Ghanaian diplomat was the first black African to lead the UN
Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan dies at 80
World leaders past and present tribute to Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general whose successes and failures came to embody the sprawling organisation, who died at the age of 80 on Saturday.
Tony Blair, who as British prime minister clashed with Annan during the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, said he was shocked and saddened by his death.
“He was a good friend whom I saw only weeks ago,” he said. “Kofi Annan was a great diplomat, a true statesman and a wonderful colleague who was widely respected and will be greatly missed.”
Annan will be remembered as one of the most powerful UN leaders at a time when it faced mounting global challenges – from the rise of extremist militants after 9/11 and the wars that followed to the instability caused by climate change – but also as one of its most controversial.
So although he was blamed for the organisation’s failure to halt the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s when he was head of peacekeeping operations, he went on to win the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for “bringing new life to the UN”. And later, after the invasion of Iraq, he and his son were caught up in the "oil for food" corruption scandal.
Annan was the first black African to serve in the post when he was appointed the seventh UN secretary general in 1997. He held the position for two five-year terms, before retiring to live in a Swiss village in the Geneva countryside.
He died after a short illness in hospital, according to a statement issued by his foundation and his family.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, described him as a man dedicated to bringing about peace.
“We have lost a statesman who was dedicated to the service of humanity and extend our sincere condolences to his family,” he said.
Kofi Atta Annan was born in 1938 to a prominent family in Kumasi, Ghana, where he grew up as the son of a provincial governor and grandson of two tribal chiefs. He first arrived in the US to finish his undergraduate studies before moving to Geneva where he launched his UN career.
For most of the next four decades he built a reputation as an efficient manager and career diplomat.
His steady rise first came to public attention in 1990 when he persuaded Saddam Hussein to allow the repatriation of more than 900 international workers and hostages trapped in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion.
When the softly spoken diplomat won the top job, he was the first secretary general to have emerged from the ranks of its vast bureaucracy.
He took over at a particularly difficult time, six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and during a decade when the world united against terrorism before dividing again over the US-led war against Iraq.
His early moves were credited with restoring morale at an organisation that had skirted bankruptcy and irrelevance. He introduced a cabinet system of leadership, cut 1,000 jobs in a package of fiscal reforms and persuaded the US to pay a backlog of dues estimated at $1 billion.
He also set about establishing the Millennium Development Goals. He later said these milestones - aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and promoting universal education – were his greatest achievement.
Kofi Annan writes for The National:
But his new prominence brought fresh scrutiny of his time as head of peacekeeping operations and his role in Rwanda. It emerged that he knew weeks in advance about plans for the genocide of minority Tutsis in 1994 but ordered UN military personnel not to take action, despite the warnings of General Romeo Dallaire, head of UN forces in the country.
Perhaps his greatest challenge came in 2003 when the US – Annan’s biggest backer – announced it planned to invade Iraq. Ultimately, Washington bypassed the UN and went to war with its own coalition, driving a wedge between Annan and the superpower.
"From our point of view and from the charter point of view, it was illegal," he later said.
Worse followed for his personal standing. In 2005 the UN faced frequent allegations of corruption over its oil-for-food programme in Iraq and sex abuse by peacekeepers. It then emerged that Kojo, Annan’s son, had failed to disclose payments from his employer, which had a $10 million a year contract to monitor aid delivered under the oil-for-food programme.
An independent investigation delivered a stinging rebuke, saying Annan had been complacent even if he had not been responsible for awarding the contract.
Raghida Dergham, a Lebanese-American journalist who was until last year Al Hayat’s New York bureau chief and served as the president of the United Nations Correspondents Association, said the episode changed him.
“I saw him once and he looked so depressed and so down and I went up to him and said: ‘You’re not the only father in the world and all parents have problems with their children.’
“I told him off but as one parent to another and I think he respected that,” she said.
Annan had once agreed, as head of the international pre-school, to Dergham's request for a recommendation for her daughter - but on the condition that he meet her first. "So Kofi Annan took my five-year-old daughter (and me of course) for lunch so he could get to know her first," she recalled.
Dergham said she knew Annan even before he took the top UN job, when he was in the Secretariat. "He was a good civil servant and I don’t think he ever thought he’d become the secretary general ... but he was the right person [at the time]."
In an interview with the BBC to mark his 80th birthday earlier this year, Annan admitted the UN’s shortcomings, saying it "can be improved, it is not perfect but if it didn’t exist you would have to create it".
He continued to work for the UN in retirement. He served as special envoy for Syria, leading efforts to find a solution to the conflict. But in 2012 he quit in frustration blaming the Syrian government “and its intransigence", along with diplomatic manoeuvring by Russia and China and the UN Security Council, for lack of progress.
Antonio Guterres, the current UN Secretary-General, paid tribute to the way Annan had risen through the ranks with dignity and determination.
"In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations,” he said.
For a man who represented the organisation’s flaws as much as its grandest aspirations, it is a fitting tribute.