Until a single phone call from the president of Kenya changed the
trajectory of his life, Lazaro Sumbeiywo had spent the whole of his
illustrious career focused on making war.
When the phone rang in his office in October 2001, this towering
son of a village chief was Kenya's top general.
"I have an offer for you," he recalls the president saying, "and
I order you not to refuse."
General Sumbeiywo was fiercely loyal to then-President Daniel
arap Moi. During a 1982 coup attempt, he'd raced to Mr. Moi's home
to protect him. Off and on since 1987, he had sometimes been
involved with the Sudan negotiations. But the president's order
caught him off guard.
"I want you to find peace in Sudan," Moi said.
The general was dumbstruck. This was Africa's longest civil war -
a seemingly intractable 18-year conflict between Muslim Arab
northerners and mostly Christian black southerners. Some 2 million
people had died. Four million had been forced to flee their homes.
And at least five major peacemaking efforts over 13 years had
failed. Yet if peace could be found in oil-rich and populous Sudan,
it could usher in a new era of trade and prosperity in neighboring
Kenya and across northeast Africa.
After stammering something, Sumbeiywo hung up. Then, he phoned
back to try to reject the assignment. But Moi wouldn't take the
call. So, Sumbeiywo did the only thing he could think of: He started
a three-day fast "to get very close to God."
It was not the last time he would seek divine help. Over the next
3-1/2 grueling years of peace talks, he would muster the persistence
of the biblical Joseph, the wisdom of an African chief, and the
ingenuity of a modern mediator. And eventually the process he led
would become what many now see as a gold standard for making peace
"General Sumbeiywo should win the Nobel Peace Prize," says former
Sen. John Danforth, who was President Bush's special envoy to Sudan
from 2001 to 2004. "His ability to stay there in the talks and be an
honest broker - and to listen to all the back and forth over such a
long period of time - was essential, and was very largely
responsible for the result," says Senator Danforth by phone from St.
* * *
As a boy, Sumbeiywo would walk past one of the biggest trees in
his rural village and see his father, the chief, sitting under its
sprawling branches, surrounded by neighbors. His dad would listen
for hours as people aired disagreements over such things as who
owned a particular cow. Then he'd dispense his wisdom. Like many
African chiefs, he'd stay under the tree until every villager had
Decades later, standing at the front of a conference room at a
Kenyan resort hotel, Sumbeiywo drew upon his father's ways: He let
the two sides vent.
The tall oak of a man with broad shoulders and a deep, soothing
voice started his "ventilation sessions" in June of 2002 with a
basic question for representatives from the Khartoum government in
the north and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLA) in the
south: "Why are you at war?"
For two weeks, they "steamed out" as Sumbeiywo filled page after
page of flip-chart pads. He'd scrawl things like "oil" and "sharia"
and "religion" and "self-determination" on the pages, and then tape
them up around the room.
The words were shorthand for the root causes of conflict in
Africa's largest country - a place more than three times the size of
Texas that straddles the continent's great north-south divide
between Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and Christian. Among the issues:
How to split up Sudan's oil wealth; whether Islamic law (sharia)
should be imposed on the south, where most people are Christian or
animist; and how to assuage southern feelings of political and
economic exclusion from power. (Similar feelings of marginalization
also sparked the separate 2003 rebellion in Sudan's western Darfur
region, which led to US charges of genocide against the Khartoum