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Kofi Annan, 1938 – 2018

  • KIPS Bureau
  • Sep, 2018
  • 175
  • Obituary

On 18 August 2018 Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General  passed away peacefully. He underwent   a short illness and was among his family at the time of his death. The tributes came from political leaders, freedom fighters, friends and opponents alike. As his successor, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, said: “In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations”.

Annan was married to Swedish artist, Nane Lagergren who was a lawyer and judge before becoming a full time painter. They have 3 children together – two girls Ama and Nina and a son Kojo.

He joined the United Nations in 1962 as a 25-year-old, the organization. “The UN can be improved,” he admitted in a BBC interview on his 80th birthday in April. “It is not perfect but if it didn’t exist, you would have to create it.”He devised the Millennium Development Goals still in use today and a UN philosophy called the “responsibility to protect”, which member states pledged to abide by.  He oversaw Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 2001. After leaving the UN, he formed his own foundation and joined The Elders, a group of former leaders founded by the late Nelson Mandela.

But his position also led to criticism over UN failures to act, most notably in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. And while he decried the 2003 invasion of Iraq as “illegal”, he did not do so publicly until 2004.

It is said that  his personal failures were the failures of the UN as an institution; where it, and he, fell short was an inability to prevent catastrophes on a global scale. He recognised this by resigning as special envoy to Syria after a frustrating seven months in 2012 as Security Council members embarked on their own course of action.

But what is in little doubt is that he was guided by a higher-minded purpose and the need to find “a path to a better world”. Ghanaian flags will be flying at half-mast this week for the national son who became an international hero.

He left Ghana in 1959 on a Ford Foundation grant to study at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota (USA), where he got his BSc in Economics. He later went to the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, Switzerland, after which he joined the World Health Organisation. At age 33 at the time, Annan thought he had had enough. “I went through my mid-life crisis very early and needed to sit back and do some thinking”. That led him to an unusual means of relaxation — to study for a masters degree in management at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Annan  would later hold  a variety of UN posts before reaching the top.  That included working for the UNHCR  in Geneva, before he moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia  to become a senior personnel officer at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), where his uncle Robert Gardiner was the Executive Secretary then. And up he went, moving from Addis Ababa to Cairo  in Egypt,  and finally to the UN Plaza in mid-town New York. Between the years, he served as security coordinator, budget director, programmes manager, a controller and refugee agency executive.

He returned to Ghana in 1974 to work as managing director o f Ghana’s tourism agency. He spent only two years in the job and returned to New York where in March 1993, he was appointed the UN Undersecretary-General for peacekeeping operations – the jon that would entail him  flying from one troublespot to another brokering peace. It was  during this tenure that his international standing began to grow.. He was once described by Muhamed Sacirbey , the outspoken former Bosnian ambassador to the UN as someone “people trust because he is honest and doesn’t try to hide behind a false argument. He defends his positions on merit”.

But in 1994, as head of UN peacekeeping, Annan found himself  ( to his chagrin) in a position where he could do nothing, as ethnic conflict erupted in Rwanda, between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. Over a three-month period, he pleaded with world leaders to intervene in the genocide, in which 800,000 people were massacred.

“It was a very painful experience for me, but we have to understand the context. We were trying to cope with Rwanda soon after the collapse of the UN operations in Somalia, where US troops had been killed, and dragged through the streets. These countries became so risk-averse that they wouldn’t jump into another situation like Somalia. Instead of increasing the numbers, we scaled back.

When the race for the UN Secretary ...

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