Ideas & Debate

The challenges of national mediation

The opposing political forces are far apart, each convinced that right is on their side. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The opposing political forces are far apart, each convinced that right is on their side. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

I find myself in familiar territory, part of a small group of Kenyans in the business sector working to see a way ahead for the country at another moment of political crisis.

I was in a similar group in 2004, trying to mediate between the fractious partners in the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) that was brought together by their 2002 memorandum of understanding (MoU).

And I was a member of the Concerned Citizens for Peace in 2008, the lone private sector participant among civil society peace-builders, seeing how to contribute to ending the post-election violence and the return to normalcy thereafter.

In all three situations I have been privileged to be in the company of the best of Kenyans at the worst of times.

I was then, as I am now, with the most thoughtful and visionary men and women, the most non-partisan and objective, the most pragmatic and solution-oriented, the most strategic and structured.

But what is being attempted is so very hard. No wonder some tell us, as we were told before, that we are wasting our time.

The opposing political forces are far apart, each convinced that right is on their side and that they will for sure prevail. Their cause will without doubt see them win and the other lot lose, they both assert.

Mediators like us start with a vision of a better future, supported by a cause for the national good and a tentative agenda for getting from where we are to where we want to be.

We do a lot of listening, seeking to understand the real issues and motivations of those directly involved, assuming there is much we do not know.

We then find room for manoeuvre and potential points of convergence, and we keep brainstorming, among ourselves and with many others, relying on our networks to cover the stakeholders involved.

We build scenarios — the existing win-lose ones and the win-win ones that are the only sustainable ones. These require open, trust-building conversations between the parties, and this in turn allows for compromise, for give and take over time.

We challenge leaders to think of their legacy. (Although in my experience this appeal doesn’t work too well!)

And we go back and forth seeing what is possible at different points in time.

We rejoice over breakthroughs, take setbacks in our stride, and keep going through thick and thin.

It takes so much patience and perseverance, as the journey is as long as it is uncertain.

Never mind that many, some innocently, some less so, misconstrue our motives and our activities.

The commonest jibe we must contend with is that we are only interested in business continuity and in protecting our profits.

That is why, we are told, we focus only on the economy, ignoring the problems with the democratic process, indifferent to truth and to justice.

Among those I spend my time with such scoffing is seriously off target. The point those associated with Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa), the Kenya National Chamber of Commerce (KNCC), the Kenya Association of Manufactures (Kam) and others make is that employers large and small must still pay wages irrespective of the state of the economy.

And then in the informal sector Kenyans survive on daily earnings to feed their families. Political upheaval is not just a problem for the corporate elite.

Another misunderstanding is that the private sector inevitably engages with the government of the day in its advocacy to build an environment where it can create wealth, generate jobs and contribute taxes.

So the relationships we develop are too easily seen as aligning us with the political party in government and against the opposition at that time — challenging us to make special efforts with them.

Finally, much of our constructive engagement can only be effective if it is done behind closed doors and in small groups.

So not that many are aware of what we are doing — which leads them to assume that we are doing nothing.

But we keep trying, knowing how resilient Kenyans are. We are optimistic, not just because it is nice to be so but because it is justified.

Indeed all of us should live in hope, as if we decide to waste less energy on win-lose scenarios there is so much we can achieve together.