Kofi Atta Annan:A Citizen of the World
At a watering hole in Orange, New Jersey, USA, someone asked recently, “Who again is the Secretary-General of the United Nations?” Silence. Someone offered lamely, “Kofi Annan.” Wrong! The man had just passed. No one challenged him. That was a great tribute to Kofi Annan. The tenure of Ban Ki-Moon and the current run of António Guterres have not blurred the aura of Annan, the first career diplomat to occupy the exalted seat.
Few citizens of the world held international attention in the past 70 years: MLK, Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela, Bob Marley, Mikhail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa, St. John Paul, Barack Obama, Kofi Annan, etc. The first time I heard his name, it was easy to place him in Ghana by his first name, Kofi—a Friday-born boy. Annan presented a challenge. The tag as “a Scottish surname” in then pop literature left out the Akan usage. Kofi Annan put a stamp on the name as West African as the kolanut.
Kofi Atta Annan (4. 8.1938 – 8.18.2018) was a beacon of peace planted by his creator on the solid soils of Ghana. He climbed up the world’s tallest tree and gathered fine firewood. If the world were an iroko tree, Annan the royal eagle flew to the top and perched on it from January 1997 to December 2006. He straddled the UN across two centuries. Symbolically, he bridged the gap between the old and the new ways. He paved the path for a new UN that no longer just barks but also acts to make our world better.
Born into political royalty in Kumasi, Ghana, Annan schooled in Ghana and went abroad for further studies, like many privileged and bright young men of his generation. He rose through the ranks of international diplomacy and excelled.
It is always a scene of joy and pride to step into the hallowed halls of the UN headquarters in Manhattan, New York to behold the friendly faces of both Kofi Annan and Boutros-Ghali. Together with Mandela and Achebe, Annan brought global respect to the continent of Africa. He made Africa proud, but he delivered to the world as a dedicated diplomat and a disciplined bureaucrat. He oiled the wheels of the UN and tweaked the old ways to make way for the new era of computer technology.
Critics pounce on his leadership during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. They forgot that he was not then the SG, who is an administrative pope at best. Annan was in charge of peacekeeping. He did not have his own army. He reports to the SG, who bows to the Security Council members—who did not wish to see their citizens die in Africa, especially after the 1993 killing of 18 American Black Hawk helicopter service personnel in Mogadishu, Somalia. He wrote in his memoir, “The international community failed Rwanda, and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow.”
In 1995, probably haunted by Rwanda and still an under-SG, Annan took an amazing decision to arrest the butchering of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs. He directed UN officials not to veto airstrikes in Bosnia for a limited period. He did this only because SG Boutros-Ghali was midair and unreachable. The US made good on its love for Annan’s strong decision by denying Boutros-Ghali a second tenure in 1996, a first in UN history. The Security Council appointed Annan to replace another African. France vetoed and instead projected top Ivorian diplomat Amara Essy. America persisted. Annan won. The General Assembly confirmed.
A soft-spoken statesman-diplomat with a steady and staid stature, Annan built a unique and inimitable brand. In his many years at the UN, he dealt with all sort of characters from weird warlords to bestial butchers. From Liberia to Somalia and from Rwanda through Kabila’s Congo to Castro’s Cuba, from Sudan to Syria, Annan played respectable roles in resolving conflicts, thereby saving the lives of many millions.
Annan was a foremost and fearless diplomat who presided over a troubled world. He convinced Washington to release blocked funds for the UN. On his watch, East Timor got its independence from Indonesia, Al Qaeda struck New York and Washington, the US invaded Iraq over his objections, and Islamic militancy became a way of life. With a little more space and time, Annan could have convinced Saddam Hussein to smell the coffee and averted a crippling crisis that still rages across the region.
Annan was a charismatic diplomat. With his second wife Nane Lagergren, a connected Swiss, they became the world’s power couple. In his first marriage to Titi Alakija, a 1960s international model from a prominent and prosperous Nigerian family, he had two children.
Annan did not rest after his full tenure and retirement. As the chair of the Elders, founded by Nelson Mandela, and through his foundation, he worked to resolve conflicts: Kenya postelection violence, saving Rohingya minority in Myanmar, and venturing into the complex conflict in Syria.
Kofi Annan left deep and wide footprints on the sands of international relations and diplomacy. He did not only walk on scorching charcoals of conflicts to plant poles of peace, he left roadmaps to a better tomorrow. No African after Mandela has risen to such a dazzling height of international recognition.
A suave soul and a debonair diplomat, Annan managed a measured and noble presence. The world will miss His Excellency Kofi Atta Annan, the most famous servant leader and foremost international civil servant the world has ever known. He left the ship of nations united on a steady sea and with a 2001 Nobel Peace Prize as the icing on the cake. His departure closes an era; his passing is the end of an era of diplomacy par excellence.
A great son of Africa goes home!
A great son of Ghana goes home!
A great son of Kumasi goes home!
A great son of Annan goes home!
A citizen of the world goes home.
M. O. Ene, PhD writes from New Jersey, USA. An international scholar, he is an author of many books. His last book “American Abracadabra” (August 2018) is available at www.amazon.com .