Kofi Annan: UN Leader in Difficult Times, 1938-2018


20th August 2018

‘Secular monk’ stung by failures in Rwanda and Bosnia who never stopped working for peace

Nobel peace laureate, UN secretary-general for a decade during some of its most testing times, peace envoy almost until his dying day, Kofi Annan’s record as a global statesman inevitably dominated tributes on news of his death.

But friends and colleagues have little doubt it was the 80-year-old Ghanaian’s character and mettle — his old-world charisma, unrufflability and monastic mien — that made him an exceptional figure — particularly now in an age of populism and bullhorn rhetoric.

In his first term as secretary-general, from 1997-2002, his patience earned him the sobriquet the “secular pope”, although he insisted in private that his self-control was learned, not innate. “Sometimes I walk into a situation and know someone’s going to provoke me and I just simply refuse to be provoked,” he said in an interview after his second term.

Hawkish critics of the UN said he was too credulous in his dealings with dictators, including Saddam Hussein — a charge which, never one to shout from the rooftops, he was privately stung by and briskly rejected. Diplomacy, he always said, is surely about negotiation.

Some friends have said he was too gentle, too nice even, to make the tough choices to reform and steer the UN’s vast bureaucracy at a time of dramatic changes in the world order. He took office when America, its chief financier, was enjoying its unipolar moment following the end of the cold war.

The role of secretary-general has traditionally been servant and conscience to the permanent five great powers on the Security Council; both roles were to prove all the harder in Annan’s second term against the backdrop of a unilateralist mood in America after the September 11 2001 attacks.

While he was especially proud of presiding over the UN’s millennium development goals, and also in 2005, a new more forceful philosophy of humanitarian intervention, his second term lurched from crisis to crisis. Officials at some stages feared he might resign.

But there was, as one aide once suggested, something genuinely “yogic” about him. It was this that ultimately helped him through the crises, including the stand-off with George W Bush’s administration over the war in Iraq.

The quality also inspired a lustrous post-UN career. In an age when many statesmen on leaving public office accept lucrative private sector roles, he spent his post-UN years as a peripatetic negotiator in crises and campaigner for change in the continent of his birth.

Sometimes his role was formal, as with Syria and Kenya. More often it was behind-the-scenes, doing what he did best, talking in his ever soft but quietly authoritative tones. In one hectic period in 2011 he was engaged seemingly in simultaneous back-channel negotiations over the civil war in Libya, a crisis in Ivory Coast and also the political impasse in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Confidants had a keen sense that he was infused by a determination for leaders — and maybe for himself too — to learn from abject failings in the 90s when global powers and the UN averted their gaze during the genocide in Rwanda and the massacre at Srebrenica. He also seemed driven by the desire to devote the last chapter of his life to help his continent which he had left as a young man in 1961 to launch a career that would see him become the first black African secretary-general.

Born in 1938, of noble lineage, Annan was educated at boarding school, and left Ghana in 1961 on a Ford Foundation grant as the excitement over independence was abating. He assumed he would return “to make a contribution”. He did head Ghana’s tourism agency in 1974 but he had already started at the UN, with stints in Geneva and Addis Ababa.

He liked to recall that at school he had been “constantly challenging those in authority” and that he had to learn through immersion in the UN how to manage people. “First of all you develop self-insight and awareness. You know what gets to you and what doesn’t.”

Whatever, he proved a consummate UN public servant in a series of important but behind-the-scenes roles, until 1992 when he became deputy and then a year later head of the department of peacekeeping. Suddenly he was all but literally on the front line: this was at the peak era of UN peacekeeping.

In 1994 came the department’s most shameful episode. When the war in Bosnia was drawing most of its attention, a tiny detachment of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda was given an unbending mandate not to intervene — even as the genocide erupted. Annan was in particular criticised over a memo that went out in his name in January 1994 three months before the genocide began, ordering the head of the force to avoid at all costs a situation leading to the use of force.

It is a stain on his record, reflecting an instinctive caution that was sometimes a weakness. But he rightly responded that it was unfair to blame just the UN rather than also the Security Council powers. They knew what was going on, he said, but chose not to act. “It was an issue of policy, not of lack of knowledge.” America in particular, he highlighted, was suffering from peacekeeper fatigue after the debacle in Somalia.

But Annan was unquestionably troubled by the UN’s and his record in Rwanda. “Yes Rwanda was painful. What could I have done differently? I often wonder. If I had shouted from the rooftops to say that the situation is so desperate thousands may be killed, would it have made a difference? Probably it was worth a try.”

The massacre of 8,000 men and boys by Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica a year later, after they over-ran the UN haven also preyed on his mind. There too he believed passionately that the member states of the Security Council were most at fault for not wanting to expose their own troops to risk.

His stance in Bosnia endeared him to Washington, which backed him to become secretary-general when the US was against a second term for the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Four years later he and the UN received the singular accolade of the Nobel Peace Prize. But his relations with the US became increasingly strained after the September 11 attacks, particularly as George W Bush’s administration pushed the following year for war against Iraq.

He infuriated the hawks by suggesting to the BBC that the war was illegal. As some pushed to oust him, he faced an embarrassing scandal over the Oil for Food programme, the UN project which was set up to help Iraqis suffering from sanctions but was enveloped in fraud. It was all the harder for him when it emerged that his son, Kojo, had worked for a company that won a lucrative contract in the programme.

But as each year passed after his time at the UN, so his reputation grew. Partly this reflected the low profile of his successor, Ban Ki-moon and a realisation that given the UN’s institutional weaknesses Annan had had signal successes. Partly it reflected his commitment to the continent of his birth.

A leading figure in the Africa Progress Panel, and advocate for transparency in corporate dealings with the continent, he had a passion to reform agriculture to help Africa feed itself. “Farmer Kofi”, as he was nicknamed, loved seeing the work of his Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, promoting hybrid seeds, fertilisers and access to markets. He did not demur when asked if he was honouring a pledge half a century earlier.

“He was sometimes described as a naive optimist by people and pundits far less experienced in the ways of the world” said former aide, biographer and friend Nader Mousavizadeh.

“And what I remember him once responding to a cynical comment of my own was that he wasn’t ever going to stop being an optimist, because if he did, it meant that he had given up. And he was never going to give up.”

And he never did, but went on, the ultimate shuttle diplomat, to the end.


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Nader Mousavizadeh and David Claydon founded Macro Advisory Partners in 2013 to provide a global client base with a competitive advantage in a complex world. Driven by a belief in the value of independent, long-term strategic counsel, MAP's co-founders created a firm that delivers actionable macro strategies to decision-makers in business, finance and government.

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  • Kofi Annan

    Founding Chairman (2013-2018)
    Kofi Annan was the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997 to 2006).
  • William Burns

    President, Carnegie Endowment
    Ambassador Burns is President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and was the 17th United States Deputy Secretary of State.
  • Mala Gaonkar

    Co-portfolio Manager, Lone Pine Capital
    Mala Gaonkar is Co-portfolio Manager at Lone Pine Capital, and a former consultant at the World Bank.
  • Vikram Mehta

    Executive Chairman, Brookings India
    Vikram Mehta is a leading Indian businessman who was Chairman of the Shell Group of Companies in India.
  • David Miliband

    President, IRC
    David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, following a distinguished political career in the United Kingdom.
  • Vali Nasr

    Dean, SAIS
    Dr Vali Nasr is Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.
  • Jonathan Powell

    Director Inter Mediate
    Jonathan is Director of Inter Mediate.
  • Carl-Henric Svanberg

    Chairman BP
    Carl-Henric Svanberg is Chairman of BP Plc.


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