Kofi Annan, esteemed former UN Secretary General, dies aged 80

Annan's aristocratic style, cool-tempered elegance and political savvy helped guide his ascent to become the UN's seventh secretary-general.
Saturday 18/08/2018
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan ponders a point at a news conference, before addressing South Africa's parliament in Cape Town March 14, 2006. (Reuters)
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan ponders a point at a news conference, before addressing South Africa's parliament in Cape Town March 14, 2006. (Reuters)

Kofi Annan, one of the world’s most celebrated diplomats and a charismatic symbol of the United Nations has died. He was 80.

His foundation announced his death in Switzerland on Saturday in a tweet, saying he died after a short unspecified illness.

Annan spent virtually his entire career as an administrator in the United Nations. His aristocratic style, cool-tempered elegance and political savvy helped guide his ascent to become its seventh secretary-general, and the first hired from within. He served two terms from January 1, 1997, to December 31, 2006, capped nearly mid-way when he and the UN were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

Even out of office, Annan never completely left the UN orbit or his involvement within the Middle East. He returned in special roles, including as the UN-Arab League’s special envoy to Syria in 2012. He remained a powerful advocate for global causes through his eponymous foundation.

Annan assumed the top UN post six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and presided during a decade when the world united against terrorism after the September 11 attacks — then divided deeply over the US-led war against Iraq. The US relationship tested him as a world diplomatic leader.

“I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war, and the fact that we could not stop it,” Annan said in a February 2013 interview with TIME magazine to mark the publication of his memoir, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.”

“I worked very hard — I was working the phone, talking to leaders around the world. The US did not have the support in the Security Council,” Annan recalled in the videotaped interview posted on The Kofi Annan Foundation’s website.

“So they decided to go without the council. But I think the council was right in not sanctioning the war,” he said. “Could you imagine if the UN had endorsed the war in Iraq, what our reputation would be like? Although at that point, President (George W.) Bush said the UN was headed toward irrelevance, because we had not supported the war. But now we know better.”

After leading the UN through a variety of difficult periods and challenges to the authority’s moral authority, he left an organisation more aggressively engaged in peacekeeping and fighting poverty, establishing the framework for the UN’s 21st-century response to mass atrocities and its emphasis on human rights and development.

Even after leaving his high-profile UN role, Annan’s work continued, creating his Geneva-based foundation in 2007. That year he helped broker peace in Kenya, where election violence had killed over 1,000 people.

As special envoy to Syria in 2012, Annan won international backing for a six-point plan for peace. The UN deployed a 300-member observer force to monitor a cease-fire, but peace never took hold and Annan was unable to surmount the bitter stalemate among Security Council powers. He resigned in frustration seven months into the job, as the civil war raged on.

“Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good,” current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “It is with profound sadness that I learned of his passing. In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organisation into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination.”

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 UN career.

Annan worked for the UN 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 UN 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 UN peacekeeping chief and as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition in Bosnia from UN protective forces to NATO-led troops.

The UN peacekeeping operation faced two of its greatest failures during his tenure: the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.

In both cases, the UN had deployed troops under Annan’s command, but they failed to save the lives of the civilians they were mandated to protect. Annan offered apologies, but ignored calls to resign by US Republican lawmakers. After he became secretary-general, he called for UN reports on those two debacles — and they were highly critical of his management.

Annan’s uncontested election to a second term was unprecedented, reflecting the overwhelming support he enjoyed from both rich and poor countries. Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, which disburses Ted Turner’s $1 billion pledge to UN causes, hailed “a saint-like sense about him.”

In 2005, Annan succeeded in establishing the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council. But that year, the UN was facing almost daily attacks over allegations about corruption in the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq, bribery by UN purchasing officials and widespread sex abuse by UN peacekeepers — an issue that would only balloon in importance after he left office.

Before leaving office, Annan helped secure a truce between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and mediated a settlement of a dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula.

At a farewell news conference, Annan listed as top achievements the promotion of human rights, the fighting to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth, and the UN campaign to fight infectious diseases like AIDS.

(Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)