What made Kibaki blink?

The donor community's stance was outrageous. Arrogant, high-handed, a clear challenge to national so

By the time this goes to press, many of the weaknesses of the power-sharing deal signed on 28 February by Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, and the opposition leader Raila Odinga will have started to show.

Brokered by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, bolstered by President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and the Africa Union, the agreement is dangerously vague when it comes to the president's and prime minister's relative powers, risks being squabbled over in parliament and will certainly be chipped away at by lawyers. It posits a hard-to-imagine future in which two leaders who have come to loathe one another work together in mould-breaking cohabitation. And, it fails to address the thorniest challenge of all - how to persuade the young thugs who have been extorting money at roadblocks across the country to put down their weapons, abandon their lucrative new activities and disband their militias.

But let's be clear. Anyone with a smidgen of humanity should be lighting a candle to Saint Kofi, who earned some forgiveness during the months of negotiations for his limp-wristed response to Rwanda's genocide while the UN's head of peacekeeping operations.

Kenya with a deal is a challenging enough prospect. Kenya without one doesn't bear thinking about. A fortnight ago, when compromise seemed a distant dream, I attended a Royal Commonwealth Society meeting at which the Kenyan professor John Oucho sketched likely scenarios. They ran as follows: "One. Kenya goes down the Rwanda route. Two. It goes down the Somalia route. Three. It goes down the Yugoslavia route."

So what made Kibaki blink? It would be good to think he peered over the edge and belatedly registered what horrors lay there, not just for his nation but for the region as a whole. Sadly, it's unlikely. Kibaki was bullied and browbeaten into submission by his country's foreign donors, who repeatedly told him it would not be "business as usual" in the absence of a deal. Listing the political elite's financial assets in Europe and the US and drawing up a raft of travel bans, they showed they could hit the hardliners, globetrotting businessmen to a man, where it hurt.

The pressure was sustained, the stand im pressively united. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, hinted at the level of American intervention, referring to her government's "intensive support" for Annan. And when a last nudge seemed necessary, Lord Malloch-Brown recommended that the Kenyan army take over, a comment so shocking it smacked of deliberate provocation.

The donor community's stance was outrageous. Arrogant, high-handed, a clear challenge to national sovereignty, it verged on neocolonialism. And thank God for it. Outside the government, few Kenyans have found it in their hearts to complain, preferring neocolonialism to being led over a cliff by two ruthlessly ambitious political operators. The widespread failure to take offence is a measure of the contempt felt by Kenyan voters for their leaders.

For once, an African country's foreign donors stepped up to the plate. They deserve to be congratulated. But I'd like to see them, in the coming months, apply the same bracing approach to another question that arises in the wake of this crisis: why did they all call it so wrong on Kenya?

In the past few years, I have had a series of chats with World Bank staff and aid officials in Nairobi. They followed a pattern: I expressed my fears about the Kenyan government's corruption and ethnic favouritism, they dismissed my fears as exaggerated. "The overall trajectory is upwards. We have some concerns, but the direction of travel is positive," I was always told.

Bent on increasing aid to Africa, foreign donors - with our own Department for International Development leading the way - chose to ignore the evidence of growing strain in Kenya. They convinced themselves they could excise political issues from what was a purely developmental debate. This was not an isolated failure of judgement; they took the same Panglossian line in Uganda and Ethiopia. It would be nice to think donors will now apply a muscular rigour, similar to the one they used to arm-wrestle Kibaki's government into submission, to examining why they keep making the same mistake.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it