Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General died peacefully on 18 August 2018 after a short illness, surrounded by his family. Here we remember the man, his legacy and his life’s journey as one of Africa’s best known diplomats.
The respected diplomat was the first sub-Saharan African UN Secretary General – serving from 1997 to 2006, although he joined the United Nations workforce in 1962. Born in Kumasi in 1938, Annan was the son of Henry Reginald Annan – a Fante Chief at the Court of the King of Asante and a successful businessman. Kofi was a student in the “independence class” of 1957, at his boarding school, Mfantsipim, in Cape Coast. “It was an era where one could witness how politics had meaning above tribe, or ideology,” he once told New African.
He left Ghana in 1959 on a Ford Foundation grant to study at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota (USA), where he got his BSc in Economics. He later went to the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, Switzerland, after which he joined the World Health Organisation. At age 33 at the time, Annan thought he had had enough. “I went through my mid-life crisis very early and needed to sit back and do some thinking”. That led him to an unusual means of relaxation — to study for a masters degree in management at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
Annan would later hold a variety of UN posts before reaching the top. That included working for the UNHCR in Geneva, before he moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to become a senior personnel officer at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), where his uncle Robert Gardiner was the Executive Secretary then. And up he went, moving from Addis Ababa to Cairo in Egypt, and finally to the UN Plaza in mid-town New York. Between the years, he served as security coordinator, budget director, programmes manager, a controller and refugee agency executive.
He returned to Ghana in 1974 to work as managing director o f Ghana’s tourism agency. He spent only two years in the job and returned to New York where in March 1993, he was appointed the UN Undersecretary-General for peacekeeping operations – the jon that would entail him flying from one troublespot to another brokering peace. It was during this tenure that his international standing began to grow.. He was once described by Muhamed Sacirbey , the outspoken former Bosnian ambassador to the UN as someone “people trust because he is honest and doesn’t try to hide behind a false argument. He defends his positions on merit”.
But in 1994, as head of UN peacekeeping, Annan found himself ( to his chagrin) in a position where he could do nothing, as ethnic conflict erupted in Rwanda, between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Over a three-month period, he pleaded with world leaders to intervene in the genocide, in which 800,000 people were massacred.
“It was a very painful experience for me, but we have to understand the context. We were trying to cope with Rwanda soon after the collapse of the UN operations in Somalia, where US troops had been killed, and dragged through the streets. These countries became so risk-averse that they wouldn’t jump into another situation like Somalia. Instead of increasing the numbers, we scaled back. In those situations, governments tend to look after their own. So the question of protecting the Rwandans was secondary,” he told New African
When the race for the UN Secretary General was on and France wanted a French speaker to succeed Egypt’s Boutros Boutros Ghali, Kofi Annan’s supporters reminded the French that their man spoke French. Jacques Chirac’s ambassadors in New York promptly replied : “Not well enough”. Which forced the soft-spoken, straight-talker, Kofi Annan to say jokingly: “I now speak English with a French accent”.
Annan’s election had been dogged by controversy from round one. Fourteen members o f the Security Council voted to grant Boutros Ghali of Egypt a second five-year term. One member, the US vetoed it. Washington had been fighting an invisible war for months to oust the Egyptian.
France was not best pleased. It vowed to shoot down any candidate supported by Washington. Kofi Annan, the quiet man from Ghana who had worked under Boutros Ghali as head of the UN peacekeeping department, became the poor piggy-in-the -middle. He was the “Washington-supported candidate”.
The French trailed their big guns on him. And in seven straw polls, France shot him down.
But when he got the post, encomiums flew everywhere, not least from the White House. “I ’m delighted by the vote”, President Clinton said in a statement, calling Annan “an able and energetic manager — professional, impartial, well-versed in the issues at hand, and a true proponent of reform…I am confident Kofi Annan will rise to this task with conviction”.
Annan himself said of his new role: “I accept with humility and also with determination, my nomination by the Security Council to become the seventh UN Secretary General. With humility, because after 30 years with the organisation, I remain deeply aware of the loftiness of its goals. And with determination, because knowing well its strengths and its limitations, I am convinced of its vast potential for serving humanity. I am eager to begin”.
As the first sub-Saharan African secretary-general of the UN, Annan understood the prejudices of the outdated system in the Security Council – including the issue of only five countries holding permanent seats – The United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, yet Africa makes the highest number of members, but does has no permanent seat.
In an interview with New African in 2012 Annan was emphatic saying the system reflected a geopolitical world-map of 1945, not 2012. It’s an issue he believed needed reform.
“Change should come on this matter, when I cannot say. I tried hard to see if we could create a permanent seat for Africa on the Security Council, but we did not succeed. Three countries in Africa would see themselves as permanent members: South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt. These countries, and others, do expect to have a voice at the table. It will be in the interest of the organisation to have them there. These reforms cannot be resisted forever,” he told us then.
He would go on to institute reform in an organization which according the the BBC “ was after 52 years, on the brink of bankruptcy.
And Anna set about reforming the institution, cutting 1,000 jobs out of 6,000 positions at the New York headquarters, while also trying to convince reluctant member states to take responsibility for the world’s many tragedies.He also got the US to pay a backlog of debt it owed the UN.”
Up until his death, Annan remained a tireless advocate and campaigner for the promotion of education and medical care for HIV/AIDS, and other diseases, around the world. In 2002, he helped set up ‘The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria’. It has since secured billions of dollars for over 1,000 programmes in over 150 countries.
In 2001, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work.
These and many other issues including governance and democracy in Africa are issues he highlighted in his book “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace”.
In one chapter, Annan described how at a press conference in Gabon, just as his tenure began as UN Secretary-General in 199, a journalist asked him why he often criticised African governments, to which he replied: “I work a lot for Africa and I recognise its hardships, but I reserve the right to criticise Africans.”
He later told New African: “The struggle that led to independence in many African nations, sometimes led to the creation of national movements, and not necessarily political parties. When independence was achieved in some of these countries, they often found themselves in one big group. This led to a party-regime where the leaders did not tolerate differences, and stayed on. The sort of qualities that make dynamic, and revolutionary fighters, are not necessarily the same qualities you need to run a nation. This leads to difficulties.”
Annan believed that Africa must look beyond its colonial past to try and understand its current problems. In other words, Africa must look at itself, if it is to prosper, socially and economically. An optimist by nature, and a pragmatist who spoke his mind, Annan believed this is already happening.
“African governments are becoming more sensitive to democratic demands. This is because civil society is putting pressure on the politicians to do the right thing. We are now at the stage where we are seeing the generational change of leaders, who are better educated, and who know what they want from themselves, and their fellow citizens.”
Annan was indeed committed to African development and as stated in the statement announcing his passing released by his foundation, he deeply engaged in many initiatives, including his chairmanship of the Africa Progress Panel and his early leadership of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).
“He was a global statesman and a deeply committed internationalist who fought throughout his life for a fairer and more peaceful world. During his distinguished career and leadership of the United Nations he was an ardent champion of peace, sustainable development, human rights and the rule of law.
After stepping down from the United Nations, he continued to work tirelessly in the cause of peace through his chairmanship of the Kofi Annan Foundation and as chair of The Elders, the group founded by Nelson Mandela. He was an inspiration to young and old alike, read the statement concluding:
“Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy. He selflessly placed others first, radiating genuine kindness, warmth and brilliance in all he did. He will be greatly missed by so many around the world, as well as his staff at the Foundation and his many former colleagues in the United Nations system. He will remain in our hearts forever.”
Annan was married to Swedish artist, Nane Lagergren who was a lawyer and judge before becoming a full time painter. They have 3 children together – two girls Ama and Nina and a son Kojo.
Kofi Atta Annan – born 8 April 1938; died 18 August 2018.