Kofi Annan — a small man with a grey goatee, smiling from behind his desk in New York — once recalled that his first day as United Nation’s secretary-general was like his first day at school.
He was born into a prominent family in 1938 in Kumasi, the second biggest city in Ghana. His father was governor of Ashanti province under British colonial rule. Annan attended top schools in Ghana, Switzerland and later in the US.
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Anan was born into a noted Ghanaian family in 1938 and studied in Switzerland and the US. He joined the United Nations when he was 24 years old. By 1993, he was appointed the chief of its peacekeeping operations. One of his first challenges was the crisis in Somalia, in which clashes between US forces backed by the UN and Somali militiamen claimed lives of 18 American soldiers.
Picture-perfect UN career
Annan joined the UN at the age of 24, first working as an administrator at the World Health Organization and then becoming head of personnel for the UN mission in Cairo, deputy director of the UNHCR in Geneva and eventually deputy UN secretary-general. In 1993, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali nominated him under-secretary-general for peacekeeping, putting him in charge of 75,000 peacekeepers around the world.
As the head of UN peacekeeping troops, Annan experienced the first real dent in his career in 1994 when radical Hutu militias killed over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in what later became known as the Rwandan genocide. Annan was accused of failing to provide adequate support in the east African country despite the prior warnings of a violent escalation by Romeo Dallaire, the head of the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda. His reluctance was partly due to the fact that the US and Europe seemed to have little interest in getting more involved in Rwanda.
Annan expressed regret on behalf of the UN 10 years later: “The international community failed Rwanda, and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow.”
Untiring peace negotiator
The Rwandan genocide didn’t put an end to Kofi Annan’s upward movement in the UN. He was elected secretary-general in December 1997, after some pressure from the US, and thus became the first person from sub-Saharan Africa to occupy the post.
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On April 6, 1994, unidentified attackers shot down a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana as it was about to land at Kigali airport. President Habyarimana, his Burundian counterpart and eight other passengers died in the crash. The next day, organized killings began. Massacres continued over the course of three months, and at least 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives.
In his opening speech, he made it clear that he not only wanted to carry out administrative tasks at the head of the UN but also wanted to shape global politics. His agenda included the fight against global poverty, global warming, and AIDS, and the resolution of political crises. Later, he described the signing of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 as a highlight of his period in office. He also acted as a negotiator in the Cyprus conflict and with Iran over its nuclear program. Annan was also an outspoken critic of the attacks by the Sudanese Janjaweed militia in the Darfur region.
In 2001, the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized Annan’s contributions, awarding both him and the UN with the Nobel Peace Prize. The chairman of the Oslo-based panel, Gunnar Berge, told DW in an interview that Kofi Annan was “an excellent representative of the United Nations and probably the most effective secretary-general in its history.”
Once again, the modesty for which Annan was so respected shone through in his acceptance speech: “This award belongs not just to me. I do not stand here alone. On behalf of my colleagues in every part of the United Nations, in every corner of the globe, who have devoted their lives — and in many instances risked or given their lives in the cause of peace — I thank the Members of the Nobel Prize Committee for this high honor.”
Despite this public appreciation, Kofi Annan began to lose support from the members of the United Nations. Over his tenure as secretary-general, he tried in vain to reform the body, telling the General Assembly, “We must also adapt international institutions, through which states govern together, to the realities of the new era. We must form coalitions for change, often with partners well beyond the precincts of officialdom.” In the end, a plan to give other countries, especially those in Africa, Asia and South America, seats on the Security Council failed largely because of resistance from the US and the body’s other permanent members.
Annan has been a controversial leader. His leadership of a 2017 commission examining Rohingya violence raised criticism.
Annan also came under pressure for his stance against the US invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush in 2003, which he said violated the UN’s Charter. He tried to prevent military intervention with a round of negotiations.
In 2004, the UN secretary-general faced calls to resign over an embezzlement scandal concerning the UN’s Oil-for-Food program. There were revelations that Kofi Annan’s son Kojo had accepted payments from a Swiss company that the UN had commissioned to monitor goods supplies as part of the program. An investigative committee absolved Kofi Annan in 2005, stating that he was neither in control of his family nor of the UN.
Special representative in Syrian war
Annan stepped down as UN secretary-general in 2006 at the end of his second period in office. He did not retire entirely from the public eye, however, and went on to publish his memoirs and work for various NGOs, including his own Kofi Annan Foundation for the promotion of global governance.
Annan visited the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2011
He also acted as a negotiator between the government and the opposition in Kenya after post-election violence broke out at the end of 2007. In February 2012, he was named special representative in the Syrian civil war. He stepped down six months later after several failed attempts to negotiate a ceasefire.
Later, as violence against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state grew in 2017, Annan headed an expert commission that looked into how the conflict could be resolved.
Kofi Annan is survived by his second wife, Nane Lagergren, with whom he lived in Geneva, and a son and daughter from his first marriage.