Africa is a continent with rich in cultural heritage, traditional values and superstitious beliefs, which may sometimes mean not caring enough for the living and never speaking ill of the dead.
Perspectives have blind spots. We often appreciate or dislike others because of how we relate to them through our spectacles, colored by the values we treasure. There is a wide zone between fact and fiction. The truth is that the interpretation of others’ legacies often reveals a great deal about us and our values. And is often less about the complexity of the lives of those with whom we engage.
As an old adage says: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. So, it should not come as a surprise that prominent people are sometimes remembered selectively when they are dead.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why eulogies, accolades and commendations trailed the demise of Kofi Annan, renowned diplomat, Nobel peace prize recipient and first African to become Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Born in Kumasi, Ghana on 8 April 1938, Kofi Annan was the first secretary general to emerge from the ranks of UN staff.
Kofi Atta Annan was born April 8, 1938, into an elite family in Kumasi, Ghana, the son of a provincial governor and grandson of two tribal chiefs.
He shared his middle name Atta — “twin” in Ghana’s Akan language — with a twin sister, Efua. He became fluent in English, French and several African languages, attending an elite boarding school and the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi. He finished his undergraduate work in economics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1961.
From there he went to Geneva, where he began his graduate studies in international affairs and launched his U.N. career.
Annan married Titi Alakija, a Nigerian woman, in 1965, and they had a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo. He returned to the U.S. in 1971 and earned a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. The couple separated during the 1970s and, while working in Geneva, Annan met his second wife, Swedish lawyer Nane Lagergren. They married in 1984.
Annan worked for the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa in Ethiopia, its Emergency Force in Egypt, and the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, before taking a series of senior posts at U.N. headquarters in New York dealing with human resources, budget, finance, and staff security.
He also had special assignments. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, he facilitated the repatriation from Iraq of more than 900 international staff and other non-Iraqi nationals, and the release of western hostages in Iraq. He led the initial negotiations with Iraq for the sale of oil in exchange for humanitarian relief.
Just before becoming secretary-general, Annan served as U.N. peacekeeping chief and as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition in Bosnia from U.N. protective forces to NATO-led troops.
He knew the UN system and its strengths and limitations better than anyone, having joined it in 1962 as a young budget officer at the World Health Organization.
Kofi Annan went on to become the 7th United Nations Secretary-General during a pivotal decade in modern world history from 1997 to 2006 and died in August 2018 aged 80.
The United Nations was created in 1945 by 51 sovereign states and empires that had just survived two of the worst wars in history and at that time Kofi Annan was on 7 years old.
With the winding down of empires, UN membership grew to nearly 200 countries and by the late 1990s most countries were at peace internationally. Despite their continuing ideological and other differences, they have, ever since, avoided another world war.
But domestic peace was to prove more elusive. The UN lacked the norms, institutional capacity and political resolve, to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts within states, while maintaining peace among them.
Although Africa accounted for nearly a third of the UN’s members, it was also the world’s poorest and most conflict-ridden region. And it lacked the means to effect major reforms in the global body’s post-World War II hierarchy, structures and procedures.
The 1990s was characterized by complex and intractable armed conflicts. The period saw a significant shift from inter-state to intra-state conflicts. There was a rise in the number of failed states as well as grievous violations of human rights.
Kofi Annan: charismatic humanist
Kofi Annan left the United Nations far more committed than it had been to combating poverty, promoting equality and fighting for human rights. It was during his first term as secretary-general in October 2000 that ‘Resolution 1325’ was implemented.
It was an important moment for opening a conversation about the specific needs of women in conflict and relief zones, and the importance of including women in efforts to create lasting peace. The Resolution was adopted following to advocacy efforts by civil society and member states, and importantly, buy-in from UN leadership. And for that, in large part, we can thank Kofi Annan.
Same year, He launched the U.N. Millennium Development Goals at a summit of world leaders in 2000 to cut extreme poverty by half, promote equality for women, ensure every child has a primary school education, reduce maternal and child mortality, and halt the spread of AIDS — all by 2015.
Those goals, only a few of which were fully achieved, were succeeded by an expanded list of U.N. Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 that adds issues such as climate action, affordable and clean energy, and promoting peace and justice.
The major criticism the MDGs faced was that they weren’t consultative. They were a technical exercise, put together by a room full of UN bureaucrats, without clear member state endorsement.
Annan’s signatory achievement in healthcare was the establishment of the world’s largest fund for HIV/AIDS prevention, The Global Fund. This was because, throughout his years in the UN, he saw how epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria stood in the way of global development.
The Global Fund is now considered the world’s largest fund to support the prevention and treatment of AIDS and other epidemics, having dispersed more than 33 billion dollars in aid to countries facing health crises since its creation in 2002. According to the organization, it has supported 11 million people on antiretroviral therapy for AIDS and saved about 22 million lives worldwide.
He also pursued the agenda of improving the quality of people by getting world leaders to commit themselves to addressing the basic concerns of the world’s population – poverty. In his 2000 report, We the peoples: the role of the United Nations in the 21st century.
Throughout his life Annan also committed himself to peace and security, human rights and rule of law. Measures to address the basic needs of people were ever present, both in his words and deeds. Even on retirement, he continued to work for the improvement of the living standards of ordinary people.
Kofi Annan: serial reformist
Annan was a reformist. On taking up the position of Secretary-General of the UN, he drove the implementation of two management reports on reform. The first introduced a cabinet kind of body which assisted the Secretary-General in the effective running of the organization.
Annan also saw drove the expansion of the U.N.’s work into partnerships with businesses, foundations, universities and civil society.
This led, for example, to the establishment of the Global Compact in 2001 where Annan asked corporate leaders to publicly commit to 10 principles in the areas of human rights, labor, the environment and anti-corruption. More than 9,000 of the world’s leading CEOs have joined the compact, which continues to attract new members, and “corporate responsibility” has become a key feature of the business world.
Annan also established of the position of Deputy Secretary-General and the reduction of administrative costs to the world body. He presided over reforms intended to make the UN an effective international peace and security interlocutor. In his progress report, he made further far reaching recommendations for the expansion of the Security Council and a number of other reforms that brought about significant changes.
Annan’s time at the UN were marked by great human tragedies as well as episodes of progress. His role in these events raises difficult questions about individual responsibility and the role of international organizations and their leaders in creating a more peaceful and just world.
At a time, his son was implicated in the infamously corrupt food-for-oil program that was initiated to help the Iraqi population during the period of sanctions against Saddam Hussein.
Eventually, he appointed the independent Volcker Commission to investigate the program. It concluded that, although Annan himself was not guilty of any wrong doing, his actions in response to the abuses were inadequate, including that he had failed to refer the matter to the UN’s independent watchdog agency.
He is also seen to have tolerated sexual harassment within the UN Secretariat, protecting the former head of the UN refugee agency when he was accused of sexual harassment, penalizing his accuser and then relying on the UN’s legal immunity to avoid having to respond to her efforts to seek justice. Some believe the adverse publicity eventually forced the guilty official to resign.
On the plus side, his contributions were impressive. He was an effective diplomat, a shrewd negotiator an intelligent strategist and a successful bureaucratic operator.
When he took over the organization it was facing numerous challenges. They included a tense and often hostile relationship with its most powerful member state, the US, a difficult budgetary situation and what appeared to be an inability to fulfil its core peacekeeping, human rights and development functions.
By the end of his term, things looked very different. Relations with key member countries had been restored, the UN had a sound fiscal position and both he and the organization later won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Kofi Annan: diplomatic peacebuilder
His past experiences shaped his later international engagements, especially on international intervention to save humanitarian catastrophes. The failure of the UN to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre when Annan served as the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations were key events in this context.
In his memoir which he coauthored with his former advisor and speechwriter, Nader Mousavizadeh, Annan, reflected on his roles at the UN, especially in the wake of Rwandan genocide and how he lobbied about 100 governments – and made personal calls to others – to assist with the passage of the Security Council Resolution (918) to dispatch about 5,500 troops to the country. He recalls how he received no single serious offer for troop contribution.
The 1999 independent investigation into what had happened categorically concluded that the UN had failed to prevent, and stop, the genocide in Rwanda. As Secretary-General during the investigation, Annan accepted responsibility of the lapses during the genocide in Rwanda.
Under Annan, the UN General Assembly in 2005 endorsed the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” following the incorporation of this doctrine in his report, ‘Larger Freedom’ to ward off the world’s worst crimes. Critics say this doctrine is frequently cited, but often not implemented.
In the preparation to invade Iraq in 2003, Annan condemned the US and the UK, urging them not to do so without the support of the UN. He believed the intervention didn’t conform with the UN charter, and was therefore illegal.
He was to put lessons into practice as he continued to pursue avenues for peace in conflicts around the world. For example, six months after his appointment as the UN-Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, Annan resigned. His reasons included the stalemate in the Security Council to take measures that could ensure a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis as well as the intransigence of both the Assad regime and the rebels towards a peaceful outcome.
And in 2016 he headed the Rakhine Commission which was appointed to look into the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar. The commission’s recommendations were unpopular to both sides. But in 2018 the Myanmar civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi accepted the commission’s recommendations and convened a new board, ostensibly to implement them.
Kofi Annan: International African
Six months after becoming Secretary-General, Annan chose to address the 1997 summit in Harare of leaders of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in a way that none of his predecessors had done.
His central point was that Africa’s peace and development required Africa’s leaders to hold one another more accountable to how they managed their domestic affairs. This was particularly true when it came to the protection of human rights and democracy.
He concluded by emphasizing that “human rights are African rights”, noting that “what stands between us and the future is ourselves”.
During the 1980s he participated in a series of efforts by the International Peace Academy, an NGO established to help train and better inform and prepare for expected UN peacekeeping operations, mostly in Africa. This capacity should have been institutionalized in the UN, but was thwarted by the US and Soviet Union. Both feared that the other might somehow gain a Cold War advantage. The NGO never fully succeeded and would have failed from the start without Annan’s frequent personal and sustained engagement.
After leaving office he continued to promote, and often lead, civil society efforts to help the UN and the world, beginning in Africa. In 2006 he became the founding chair of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA aims to increase the incomes and improve the food security for 30 million farming households in 11 African countries by 2021.
In his home country Ghana, his Foundation sponsored presidential debates in which candidates publicly pledged to support the decision of the national electoral commission.
Annan continued to do good work with both the Elders, a group of global leaders working for peace and human rights, and his own foundation. In these capacities he had some notable achievements. He also helped resolve the post-election violence in Kenya, and ensure peaceful elections in Nigeria and a number of other countries.
From Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, who envisaged the African Union long before it became reality, to Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who refused to allow the trappings of power to corrupt him, Africa has never been short of exemplary leaders.
Add the likes of Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba and one may be tempted to keep a place on the list for Kofi Annan as Africa’s greatest diplomat of all time.
Having died aged 80, survived by his wife and three children, He was an important historical figure who played a critical role in many key events of the 1990s and 2000s. His death became an opportunity to both celebrate his life and to begin honestly assessing his contributions to the world.
Annan acquitted himself well as an international diplomat, a humanist and peace-builder. He lived a fulfilled life, and contributed significantly in his chosen career.
There is no doubt that running a complex international institution like the UN is difficult and requires leaders who are willing to compromise. Given the Secretary General’s weak position, it may also be inevitable that its leaders will have to turn a blind eye to some acts and omissions that have tragic and possibly evil consequences in order to advance higher priorities.
Annan showed throughout his career that he was a master at playing this game. As a result, his record includes both some impressive achievements and some profound errors. It will be up to history to decide if he made the right choices and struck the correct balance between doing good and tolerating evil.
So much to say about Kofi Annan, who against all odds, rose to the pinnacle of international diplomacy, made his mark as a global citizen and leaves behind a glowing legacy and profound lessons to learn.
At a time when Africa and the world is faced with a new set of complicated challenges, society would always be in need of heroes, some of them finding their voice as advocates, activists, or just everyday people who want to make a difference.