All “great men” are creatures of contradiction. They ignite just as much as they resist public opinion; prima facie, they may prove compelling but, on closer inspection, may also offer profound simplicity. Russian-British political theorist, Isaiah Berlin, maintained that, “a great man is a man in public life, one who deliberately causes something important to happen, the probability of which seemed low before he took up the task. [One] who gives history a turn which it could scarcely have taken without him. They give history a twist which nobody would have predicted.”
Kofi Annan was, in this sense, a great man. He led the most important organization in global cooperative history at arguably one of the most intransigent periods of contemporary history. One cannot speak about him without speaking about the United Nations, where he held a job that transformed into a calling, and eventually earned him the sobriquet of “the epitome of international diplomacy.” For many from Ghana, where he was born in 1938, and the African continent, he was much more than the silver-maned protector of peace, decency and good sense: the mere mention of his name was a source of comfort and motivation.
In 1997, Kofi Annan became the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, and would serve in that capacity until 2006. Having joined the UN in 1962, he was the first to emerge from the organization’s multiplicitous bureaucracy. In 2001, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the organization he represented for, “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.” Under Kofi Annan’s direction, the United Nations launched “a comprehensive programme of reform aimed at revitalizing” its processes. The overarching themes guiding his leadership were fiscal consolidation, advocacy for human rights, respect for international law, stronger ties with the corporate and civil sector, a push for a more inclusive and progressive society—The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’S)—and maintaining the impartiality and moral superiority of the United Nations. The final point is summed up in an account Annan gave in an interview with The Financial Times in 2011.
“At one lunch,” Annan recalled, “UN ambassadors were discussing something and Bolton (Former US Ambassador to the UN) said, ‘Uncle Sam is not going to like this.’ So I said, ‘Look, stop going around trying to intimidate people. Let them speak their mind, and you can put your views across, but don’t try to intimidate them with Washington and Uncle Sam.’ And of course, the Council members were all relieved to hear that.”
The emergence of the twenty-first century highlighted a plethora of issues for the United Nations and, personally, for Annan. According to the University of Pretoria’s Danny Bradlow, “Annan was the head of UN Peacekeeping operations in the 1990s when two of the biggest failures in UN history happened. Under his watch both the Rwandan genocide and the massacres in Srebrenica took place.” This strengthened his resolve as Secretary-General to prevent the likelihood of future atrocities, and he put forth “The Kofi Doctrine”, which later came to be known as the “Responsibility to Protect.” He argued that the umbrella of sovereignty was obsolete when the lives of human beings tilted in the balance. His position faced stiff opposition and, despite being widely accepted, still does in certain quarters.
The Responsibility to Protect redesigned the chain of command surrounding organizational procedures at the UN Headquarters in New York. It encouraged a strengthened peacekeeping role for regional organisations such as the African Union, and enabled the rapid deployment of specially trained reaction forces at short notice. Inevitably, the question of what Kofi Annan’s time at the helm of United Nations’ affairs meant for Africa in concrete terms is always asked. Hence, it is important to point out that he was not the first African to head the United Nations. The distinction rests with his immediate predecessor, the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali. However, as the first black African and a native of Ghana—a country that holds a significant place in the consciousness of Africans—his ascent to a position of global political influence had substantial impact on the continent. When engaging with the continent’s diverse leadership, Annan usually maintained a neutral position, choosing at most junctures to lecture broadly and at certain instances to speak truth to power on behalf of the United Nations and the people of Africa. In 2000, in a speech in Niger, Annan delineated his philosophy:
We have learned that power has to be shared in the home, between men and women, and from there on up to the highest levels of the state, and indeed of the international system. Oppression is not an alternative to poverty. Nor is development an alternative to freedom. Poverty and oppression go hand in hand, while true development means freedom from both. My generation of Africans has learned the hard way that no state can truly be called democratic if it offers its people no escape from poverty, and that no country can truly develop so long as its people are excluded from power.
Annan grew up at a time of heightened colonial agitations within Ghana and was very much a young adult when Ghana became independent in 1957. Ghana’s independence affirmed to him that seismic change across the continent was only possible with brave action and, importantly, that this change could come about without the sound of gunshots and the prevalence of violence. His reserved style of diplomacy was, quintessentially, his own; a style he attributes to his upbringing in Ghana.
He said that, “growing up as a child in Ghana, there was always someone to talk to, someone to go and seek advice from: uncles, cousins, aunts, grandmothers. They used lots of proverbs to teach. I could have worked into my father’s office and said I’m so upset with that boss of mine; I’m going to the office tomorrow to tell him off. He would probably say son sit down and look at me and say ‘you don’t hit a man on the head if you’ve got your fingers between his teeth’ and that would be it and I have to walk away and figure it out.” To some, Annan was more secretary than general but it is impossible to dispute the impact he had in maintaining peace at a time of structural upheaval within the world order. The collapse of the USSR, the dominance of the US and the proliferation of insurgencies, non-state conflicts and global terrorism were considerable challenges for the United Nations and still are.
During his time in office, Annan engaged with broad initiatives. In 1998, he worked with Nigeria to ease its democratic transition and was also significant in mediating “a settlement between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula through implementation of the judgement of the International Court of Justice.” He was involved in the peace initiatives in Colombia, by working with Chavez of Venezuela and Castro of Cuba to implement collective pressure on the process. In 2006, he was active in ending the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. A few years before, in April 2001, he issued a “call to action” to address the scourge of HIV/AIDS. This call led to the establishment of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria “dedicated to the battle against HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases” and the founding of a permanent secretariat for the fund in 2002. Annan, however, credited one of his proudest moments to be ensuring the independence of East Timor. In 1999, he spearheaded international support for self-determination of the Southeast Asian country. East Timor became an independent state on the 20th of May 2002 seizing control of its territory from Indonesia and, subsequently, joined the United Nations
After 44 years with the United Nations, Annan retired at the end of his tenure as Secretary-General. He set up the Kofi Annan Foundation to promote good governance and a more just society. He remained ever busy, as he was often called upon surreptitiously to intercede in a whole range of conflicts and crises. Sometimes his involvement was more overt, like his appointment as the Joint Special Envoy for peace in Syria and his direction of rapprochement processes in Kenya. After the outbreak of mass violence during the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya, he famously stated, “I will not leave Kenya until peace is found.” Annan then proceeded to head a panel that brought about peaceful settlement of differences and created a coalition government between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga after 41 days of intense negotiations. In 2007, he became chairman of both The Elders and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an initiative geared towards ensuring food security for the African continent.
At the age of 70, Kofi Annan was still “walking fast and operating an intense daily schedule.” By 2008, he had been appointed Chancellor of the University of Ghana, Chair of the Africa Progress Panel, and Chairman of the prize giving committee of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The prize—a lump sum of $5million, and an annual sum of $200,000 for life—is given to an African leader, who “steps down when they should, runs democratic elections and safeguards their national exchequers from corruption.”
In 2014, during a One Young World forum he “encouraged 1,300 young leaders from 191 countries” to challenge existing narratives and lead on “intergenerational issues” such as climate change. He advocated the need for urgency in tackling obstacles to progress, asserting that:
We don’t have to wait to act. The action must be now. You will come across people who think we should start tomorrow. Even for those who believe action should begin tomorrow, remind them tomorrow begins now, tomorrow begins today, so let’s all move forward.
For the world and, especially, the African continent, there is no doubt that greater individuals to come will be empowered by the actions of Kofi Annan, and the grace with which he handled global affairs. There is, also, little doubt that building on his legacy, many will go on to accomplish even greater things. Isaac Newton is often paraphrased as saying, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”, and Kofi Annan has sculpted a giant shoulder for many more to look ahead in the quest for a better world. He said: to live is to choose, but to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there⎈