Kofi Annan, Former U.N. Secretary-General, Dies At 80

Kofi Annan, who served as Secretary-General of the United Nations at the dawn of the "War On Terror," has died at the age of 80.

Kofi Annan, the Ghanian diplomat who served as Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 through 2006 and was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in international relations, has died at the age of 80:

Kofi Annan, a soft-spoken and patrician diplomat from Ghana, who became the seventh secretary general of the United Nations, projecting himself and his organization as the world’s conscience and moral arbiter despite bloody debacles that left indelible stains on his record as a peacekeeper, died on Saturday. He was 80.

His death, after a short illness, was confirmed by his family in a statement from the Kofi Annan Foundation, which is based in Switzerland.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, he was the first black African to head the United Nations, and led the organization for two successive five-year terms beginning in 1997 — a decade of turmoil that challenged the sprawling body and redefined its place in a changing world.

On his watch as what the Nobel committee called Africa’s foremost diplomat, Al Qaeda struck New York and Washington, the United States invaded Iraq, and Western policymakers turned their sights from the Cold War to globalization and the struggle with Islamic militancy.

An emblem as much of the body’s most ingrained flaws as of its grandest aspirations, Mr. Annan was the first secretary general to be chosen from the international civil servants who make up the United Nations’ bureaucracy.

He was credited with revitalizing its institutions, crafting what he called a new “norm of humanitarian intervention,” particularly in places where there was no peace for traditional peacekeepers to keep, and, not least, in persuading Washington to unblock arrears withheld because of the profound misgivings about the body voiced by American conservatives.

His tenure was rarely free of debate, and he was likened in stature to Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary general, who died in a mysterious plane crash in Africa in 1961.

In 1998, Mr. Annan traveled to Baghdad to negotiate directly with Saddam Hussein over the status of United Nations weapons inspections, winning a temporary respite in the long battle of wills with the West but raising questions about his decision to shake hands — and even smoke cigars — with the dictator.

In fact, Mr. Annan called the 2003 invasion of Iraq illegal and suffered an acute personal loss when a trusted and close associate, the Brazilian official Sérgio Vieira de Mello, his representative in Baghdad, died in a suicide truck bombing in August 2003 that struck the United Nations office there, killing many civilians.

The attack prompted complaints that Mr. Annan had not grasped the perils facing his subordinates after the ouster of Mr. Hussein.

While his admirers praised his courtly, charismatic and measured approach, he was hamstrung by the inherent flaw of his position as what many people called a “secular pope” — a figure of moral authority bereft of the means other than persuasion to enforce the high standards he articulated.

As secretary general, Mr. Annan, like all his predecessor and successors, commanded no divisions of troops or independent sources of income. Ultimately, his writ extended only as far as the usually squabbling powers making up the Security Council — the highest U.N. executive body — allowed it to run.

In his time, those divisions deepened, reaching a nadir in the invasion of Iraq. Over his objections, the campaign went ahead on the American and British premise that it was meant to disarm the Iraqi regime of chemical weapons, which it did not have — or, at least, were never found.

Iraq also brought embarrassment closer to home when reports began to surface in 2004 that Mr. Annan’s son, Kojo Annan, worked for Cotecna Inspection Services, a Geneva-based company that had won a lucrative contract in a vast humanitarian program supervised by the United Nations in Iraq and known as oil for food.

A commission led by Paul A. Volcker concluded that the secretary general had not influenced the awarding of the contract, but had not investigated aggressively once questions were raised.

The secretary general said he took the commission’s findings as exoneration, but his reputation suffered, particularly in the eyes of adversaries in Washington.

In assessing his broader record, moreover, many critics singled out Mr. Annan’s personal role as head of the United Nations peacekeeping operations from 1993 to 1997 — a period that saw the killing of 18 American service personnel in Somalia in October 1993, the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans in the genocide of 1994, and the bloody massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995.

In Rwanda and Bosnia, United Nations forces drawn from across the organization’s member states were outgunned and showed little resolve. In both cases, troops from Europe were quick to abandon their missions. And in both cases, Mr. Annan was accused of failing to safeguard those who looked to United Nations soldiers for protection.

“Annan felt that the very countries that had turned their backs on the Rwandans and Bosnians were the ones making him their scapegoat,” Samantha Power, an author who later became ambassador at the United Nations during the Obama administration, wrote in 2008. “But he knew that his name would appear in the history books beside the two defining genocidal crimes of the second half of the 20th century.”

Despite the serial setbacks, Mr. Annan commanded the world stage with ease in his impeccably tailored suits, goatee beard and slight, graceful physique — attributes that made him and his second wife, Nane Lagergren, a global power couple.

He seemed to radiate an aura of probity and authority. “How do we explain Kofi Annan’s enduring moral prestige,” the Canadian author, politician and academic Michael Ignatieff wrote in a review of Mr. Annan’s 2012 memoir, “Interventions.”

“Personal charisma is only part of the story,” Mr. Ignatieff wrote. “In addition to his charm, of which there is plenty, there is the authority that comes from experience. Few people have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords and dictators. He has made himself the world’s emissary to the dark side.”

The desire to burnish his legacy seemed to motivate Mr. Annan long after Ban Ki-moon replaced him as secretary general, and he set up a nonprofit foundation to promote higher standards of global governance. In 2008, he headed a commission of eminent Africans that persuaded rival factions in Kenya to reconcile a year after more than 1,000 people were killed during and after disputed elections.

More from The Washington Post:

Kofi Atta Annan was born with a twin sister on April 8, 1938, in Kumasi, Ghana — in what was then the British colony of the Gold Coast. His father was a senior buyer of cocoa for the Anglo-Dutch corporation Unilever. He named his son in the Ghanian Akan language: Kofi means “born on Friday” and Atta means “twin.”

After attending schools in the Gold Coast, Kofi Annan won a Ford Foundation scholarship to Macalester in Minnesota. After graduating in 1961 with an economics degree, he found work as a junior administrative and budget officer with the U.N.’s World Health Organization in Geneva.

Mr. Annan had begun to attracted wider notice at the start of the Persian Gulf War. On a special mission to Baghdad as chief of personnel, he helped persuade the Iraqis to release 900 U.N. employees and dependents held as hostages. He also organized an airlift of hundreds of thousands of Asian workers back to their original homes.

Boutros-Ghali pulled Mr. Annan out of the U.N.’s bureaucratic dullness in 1992, naming him deputy chief of peacekeeping, the most dramatic work of the U.N. The next year, Mr. Annan was promoted to chief of peacekeeping with the rank of undersecretary general, the highest in the U.N. civil service. Mr. Annan presided over a record expansion of peacekeeping to 75,000 troops in 19 missions.

In his new role, Mr. Annan drew strong criticism from some journalists and activists for failing to sound the alarm about the threat of impending genocide in Rwanda. Mr. Annan and his aides worked behind the scenes to prevent the unfolding killing in Rwanda, but they said the forces of ethnic hatred were too strong to temper. When the massacres erupted, the U.N. Security Council, led by the United States, did little to stop them; hundreds of thousands were killed.

Mr. Annan’s first marriage, to Titilola Alakija of Nigeria, ended in divorce. In 1984, he married Nane Lagergren, a Swedish lawyer and jurist. Her uncle was Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II and disappeared mysteriously in 1945 while in the custody of the Soviet army.

Besides his wife, survivors include two children from his first marriage ; and a stepdaughter . A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Though soft-spoken, Mr. Annan was often eloquent. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo just three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and his acceptance speech took note of that terrible day.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “we have entered the third millennium through a gate of fire. If today, after the horror of 11 September, we see better, and we see further — we will realize that humanity is indivisible. New threats make no distinctions between races, nations or regions. . . . A deeper awareness of the bonds that bind us all — in pain as in prosperity — has gripped young and old.”

Richard Haas, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, remembered Annan on Twitter this morning:

As did the official account for the current Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres:

And Guterres posted this on his own account:

As with previous Secretaries General, Annan had no real authority to enforce his vision and relied mainly on his diplomatic experience and the moral authority that his position offered to push forward his vision of the world. In some cases, such as the crisis in the Balkans and the genocide in Rwanda, both of which were well underway before he took office in 1997 but which he was unable to make any progress in either case. He also had the misfortune of being in the position of being Secretary-General at the dawn of the War On Terror, a time during which the U.N.’s message and mission have become blurred and in some cases entirely irrelevant. Perhaps Annan’s most prominent role during that time was the role he played in the run-up to the Iraq War, which he openly opposed, and the failed efforts of the U.N. and other international organizations to prevent that war arguably significantly diminished whatever power he had. One area where Annan did succeed was in making long-needed reforms to the bureaucracy of the United Nations that had been the subject of complaints from the United States, and was the main reason that the U.S. had vetoed the idea of a second term for Annan’s predecessor Boutros-Boutros Ghali.

After leaving his position at the end of his second term, Annan served in a variety of other ways and was, for a brief period of time, an envoy in Syria attempting to prevent the protests in Syria in 2011 from devolving into civil war. He left that position after only a few months,though, since it quickly became apparent that neither side was interested in a peaceful resolution of the brewing conflict. Seven years later, the situation in Syria is perhaps among the worst humanitarian disasters since the end of the Second World War. Annan deserves at least some credit for trying to solve the problem before it blew up out of control, but in retrospect it was clear that any such efforts were doomed to fail.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, Quick Takes, United Nations, World Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Mister Bluster says:

    The Lord had the wonderful advantage of being able to work alone.
    Kofi Annan

    1938-2018 RIP




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