Kofi Annan as I knew him


Kofi Annan as I knew him

Berihun Assfaw, who was a contemporary of the late Kofi Annan, takes a trip down memory lane back to the early days, when they were both young men making their way in the world. In his reflections, Assfaw recalls the major political issues of the time, including the coup that deposed Kwame Nkrumah. 

I first met Kofi Annan in 1965, when he was a junior officer at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland.  I was a young Secretary at the Ethiopian Permanent Mission to the UN in the same city.

We met during one of the WHO’s receptions through our mutual African-American friends, Noel and Juanita Torres, who were living in the same building as me at Peter Saxony. 

Noel had been an employee of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and his wife was working for one of the private companies in Geneva. The elderly Noel, who was like a father to us, had been a cook for American Forces during the Second World War in Europe, and after the War he graduated from France’s famous Sorbonne University. In 1965 he was already retired from the ILO.

At Kofi’s wedding party in 1965, I was one of about 25 guests. The future UN Secretary General married his first wife Titi Alakija,, a young Nigerian lady who is the mother of his two children, in his small apartment somewhere near the University of Geneva. She was from a wealthy Nigerian family. They were divorced in 1983 in New York, and she is now living as a business woman in her country.

His wedding party was like a political meeting, with more arguments than music and dance. The arguments between the English, Americans and us African guests, centred around the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in 1965.

While we Africans argued that the Harold Wilson government in Britain should send the army in and arrest those responsible for the illegal declaration of independence by Rhodesia, the British and their American cousins were against it.

It was a hot argument followed by glasses of whiskies and gins. I remember I had given Kofi one dozen bottles of whisky and one dozen of gin for his wedding. At that time the Permanent Missions and Embassy staff were able to purchase duty-free drinks of different kinds so cheaply they were almost free. I recall seeing Kofi driving his small grey Mercedes sports car through the apartment building’s underground parking garage when he took possession of the drinks.

When we met in 1965, there was a small difference in status between myself, who was in small way representing a country, and Kofi Annan, who was simply an employee of an international organisation.

I was attending the 18 Nations Disarmament Conference with Ambassador Amha Aberra (a graduate of Oxford University) and Ato Afework Zelleke, the first Secretary of the Ethiopian Mission.

I also attended, sometimes alone, and sometimes with delegates from Ethiopia, the Narcotic, Labour, African Group and other conferences. In one of the African Group meetings chaired by Ghana, we Africans refused to discuss the agenda unless the minority white South African delegates left the room; and they were forced to leave.

In one or two receptions given by the UN for the 18 Nations Disarmament Conference members, I met U. Thant, who was the Secretary-General of the UN at that time, the Italian Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, and the Chief Judge of the US, Earl Warren.

Differences of opinion

The only time I argued with Kofi was when President Kwame Nkrumah, who brought Ghana to independence in 1957, was overthrown by the Ghanaian military on 24 February 1966. Ghana was the first Sub-Saharan country in Africa to become independent. While Kofi supported the coup d’état, led by Colonel E. K. Kotoka, Major A. A. Afrifa and the Inspector-General of Police,  J. W. K. Harley, I was bitterly against it and argued passionately.

This was of course many years ago and while Nkrumah was a distant symbol to us, he, like Kofi, was a Ghanaian first and the leader of his country. In hindsight, it is obvious that mine and Kofi’s perceptions of him had to be different – and of course Kofi had access to far greater on-the-ground information than myself. In addition, he and his family were very much directly involved in and affected by the changes that Nkrumah was introducing to the country.

One of the reasons then given for why Kofi supported the coup was that he himself was from an aristocratic background. His father, Henry Reginald, was half Asante and half Fante, while his mother was from a line of Fante tribal chiefs, as were his grandfather and uncle. His father was a manager for Lever Brothers, the British company that dominated the cocoa trade. Upon his retirement, he was elected governor of Ghana’s Asante province.

In Ghana, as in other West African countries, the British practised a system of indirect rule through the chiefs and kings. Nkrumah reduced the powers of the chiefs and forbade them from getting involved in politics – but he did not, as has often been suggested, banish chiefdom.

There is no doubt that some of the measures that Nkrumah introduced, such as severely curtailing the power and authority of chieftainship, his socialist ideals, his rush to industrialise and turning the country into a one-party state, alarmed many Ghanaians. Perhaps he tried to do too much too

This may explain why Kofi supported the coup that ousted him. The reasons Kofi gave were the mismanagement of the Ghanaian economy and the dictatorship of Dr Nkrumah. But as mentioned, he had other reasons too.

Since this was a point of contention between myself and Kofi Annan, perhaps I should explain my position and how I viewed the international situation at that time, in the latter half of the 1960s.

While the overthrow of Dr Nkrumah pleased the entire Western world very much, it brought sadness to the Eastern and African worlds, especially to the young Africans of the time. Nkrumah had been a pan-Africanist since his student days in the US, and was a symbol of progressive Africa.

Dr Kwame Nkrumah was an enemy of the colonial powers, and a friend of the Eastern World, particularly China. China at that time was the number one enemy of the Americans and their Western Allies. In the Vietnam War, China was a great supporter of North Vietnam against the Americans. It was not even a member of the UN – prevented from becoming so by the US and its Western allies.   

President Nkrumah condemned the American aggression against the Vietnamese people, and was on the side of President Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam and its ally China. 

While Dr Nkrumah was on an official visit to the People’s Republic of China, the CIA instigated the military coup d’état of 1966 and the first President of Ghana was overthrown. Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah went to his friend President Sékou Touré of Guinea, and became Co-President of the country.

African unity

For me and several generations of Africans, President Nkrumah is the Father of African Unity. Nkrumah began his campaign to make his dream of a united Africa under one government through a federal system in 1961. He worked hard towards this end until he ran into opposition by the Monrovia bloc countries (Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia, Ethiopia and most former French colonies) led by President Senghor of Senegal.

These countries were considered conservative and did not want to rock the boat too much. They believed unity should be achieved gradually, through economic cooperation. The more progressive, Casablanca bloc (Ghana, Algeria, Guinia, Egypt, Mali, and Libya) led by Nkrumah wanted a federal state of Africa.

In 1963, President Sékou Touré convinced Emperor Haile Selassie, to bring the Casablanca and Monrovia groups together to narrow their differences and agree on one agenda. As an elder statesman and fatherly figure, Emperor Haile Selassie succeeded in his initiative and the African leaders signed the establishment of the organisation of African Unity.

After this had been achieved, President Nkrumah campaigned for the headquarters of the new organisation to be established in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Nigeria opposed the idea but failed to carry the motion.

Nkrumah’s idea was to replace the Roman alphabet used in sub-Saharan Africa by French and English-speaking  countries by the Ethiopian alphabet, Geez.

He condemned the British Government and the League of Nations, of which Ethiopia was the only member in Africa. He met the exiled Emperor Haile Selassie along with other pan-Africanist leaders, George Padmore, Azikiwe, Marcus Garvey, Ras Makonnen, Jomo Kenyatta, and other African and Caribbean leaders who later became freedom fighters for their countries in Africa, and Caribbean countries.

In 1957 when Ghana became independent, Dr Nkrumah  said: “Ghana’s independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent”, and gave financial and political support for liberation movements in Congo, Kenya, Rhodesia, South Africa, Mali, Guinea and others. He cut diplomatic relations with Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in Britain for not doing enough to reverse the declaration of independence by the white minority government in Rhodesia, in 1965.

Dr Nkrumah wrote ten books about his vision and ideas for the continent. He died in Bucharest, Romania in 1972, at the age of

I saw Dr Nkrumah when he visited Ethiopia in 1959; he was coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office, wearing his traditional Ghanaian dress. The Prime Minister at that time was Ras Bitwoded Mekonnen Endalkachew, the first Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

In 2000, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah was celebrated as Man of the Millennium by the BBC Africa service and his birthday, 21 September, is a national holiday in modern Ghana.

Destiny takes a hand

After the coup d’état in Ghana, Kofi, said that he would return to his country and enter politics there. But, unfortunately or fortunately, things didn’t go as he wished; three bloody military coups followed one after the other, and those who had overthrown Dr Nkrumah were all executed by firing squad. And the destiny of Kofi Atta Annan was to become the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Had he returned to Ghana as he has said he would do in 1965, who knows what his fate would have been? He would most certainly never have reached the pinnacle of office as the UN Secretary-General, tasked with solving some of the world’s most intractable crises. In 2001, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in revitalising the UN and giving priority to human rights.

Whenever we met at the Torres’ apartment, we discussed the South African independence struggle, the Vietnam War, American politics under Presidents Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon; European politics under General de Gaulle and his anti-Americanism; the leftist European student movements and the struggles of the young Fidel Castro, as well as Ché Guevara against the American hegemony in Latin America.

I participated in many demonstrations – against the Vietnam War and in support of the African National Congress’ struggle against the racist white minority government in South Africa, and for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Many of the young educated Africans in the US and Europe eagerly participated in these demonstrations but I don’t recall Kofi joining in. During the political discussions we had at the Torres’ apartment, I was on the left side of politics while Kofi was somewhere on the centre-right. 

In Geneva, Kofi enjoyed driving his small, second-hand grey Mercedes sports car with his pipe in his mouth. But he was never a playboy like most young Africans of the time. I never saw Kofi dancing in discos and drinking like most young Africans did. He was a reserved, married man.

I was the one who advised Kofi to go to Addis Ababa and join the Economic Commission for Africa. Robert Gardener, who was head of the ECA, was his uncle. I think he was somewhat bored after working for more than four years at the World Health Organisation and he was happy to leave for his home continent. He left for Addis Ababa in 1967 or 1968, I think.

In 1970, I met Kofi again in Addis Ababa one or two times in his office, and another two or three times at the Rendezvous Coffee Bar at Meskel Square. He was a personnel officer at the ECA.After he finished his time in Addis Ababa, Kofi left for New York and joined the United Nations.

The last time we met was in 1979, when I went to New York on vacation from Germany, where I was living and working. In New York, I was staying with the brilliant Mahmood Said, who was a department director like Kofi. He took me to lunch at the Plaza Hotel near the UN headquarters. We talked about the old days in Geneva, and about our good friends the Torres. This was the last time I met my good old friend, Kofi Annan, before he become the Great Kofi Annan and the ‘Leader of the World’.

Kofi was reserved and conservative, cool under fire, never got angry, was wise and future- orientated, and a genuine friend. NA

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