|The news came light a thunderbolt. Even at the ripe age of 80, the world mourned the passing of one of the iconic figures of the last century. It is not every time that the news of the passing of a grand old man elicits such universal outpouring of eulogies. But the former Secretary-General of the United Nations Organisation, UNO, Mr. Kofi Annan was no ordinary man. Annan died recently in Bern, Switzerland, after a brief illness. Truth is, he never really looked 80, but more importantly his legacies attracted the heavy outpouring of grief and heartfelt tributes from world leaders. He was one of the world’s authority figures in matters of war and peace. He was the chairman of the Elders, an international organisation of a few select men of substance and wisdom founded by venerable Nelson Mandela. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, a prize he shared with the UN, the organisation he devoted a lifetime serving.
Annan was born in Kumasi, Ghana, and enrolled in 1958 to study Economics in what is today the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He subsequently received a Ford Foundation grant which enabled him to continue his studies at the Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, United States in 1961. He then went on to study International Relations at the Graduate Institute of International Development Studies, in Geneva, Switzerland, from 1961-62. In 1971-72, he studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management where he earned a master’s degree in management.
His first point of contact with the UN was as a budget officer for the World Health Organisation in 1962. He later worked in most UN departments in different capacities. The last position he held was Deputy Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, before he was elected the Secretary-General. He is the first staff of the UN to be elected its secretary general.
His election was welcome with both arms in the world, Africa, and the UN as an institution. For Africa, replacing Boutros Ghali could have meant completing the second tenure of the Algerian, but Annam earned a second term. He was a diplomatic rock star. He knew the international system and its nuances inside-out; he had laboured in every nook and cranny of the UN system. He was by nature a humanitarian, a man of courage and conviction. The robust health programmes of the UN, including HIV-AIDS, Malaria, and others, the Global Fund, the Millennium Development Goals, are part of his legacies. He instituted the most ambitious programme to fight poverty ever imagined and being a practical man, he made sure he set the markers in specific terms and because of his work, every year, many more millions would be freed from poverty all over the world.
Annan urged the UN to “free our fellow men and women from the abject and dehumanising poverty in which more than 1 billion of them are currently confined.” Conscious of the criticisms of the UN system in the United States and elsewhere, he initiated a total overhaul of UN administration and ensured he brought it into the 21st Century. No other Secretary-General would have been able to do it. He cut costs, straightened out and closed loopholes and made the institution self-accounting. He was allergic to corruption and worked to stamp it out of the UN system. Although at a point he was accused of corruption in the World Food for Peace project in Iraq. He was later exonerated.
From Darfur to Lebanon through Bosnia to East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and the cauldron in the Middle East, the UN Secretary-General’s schedule would turn a young man grey in a year. Because he was a man of principles, he was always certain when to tell people ‘no.’ It is part of his extraordinary gifts that he was able to say no without giving great of- fence. His relationship with the US was based on his courage to help in the peace efforts in Bosnia. The US sulked when he warned her not to invade Iraq without obtaining a resolution of the Security Council as demanded by the UN Charter. When he was ignored, he labeled the war illegal which irked the Americans to no end. This incident is one of the main factors that obscured his excellent relations with Washington. He didn’t win all the time as he is human after all. His “stubborn optimism” blindsided him on Rwanda. The slaughter of 800,000 men, women and children, in an African country, did not cross his imagination, although this happened before he became secretary general. He tried to make amends by initiating the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine by which the UN can no longer watch but must act to protect endangered vulnerable communities. Back home, he was effective in Nigeria’s transition to civil rule, a service he continued in 2015.
Annan was married with children. May his tribe increase not only in Africa but the world. Rest in peace!