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Kofi Annan and the African Personality

By Obadiah Mailafia

THE distinguished Ghanaian diplomat and international civil servant Kofi Annan passed away on Saturday 18 August in Bern, Switzerland, after a brief illness. He was aged eighty.

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan

In January 1997, he was sworn-in as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, taking over from the hapless Egyptian Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali whose hectoring professorial style had alienated the Americans.

The organisation was on the verge of financial bankruptcy. Having risen to Under Secretary-General and head of Department of Peacekeeping Operations, DPKO, he never expected to be considered for the ultimate prize. The hand of destiny. He was the first to have risen through the ranks, having joined the organisation as a lowly Budget Officer in the WHO in 1962.

Kofi Atta Annan was born in Kumasi, Ghana, on 8 April 1938, from a long line of Ashanti tribal chiefs. He had a twin sister, Effua Atta, who predeceased him in 1991. He attended the famous Methodist boarding school, Mfantsipim, from 1954 to 1957.  In 1958 he enrolled as an undergraduate student of economics at Kumasi College of Science and Technology, later renamed Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

My wife and I once drove from Abidjan through Kumasi, Accra and Aflao, across the border through Togo and Benin to Lagos. We discovered a West African countryside that is both enchanting and spiritually inspiring.

I was deeply moved when I beheld Mfantsipim serenely perched on the ancient savannah hills; an institution that since the 1870s has nurtured generations of boys who have gone on to accomplish mighty exploits for God and country.

Ghana became independent in 1957 under the leadership of the great pan-Africanist statesman Kwame Nkrumah. A believer in the philosophy of African Personality, Nkrumah identified a crop of bright young men whom he nurtured and groomed. He aimed to raise high royal princes who could hold their own at any court in the world.

Among them were Kenneth Dadzie, scholar of Queens College Cambridge, who later became Secretary-General of UNCTAD; distinguished philosopher William Abraham, first African to win the coveted Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford; and the remarkable Alexander Kwapong who graduated with a starred First in Classics at Cambridge and went on to become Deputy Rector of the UN University in Tokyo. Kofi Annan belonged to that group.

In 1958, Annan enrolled at Macalester College in Minnesota on a Ford Foundation Fellowship, graduating with honours in Economics in 1961. He was reputed to have been a good student and a keen sportsman. During 1962-1963, he earned a masters at the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies; subsequently earning a mid-career management masters at the Sloan School at MIT.

One of the first things he did as Secretary-General was to institute a commission to investigate failure of the DPKO to prevent genocide in Rwanda and the massacres in Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a damning report. Annan could brutally be honest with others as he was with himself. With regards to his failure to prevent the Rwanda genocide as head of DPKO, he lamented: “I could and should have done more to sound the alarm and rally support.”

His time as Secretary-General coincided with some of the most turbulent years in our post-Cold War era. The war in Yugoslavia, the Iraq crisis and the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York tested the institutions of global governance to their ultimate limit.

The position of UN Secretary-General has been described as “the most impossible job in the world”. Whilst the permanent members expect the incumbent to be more of secretary than general, the demands of the job and the expectations of the international public require that he acts more as a general. The most successful have been those who managed to achieve an Aristotelian balance between the two opposing expectations.

No one faced that challenge more than Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden – a highly accomplished political economist, statesman and mystic — who perished in a mysterious plane crash on his way to finding a lasting peace in the Congo in 1965. It was the peak of the Cold War and he found himself in a classic game-theoretic prisoner’s dilemma.

The lot fell on him to redefine the very meaning and purpose of international service and assert the role and independence of the Secretary-General and his special offices in the name of humanity and the global interest.

When asked about the impact of the 1789 French revolution, Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai famously replied that it was “too early to say”. It might be too early to say whether Kofi Annan was a great Secretary-General or even a successful one.

Perhaps, no one understood the system inside-out as much as he did. He brought those insights to bear upon the far-reaching reforms that he implemented. No other scribe has done more to reform the Secretariat, with the possible exception of my favourite, the remarkable Dag Hammarskjöld. Annan promoted the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, R2P; enshrining the principle of humanitarian intervention in the jurisprudence of International Law.

He created the Office of Deputy Secretary-General, whose pioneer incumbent was Louise Fréchette of Canada, partly, according to one insider, to assure Western interests that were not altogether persuaded that a black African could run the UN successfully. Racism remains endemic in the world body.

The Global Compact and the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, were his idea. He also created the Global Funds to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. A champion of peace, human rights and the rule of law, he set up the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council. He opposed the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, condemning it as “illegal”.

To punish him for his effrontery, the Bush administration instituted investigations into alleged corruption by UN officials in the Iraq “Oil-for-Food” Programme. Although Annan was personally exonerated, his son Kojo was indicted for “unethical” dealings with one of the firms that had won the lucrative contracts.

Kofi Annan was an astute international civil servant, an effective administrator and a global statesman of courage and calmness under fire. When he and the UN were awarded the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, no-one could say that it was undeserved.

What stood him out was his open-minded cosmopolitanism. One of the lowest moments in his illustrious career was in August 2003 when his protégé and friend Sérgio Vieira de Mello of Brazil and several colleagues were killed in a bomb blast in the UN mission building in Baghdad. Annan had been grooming the Brazilian to be his successor.

During his December 2006 farewell speech, given to the UN Association in Kansas City, he identified three major global challenges: “an unjust world economy, world disorder, and widespread contempt for human rights and the rule of law”. He also expressed worries about violence in Africa and the Arab–Israeli conflict as issues needing world attention. With a calm but firm voice, he asserted: ”The responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate the peoples of the world.”

Following retirement, he championed several good causes. He set up the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra and the Kofi Annan Foundation which played a key role in establishing the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, AGRA. He was Chair of The Elders, an organisation founded by Nelson Mandela to address some of the world’s critical challenges. He also led several UN peace missions, notably to Syria, Kenya and Myanmar. He was on the boards of a major bank, a global private equity firm and several international agencies.

He is survived by three children and his widow Nane Maria Lagergren, a jurist from the distinguished Wallenberg family of Sweden. One of the brightest stars, no doubt, in the African galaxy.


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