Last month, Kofi Atta Annan, one of the greatest sons of Africa and a global hero, was laid to rest in the military cemetery at Burma Camp after lying in state at the Accra International Convention Centre. His funeral was accorded full state honours with gun salutes, as a packed hall, including heads of state and European royalty, bowed their heads at the passing of an exceptional human being. By Anver Versi
Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo described Annan as one of the truly iconic figures of modern times. “The outpouring of tributes from the world over is an accurate measure of the man, a man who gave his life to making peace where there was conflict, to defending the voiceless who were powerless, to promoting virtue where there was evil,” he added.
This slender, handsome, soft-spoken and dignified man had in his own unobtrusive way bestrode the narrow world as the seventh United Nations Secretary-General, from 1997 to 2006.
Annan, who had started his career with the UN at a fairly humble level, had worked his way to the top and became the first Secretary-General to be elected from the ranks of the UN. He was by nature a conciliator, a man of peace rather than confrontation and thoroughly schooled in the thorny niceties of diplomacy.
He inherited a world that seemed to have gone mad, which had drunk deeply from the bottle of evil and become intoxicated with violence. The Middle East was on fire in the aftermath of the Gulf war and the civil war in Afghanistan; Eastern Europe was burning with merciless wars in Yugoslavia, Croatia, Georgia and Bosnia; Africa was reeling from the genocide in Rwanda and civil war in Sierra Leone, Somalia, Algeria, Congo and the Eritrea–Ethiopia war.
But the UN itself had lost credibility and was seen as ineffective and bloated, with staff who did little other than try to lobby their way up the greasy UN pole.
Among the powerful nations of the world jostling each other for macho superiority, Africa as a region had little or no clout. Annan’s appointment was seen as little more than a rubber stamp for the US and the West.
But they had reckoned without the Ashanti steel that formed the backbone of this courteous man. He first of all set about cleaning out the UN stables and jerking the somnolent organisation into life.
He put people at the centre of the UN’s activities and set up the Millennium Development Goals to “free our fellow men and women from the abject and dehumanising poverty in which more than 1bn of them are currently confined”. He set up the Global Fund to combat HIV and other diseases and involved major companies in the Global Compact to help bring about a better world for all.
When the US and Britain decided to invade Iraq in 2003, he did the unthinkable and defied them, calling the invasion illegal. He supported his Deputy, Malloch Brown when the latter broke all protocol and openly criticised the US for using the UN as a diplomatic pawn when it suited America.
This so incensed the then Acting US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton (who has been described as ‘having all the diplomatic charm of a Mafia hit man’) that Bolton is reported to have called Annan and told him “I’ve known you since 1989 and I’m telling you this is the worst mistake by a senior UN official that I have seen in that entire time.”
But the mistake was Bolton’s. Annan had demonstrated that he would not be pushed around by anyone. He had a job to do and within the constraints of the UN system, he was going to do it no matter how many toes he had to step on.
That one act changed the world’s perception of Kofi Annan and the UN. He was no rubber stamp. He was his own man. He was a lion. From then on, as current UN chief, António Guterres said at his funeral, “In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations, and the UN was Kofi Annan.”
The world realised that in Kofi Annan, they had the rarest of human beings – one who cannot be deflected or bullied or cajoled or bribed from the path of his duty. That was why, when he finished his term, the world could not have enough of him. He was working on finding a solution to the Rohingya crisis when he passed over.
The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described him as a “friend to thousands and a leader of millions”. With his passing, he has left us all feeling a little orphaned. Who will now stand up for the little people, the poor, the powerless, the vulnerable?
I met Kofi Annan a few times during his lifetime. My ambition now is to visit his grave and pay my respects to the strongest human being I have ever encountered. NA