Ideas & Debate

Bethuel Kiplagat: A principled leader but at odds with activists

Amb Bethuel Kiplagat. file photo | nmg
Amb Bethuel Kiplagat. file photo | nmg 

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the first of my Business Daily articles. When I was persuaded by the paper’s founding editor Nick Wachira to become a columnist I never imagined I would survive for more than a year or two. But here I am publishing this 276th piece, infinitely grateful for being allowed to be subjected to the paper’s relentless fortnightly deadline, and for necessity having indeed acted as the consistent mother of invention.

For some time I have been wondering what to write about, that would be suitable to mark my decade of articles, and immediately I learned of the death of my dear friend Bethuel Kiplagat, I knew it would be by celebrating his life. Today is the day of the funeral service of this great Kenyan at St. Mark’s Church, and let this column serve as my homage to him.

My first Business Daily article, in July 2007, was about the importance of emotional intelligence. And there are few people I know who are as emotionally intelligent as Bethuel Kiplagat. The second article asked whether Kenyans were up to the challenge of living healthy visions and values: he was, for sure. And the third one recognised the then spirit of public service reform, aimed at enhancing service delivery. Surely that is exactly what drove Mr Kiplagat: giving service, and not only to Kenyans but to humanity at large.

I got to see Mr Kiplagat in daily action in the first three months of 2008, when he and I were members of Concerned Citizens for Peace (CCP), who met every morning at the Serena Hotel to contribute to calming down the post-election violence and resolving the political impasse.

Having his ear to the ground, he was one of the few who were not surprised by the outburst, and he was among the very first to engage in trying to calm things down.

Mr Kiplagat did not chair most of our meetings. That was left largely to fellow peace-builder Dekha Ibrahim (who was tragically killed in a car crash in 2011, and whom I eulogised in a column at that time). But it was thanks to his experience and expertise, his network and reputation, that much of what we accomplished was achieved.

We operated both “upstream” to the political leadership and the international mediators and “downstream” into the hotspot communities around the country, all in a low-key and informal way that reflected the character of the personalities involved.

Our approach was to place immediate priority on peace and reconciliation, knowing that truth and justice were equally important but understanding that appropriate sequencing of the various recovery elements was vital. In this we were at odds with the human rights activists, who wanted to launch straight into the search for truth and justice.

Indeed when Mr Kiplagat bravely took on the chairmanship of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission, I understand that such tensions explained at least some of the turbulence that existed among the TJRC commissioners. I remember too that one of our other CCP leaders, George Wachira, who had carried out extensive research into Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, had found little evidence to encourage him to expect that ours would be any more successful than the others he had studied – none of which had delivered what had been promised. (Never mind that ours was even more ambitious, with the addition of “Justice” into the mix.)

During his stressful days as TJRC chairman, Mr Kiplagat and I would talk from time to time about the aggressive and unfair media coverage of their proceedings, and not least of him. He was under immense pressure to resign, and he eventually succumbed – although much later than others would have thrown in the towel. As always he was guided by his principles. He held his head up high, then as always, and was later reinstated. But he suffered greatly, and unjustly.

As he is eulogised today at St Mark’s, I add this tribute to my role model Bethuel Kiplagat, Kenya’s Mandela, an inspiration to us all.