Kofi Annan, the seventh and probably the most popular and widely respected secretary-general the United Nations has ever known, died unexpectedly in Bern, Switzerland, early on Saturday morning, Aug. 18. His death, reportedly from leukemia, followed what initial reports described only as a short illness. He led the UN for two terms, from 1997 through 2006, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for himself and the organization in 2001.
“Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good,” Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement after hearing the news. “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 organization into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination. . . . His legacy will remain a true inspiration for all us.” (The UN has compiled tributes to Annan.)
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, who is leaving the job on Aug. 31, expressed the feelings of many in the UN and others around the world when he said that he was “grief-stricken” by the news. He called Annan “a friend to thousands and a leader of millions,” and added, “In a world now filled with leaders who are anything but that, our loss, the world’s loss, becomes even more painful.”
Annan, a Ghanaian and the first secretary-general from sub-Saharan Africa, was the American choice for the job under President Bill Clinton in 1996, whose administration had abruptly denied Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt a second term. But within a few years, Annan was almost intolerably pressured by the US under President George W. Bush and his foremost official on UN policy and one-time envoy to the organization, John Bolton.
Republicans on the ever-more powerful right wing in the US Congress were livid when Annan acknowledged that he believed that the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US was “illegal” because it did not have Security Council authorization.
Earlier, several members of Congress, with some media support in the US, also began an unrelenting, though misguided, campaign against Annan when a corruption scandal erupted over a program that allowed Iraq to sell oil, despite Security Council sanctions. The goal of the program was to raise money for food and other necessities that Iraqi citizens were unable to obtain under the sanctions.
A thorough investigation by Paul Volcker, a former US Federal Reserve chairman, cleared the UN but said that Annan could have managed the affair better.
Nikki Haley, the current US ambassador to the UN and a persistent critic of the organization, was gracious in her praise of Annan, reflecting the general respect for him around the organization and diplomatic world.
“Kofi Annan devoted his life to making the world a more peaceful place through his compassion and dedication to service,” she said in a statement on Aug. 18. “He worked tirelessly to unite us and never stopped fighting for the dignity of every person. We join the entire United Nations and diplomatic community in celebrating his life and lifting the Annan family up in love and prayers.”
As many world leaders voiced tributes, there was no public comment on Annan’s death from the White House or the State Department, but Barack Obama said of Annan, in part, “Long after he had broken barriers, Kofi never stopped his pursuit of a better world, and made time to motivate and inspire the next generation of leaders.”
Madeleine Albright, as ambassador to the UN in 1996, fended off opposition from France, which tried to keep Boutros-Ghali in the job. She ensured Annan’s election in the Security Council. Hearing of his death, she called him “one of the world’s foremost of advocates for peace, development and international understanding. . . . Our world is a better place because of Kofi Annan.”
Kofi Atta Annan was born in Kumasi, Ghana, on April 8, 1938, into a family of traditional rulers; his father became the provincial governor. The country, a British colony, was called the Gold Coast. Annan — who had a twin sister, Efua Atta, who died in 1991 — was in his last year at an elite secondary school in 1957 when Ghana won its independence relatively peacefully under Kwame Nkrumah. The moment made Annan optimistic for the future of Africa.
At Annan’s death, the president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, ordered the country’s flags lowered to half-staff, saying, “He brought considerable renown to our country by this position and through his conduct and comportment in the global arena.”
After finishing his schooling in Ghana, including a spell at a national university, Annan enrolled in Macalester College in Minnesota on a Ford Foundation student leader scholarship. He had never experienced winter, and one in North American was a culture shock. Other students came prepared with earmuffs, he recalled in an interview. He refused to wear them because they made him look ridiculous.
“I resisted as long as I could, until one day, going to get something to eat, my ears nearly froze,” he told me. “So I went and bought the biggest pair I could find. But even in that I learned a very important lesson. You never walk into a situation and believe that you know better than the natives.”
After college, his first job was held at the World Health Organization, and a lifelong career in the UN followed. From the WHO in Geneva, Annan moved on to Ethiopia, Egypt, the former Yugoslavia and New York. After Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, he was sent to the region to repatriate 900 international UN staff members and to gain the release of hostages. Later, he negotiated with Iraq on the sale of oil to fund purchases of humanitarian aid.
His last position before becoming secretary-general was as head of UN peacekeeping during a fraught and tragic period for the UN in Rwanda and amid the breakup of Yugoslavia. His department was blamed for the genocidal scale of deaths that ensued, though the US was responsible for preventing the expansion of peacekeeping operations in both Rwanda and the Balkans. Albright wrote about it in her book “Madam Secretary: A Memoir.”
Jeffrey Laurenti, an American analyst on the UN for several foundations and organizations, including UNA-USA, looked back on the trajectory of Annan’s life and work in a memo to PassBlue. He wrote:
“At the start of his tenure, Kofi carried the burden of being seen as ‘the Americans’ secretary-general,’ with the Clinton administration having muscled Boutros Boutros-Ghali out and Annan in. It was a sign of how effectively he had become ‘the world’s’ secretary-general, rather than the Americans’, that ten years later the Bush administration insisted on installing a successor [Ban Ki-moon] who would be Annan’s antithesis — neither articulate nor independent like Annan, nor able to command world attention or knowledgeable about how things get done in the U.N. Annan was able to appeal to world publics, even over the heads of powerful governments, in a way no secretary-general had done since Dag Hammarskjöld.
“Even more exceptionally, he was admired and even beloved by the people who do the real work of the United Nations, from whose ranks he had risen and who were intensely loyal to him. His very person rebutted the view, pervasive in Western media, of Africa as a continent hopelessly mired in conflict and corruption.
“Arguably his most consequential impact on people’s lives across most of the world was his success in making Millennium Development Goals the organizing principle for international development policy. . . .
“On the peace and security issues that are of keenest interest to Washington, Annan had to deal with two successive U.S. administrations that were confident of the efficacy of American military power and ready to circumvent the United Nations to use it, in Clinton’s case to pry Kosovo out of Serbia and in Bush’s to seize control of Iraq.
“Annan’s senior appointments were high caliber, especially in the human rights arena, and he won a significant improvement in the political oversight body for human rights in the 2005 package. The International Criminal Court is also a major part of this legacy.”
At New York headquarters as secretary-general, Annan introduced ambitious reforms, including in peacekeeping and tackling global poverty in the Millennium Development Goals, which were supplanted in 2015 by the Sustainable Development Goals. On his watch, the US began to clear millions of dollars in arrears that it had accrued by unilaterally slashing its contributions.
In Lucia Mouat’s book, “The United Nations’ Top Job,” she wrote: “Critics had been concerned that Annan, consistently calm, patient and soft-spoken, might be just too nice and conflict averse to make hard decisions. Though aides say he could get angry on occasion. Annan once explained, ‘Screaming and getting bitter and being angry is negative energy that takes a lot out of you and doesn’t help me.’ ”
Annan’s first marriage, to Titi Alakija, with whom he had two children, ended in divorce. In 1984, he married Nane Lagergren, from a prominent Swedish family, who was trained as a lawyer but later devoted her career to painting. She survives him, along with his two children from his first marriage, Kojo and Ama, and a daughter, Nina, from her own previous marriage.
In New York, the elegant Annan couple became much sought-after by diplomats and other people from a range of professions. They were a reserved couple but invariably engaging. Their stunning, often glamorous appearance and grace led Ban Ki-moon to joke at a dinner welcoming him to New York as Annan’s successor that he didn’t just have to fill his predecessor’s shoes — he had to fill his suits, too.
After retiring from the UN, the Annans established a foundation in the Geneva area, where they settled in Switzerland. He took on several high-level diplomatic assignments for the UN and for The Elders, a group of former government and institutional leaders, of which he was president when he died.
His last assignment for the UN, in 2017, was chair of the advisory commission on Rakhine state in Myanmar, from which thousands of Rohingya civilians fled for their lives last summer to Bangladesh. A video of his remarks to the media on Oct. 13, 2017, his last appearance at the UN, is here.
Ghana now enters a week of mourning, and another generation of young people could be inspired by Annan’s example. Some years ago in Kumasi, where he was born, I asked a group of children gathered in a park whether they knew who Kofi Annan was.
One little boy was certain: “He’s president of the world,” he said.
To support a free press and democracy, please donate to PassBlue, a nonprofit journalism site.