By Adam Mynott
BBC News, Nairobi
All three men called for an end to the ethnic violence in Kenya
It may prove to be a historic moment. President Mwai Kibaki and his opponent Raila Odinga agreed to start substantive negotiations to try to find a way out of the election crisis which has cost as many as 900 Kenyan lives.
By sitting down alongside the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the two men were signing up to a talks programme that offers the hope of pulling Kenya back from the brink.
But it nearly did not happen.
The official launch of talks was due to begin at 1600 in Nairobi (1300 GMT) on Tuesday.
At about five minutes to the hour, Mr Annan and members of the Eminent Panel of African leaders arrived at County Hall in Nairobi, chosen because it was a neutral venue acceptable to both parties.
A few moments later, Mr Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) entourage drew up in their cavalcade.
It was nearly another hour-and-a-half before Mr Kibaki arrived.
Mr Annan gave the opponents a plan for further negotiations
The delay was caused by government and Party of National Unity (PNU) officials who were not happy about the seating arrangements.
They thought that Mr Kibaki should sit in the middle with Mr Annan on one side and Mr Odinga on the other, befitting Mr Kibaki's stature as president.
The ODM refused to allow this.
Mr Annan is the mediator, they said, he should be seated in the middle.
The minutes ticked by, the whole thing being transmitted on television.
Shortly before half past five, Mr Kibaki entered the room and in the words of one ODM official "saved the day".
He brushed aside government and PNU functionaries who were insisting on a special seat for him, and took a place alongside Mr Annan.
This may not have augured well for the negotiation process that stretches ahead, but what followed were short speeches by Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga that did offer some hope.
Both men appealed for an end to the appalling violence that has threatened to tear Kenya apart, and both said they were committed to the talks process.
There was no point-scoring, no playing to the gallery.
The two sides have each appointed a three-person team to take the talks process forward.
For the government: cabinet ministers Martha Karua, Sam Ongeri and Mbooni MP Mutula Kilonzo.
For the opposition: Musalia Mudavadi, William Ruto - among Mr Odinga's closest political allies - and Aldai MP Sally Kosgei.
Mr Annan has presented the opposing sides with a document which is intended to mark out a path for the negotiating teams to follow.
The exact contents are a closely-guarded secret.
Mr Annan told me he did not want the deliberations to be conducted in public: he wanted the two teams to be able to work out a way forward in discreet discussions overseen by the Eminent Africans panel.
Mr Annan said he expected the crucial political negotiations to be completed within four weeks.
Further deliberations might take longer, perhaps up to a year.
These would look into deeper questions:
- unequal distribution of resources
- marginalisation and land ownership
- proposals to change Kenyan institutions to prevent such a crisis happening again
One crucial element to the Annan proposals is that they are designed to be binding on the parties as different sections are agreed, so there will be no backsliding.
When Mr Annan arrived in Nairobi more than a week ago he said he came with no solution, but to insist that, for the sake of the people of Kenya, a solution must be found.
He is under no illusions about the difficulties strewn along the path that lies ahead.
The opening ceremony included an address by Mr Annan calling on Mr Kibaki and Mr Odinga to take the process seriously.
"Kenyans look up to you; do not let them down at this hour of need," he urged them.
The negotiating teams properly get to work on Thursday.
It will not be a quick process and the opposing sides are far apart, but talks have started and that at least offers hope.