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Kofi Annan: The Secular Pope who reshaped the United Nations

In the mid-1990s when the United States was mounting pressure on Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali to step down after just a single mandate at the helm of the United Nations, fingers easily turned to another African, Kofi Atta Annan, who until then was the Head of Peacekeeping Division at the very institution, having been appointed to that strategic position by Ghali himself.

With the unwavering backing of the United States, Kofi Annan, in 1997 became the first black African to head the UN. He had just made a decisive input into the Dayton Peace Accord in Bosnia in 1995 after being dispatched by Ghali as his special representative to the area. Taking the office on January 1, 1997, Kofi Annan made history by being the first UN Civil Servant to be appointed Secretary General.

His coming to office was celebrated as the comeback of Dag Harmmarskjold, who mysteriously died in a plane crash in Africa as he forged a peace deal in the Congo Crisis in 1961. A passionate believer in diplomacy over force as he spoke, dine, wine and shared cigars with all including Saddam Hussein.

He used his charisma, soft speech and physical aura to touch even the untouchable, convinced the hardliners to see the other side of life. He believed in a diplomacy that transcended the comfort zones of friends, but ventured into the dungeons of “those who are not with us” which is why when the US entente was building up against Saddam’s supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Annan break diplomatic rules by personally visiting Saddam just one year after he took office and shared cigars with him, portraying the human face of Saddam.

This made Annan to be a no respecter of great nations as he defied US advice not to step foot in Baghdad. His soft speech also informed his description of some world leaders the US and allies had described as “tyrants.”

In one of his memoirs, Annan described Sudanese President, Omar Hassan El-Bashir, as “a man who seemed cool, polite and friendly.”

Annan was seen as the “Secular Pope” of the world as he prioritised equity, good conscience, morality over the interests of great power nations which is why in many instances his decisions varied with those of the United States which supported his candidacy. Annan also defied the Security Council resolution on Libya over the Lockerbie bombing by negotiating for a diplomatic settlement.

In 2003, Annan passionately pressed for an out of battle field settlement on negotiation tables rather than militaristic solutions. He abated diplomatic protocol in many instances and expressed his heartfelt disappointment when force was prioritised over persuasion. In 2003, in front of world cameras, he described the US invasion of Iraq as an “illegal act.”

With the tragic events of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide when Annan was head of peacekeeping missions and failure to adequately response, the Ghanaian diplomat was quick to intervene in many conflicts around the world to abate a similar Rwanda situation. In 2000, he personally visited East Timor to end the bloodshed and foster stability after it declared independence from Indonesia.

Annan in African conflicts

Despite spending almost of his entire career at diplomatic meetings and the corridors of the UN, Annan declared that he still felt more African. This made him to portray an African approach to events, given priority to the classless in the society, which is why he saw a multifaceted approach to end conflicts than the recourse to force wherein the alienated suffer most. Annan took special interest in Africa and in an April 1998 report, while citing conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia and Liberia, he said “African leaders have failed the peoples of Africa; the international community has failed them; the United Nations has failed them. In this report, he also criticised international arms dealers as “those who benefit from the conflicts in Africa.”

The UN under Annan became very involved in the Sierra Leone Civil War in the 1990s and early 2000s. Annan appointed a Special Representative, Francis Okelo and created the United Nations Mission for Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). While the conflict was ongoing, Annan personally visited the war-torn and devastated country to seek for a peace settlement.

One of his greatest success stories was the UN’s intervention in the Liberian War which ran from 1989 to 2003 when a ceasefire was signed under the auspices of the UN.

It was followed with the creation of the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) in September 2003 with mandate to monitor the ceasefire agreement in Liberia after Charles Taylor’s resignation, which ended the war.

The mission was to formally end on March 30, 2018, even after Annan left. The mission has virtually served as the livewire of Liberia, helping to organise and secure its election including that which brought Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to power in 2006. It also demilitarised more than 100,000 combatants and helped trained Liberian forces and police.

The Cameroon-Nigeria conflict over the Bakassi Peninsular won a special place in Annan’s heart. With his mastery of both French and English, Annan was able to personally seduced Obasanjo and Biya to meetings even before the verdict was delivered on October 10, 2002, handing the disputed territory to Cameroon. He took a preventive diplomatic approach by coercing the two leaders to conform to the rulings of the UN’s top judicial body, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague.

Annan personally watched the progress of the implementation of the decision and on June 12, 2006. He persuaded Biya and Obasanjo to sign the Greentree Agreement, named after the New York Estate. The agreement ensured a transitional mechanism where both countries would avoid any conflicting situation. At the signing ceremony, President Obasanjo of Nigeria said, “Its significance therefore goes much beyond Nigeria and Cameroon. It should represent a model for the resolution of similar conflicts in Africa, and I dare say, in the world at large.”

His commitment to global peace and sustainable development made the current UN Scribe to describe him as the “guiding force for good.” He championed the course for the Millennium Development Goals which became a basis for development in the world.


However, Annan’s stay at the UN also left some indelible marks in his life born out of gross monumental errors. He was grossly criticised for failing to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide, being the Under Secretary General in charge of Peacekeeping operations then.

The Bosnian-Serb debacle also brought grieves to Annan as well as the killing of 18 American service personnel. This invited huge criticisms from many corners of the world including the United States which criticised the UN’s lacklustre attitude in intervention.

This pushed the US to cut its finances and the UN was on its knees when Annan was taking over. Annan saw himself as a man with a good intention whose hands were tied before human sufferings.

In 2004, while serving his last term of office, Annan was caught in the web of a corruption scandal involving his son Kojo Annan who worked for Cotecna Inspection Services, a Swiss company which had just won a very lucrative humanitarian contract in Iraq.

However, a Commission of Inquiry later on founded that Annan did not influence the contract but failed to act enough to forestall any dirty deals.

His huge success at the UN made him to present a useful case even after leaving office. In 2008, using his charm and personality, he persuaded Kenya leaders to sign a peace deal ending post-election violence which cost more than 1,300 lives. On February 29, 2012, Annan was appointed Mediator to the Syrian conflict, but his passion for morality over interest, persuasion over force caused him to resign just six months into the job, blaming world leaders for protecting their interest over the lives of Syrians.

Family Life

Despite his prominent public lifestyle, Annan also had a family side, being married twice; first to Titi Alakija from a prominent and wealthy Nigerian family in 1965. The marriage produced two children; Ama and Kojo, but crumbled in the late 70s. In 1984, Annan remarried his colleague, Nane Lagergren, a Swedish Lawyer working with the UN.

She was also coming from a failed marriage which had produced a daughter and was six years Annan’s junior. Until his death last Saturday at a Swiss hospital after a brief illness, Annan was 80 and would be remembered for being one of the finest diplomats and peace crusaders of his time which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

Born Kofi Atta Annan on April 8, 1938 in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi into a family of four, Kofi was a twin, but lost his sister in the 1990s. He studied in Ghana and later on in Switzerland and the United States.

At 26, he joined the United Nations’ World Health Organisation as Budget Office but for a very brief respite, he spent his entire career at the UN occupying even the top most position.

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