence of South Sudan, EAC’s newest state.
Ambassador Kiplagat was also among the first to be appointed to the EAC Panel of Eminent Persons in February 2015 when it was established to operationalise the EAC Conflict Prevention and Management Resolution.
The late diplomat also undertook preventive diplomacy missions to Burundi through participation in various round table dialogues and holding one-on-one consultation with key Burundi stakeholders.
He also initiated and facilitated peace talks in Mozambique for four years between 1988 and 1992 and headed the board of the African Medical and Research Foundation from 1991 to 2003.
Back home, Ambassador Kiplagat also chaired the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which documented historical injustices against Kenyans.
Richard Kiplagat, the son to the late peace campaigner, said: “Our father passed away peacefully in his sleep. We celebrate his life and what he has done not only for us as a family but for the country and the continent of Africa, and we are very proud of what he has been able to achieve.” (NMG)