Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1407, (30 August - 5 September 2018)
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1407, (30 August - 5 September 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Son of Africa

Obituary:Kofi Annan (1938-2018) 

Kofi Annan (1938-2018)
Kofi Annan (1938-2018)
Al-Ahram Weekly

Kofi Annan, the first United Nations secretary-general from Sub-Saharan Africa, died in Switzerland on 18 August at the age of 80. He will be buried in his home country Ghana on 13 September.           

Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said that there would be a full state funeral for Annan, “befitting his status as a global icon, diplomat and statesman”.

Annan and the UN were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2001 “for having revitalised the UN and for having given priority to human rights.” The Nobel Committee also acknowledged Annan’s efforts to contain the spread of the HIV virus in Africa and his declared opposition to international terrorism.

The Ghanaian career diplomat became the 70th secretary-general of the UN from 1996 to 2007, a decade spanning the 11 September attacks in the US in 2001 and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Having joined the UN at the age of 24, Annan continued to rise until he was appointed deputy secretary-general for peacekeeping operations from 1993 to 1997. It was during his tenure there that two of the worst 20th-century genocides occurred in Rwanda and Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Annan failed to stop and continued to mark the more controversial aspects of his legacy.

In Rwanda, Hutu soldiers and militias killed 800,000 members of the Tutsi ethnic group throughout 100 days in 1994. And in 1995, 8,000 Muslim Bosnians were killed by Serbian forces in the town of Srebrenica during the Bosnian War.

According to Romeo Dallaire, who was leading the UN’s peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda, Annan ignored his warnings of the impeding violence against the minority Tutsi group and instead ordered him to pull out the UN peacekeeping troops.

“We could have actually saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But nobody was interested,” Dallaire told the news channel CNN in 2008.

Later as UN secretary-general, Annan expressed his remorse for the two massacres. “All of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent it,” he said of the genocide in Rwanda.

Annan blamed reluctance among battle-worn world leaders at the time for the failure to send troops into Rwanda. In a 2004 speech he said that the international community failed Rwanda, “and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow.”

If the international community had acted promptly and with determination, it could have stopped most of the killing. “But the political will was not there, nor were the troops.”

If the United Nations, government officials, the international media and other observers had paid more attention to the gathering signs of disaster, and taken timely action, the massacres might have been averted. “Warnings were missed,” he admitted. “I recall a 1993 report by a United Nations special rapporteur that spoke specifically of an impending catastrophe.”

“I myself, as head of the UN’s peacekeeping department at the time, pressed dozens of countries for troops. I believed at that time that I was doing my best. But I realised after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support. This painful memory, along with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has influenced much of my thinking, and many of my actions, as secretary-general,” he said.

In 1999, Annan said the UN Security Council should have approved “more decisive and forceful action to prevent the unfolding horror” in Srebrenica. “Not since the horrors of World War II had Europe witnessed massacres on this scale. The tragedy of Srebrenica will haunt our history forever,” he said.

Annan criticised the Security Council, staff at UN headquarters, himself included, UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica, and the six-nation “Contact Group” that oversaw the Balkans.

But he insisted that primary responsibility lay with wartime Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief Ratko Mladic, who orchestrated the systematic killings.

Annan was born in 1938 to an influential family in Ghana and attended schools in the United States and Switzerland. In 1972, he earned a Master of Science degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

In 2008, he successfully brokered a peace agreement that ended post-election violence in Kenya after violent clashes had left hundreds of people dead following the 2007 elections. He is also credited for his efforts to end Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon and its subsequent withdrawal in 2000.

Annan’s tenure at the UN, however, was overshadowed by claims of corruption during the oil-for-food programme established in 1996 to provide relief for Iraqi citizens suffering because of the trade embargo imposed on Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Under the programme, Iraq was allowed to sell oil under UN auspices and to use the money to buy food and medicine and pay war reparations.

A UN-appointed panel investigation in 2005 investigating allegations of corruption delivered scathing criticisms of Annan’s management of the $64 billion programme and concluded that his son Kojo Annan had taken advantage of his father’s position to profit from the system.

Paul A Volcker, who headed the independent inquiry, told the Security Council in September 2005 that “our assignment has been to look for mis- or mal-administration in the oil-for-food programme and for evidence of corruption within the UN organisation and by contractors. Unhappily, we found both.”

“We have found no corruption by the secretary-general,” Volcker said, but “his behaviour has not been exonerated by any stretch of the imagination.”

Investigators concluded that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had raked in $1.7 billion in kickbacks from participating companies and $11 billion in oil-smuggling profits. Among the most volatile allegations were suspicions that Kofi Annan had steered lucrative Iraqi oil contracts to a Swiss company Cotecna that had put his son on its payroll.

Despite the personal damage to Annan, the scandal boosted reform efforts within the UN. 

Annan opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which he said breached the UN Charter and described as “illegal,” leading to a dispute with the US and Britain. He later served as the UN special envoy for Syria.

Annan has been mourned by world leaders and by the Arab League. South Africa’s leadership described him as an “eminent and distinguished son of Africa.”

He is survived by his second wife, Nane and stepdaughter Nina, and by a son, Kojo and daughter, Ama, from his first marriage to Titi Alakija.

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