The Kofi Annan legacy

Nelson Mandela with Kofi Annan at the fifth Nelson Mandela annual lecture held in Johannesburg in 2007. Annan died yesterday at the age of 80. File picture: AP/African News Agency (ANA)

The passing of former United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, provides an opportunity to reflect on what makes great men great. His legacy stands side by side with fellow Nobel laureates of African descent such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Albert Luthuli, Wangari Maathai, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Barack Obama, Ralph Bunche and Desmond Tutu. 

In some respects, Annan stands head and shoulder above his Nobel peers, having made history as the first person in sub-Saharan Africa to rise to the helm of the global governing body for two terms between 1997 and 2006. If we include North Africa, he shares this accolade with the late Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian diplomat who served as secretary general between 1992 and 1996. However, unlike Annan, Boutros-Ghali served for a single term after his bid for a second term was vetoed by the US. Underlining the much-critiqued stranglehold of the UN Security Council, France – one of the five veto powers – initially opposed Annan’s appointment.

Eulogies have captured the fact that Annan had pedigree by virtue of being born in 1938 to an elite Ghanaian family, his father, Henry Annan, having been an elected governor of the Ashanti province. Because of being born in a family of Ghanaian chiefs, it is easy to conclude that Annan was born a leader. 
Snippets from his life also show that he grew into leadership.

Some have pointed out that his leadership traits – of decorum, people skills and charm – were nurtured early in his childhood as he observed the leadership styles of his father. It would appear that most great leaders have a rouble rousing youth. At an elite boarding school in central Ghana in the 1950s, Annan exhibited proclivity towards human rights when he led a hunger strike, campaigning for better food. Joining the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi in the late 1950s, it is where he would be elected the vice president of Ghana national students union. 

Leaders often have defining moments early in their careers. Annan’s early leadership traits earned him a Ford Foundation “foreign students’ leadership” scholarship. This saw to his studying economics at Macalester College, US, graduating in 1961 followed by post-graduate studies in international affairs at the Institut Universities des Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Leaders are good at creating networks and vehicles through which they pursue their goals. A beneficiary of the Ford Foundation scholarship, Annan went on to establish his own foundation working on peace, democracy, food security and youth empowerment. The networks he was involved in included the Africa Progress Panel; the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and focused on small-scale farmers;  and The Elders, an organisation established by Nelson Mandela. 

A statement from the Thabo Mbeki Foundation on his death indicates he was the organisation’s chairman. Indeed, the shock on his passing in South Africa is partly because he was one of the dignitaries at the 100th Nelson Mandela centennial celebrations in July. Part of Annan’s legacy lies in the consistency of his career at the UN. Joining the World Health Organization in 1962, Annan would stay with the UN – save for a one year hiatus in the mid-1970s – serving in the Economic Commission for Africa, UN Emergency Force, and UN High Commission for Refugees, UN headquarters, and UN peacekeeping missions. It was a natural progression culminating in his clinching the UN secretary general as the first holder of the position to have risen through the ranks rather than being appointed from outside. 

Iraq specifically, the Gulf region in general and the war on terror figure prominently in any assessment of Annan. A major low point is the oil-for-food program in which UN staff and contractors were fingered for conflict of interest in transactions aimed at easing the effects of sanctions on Iraq in the early 1990s. Damaging to his personal reputation, allegations included the involvement of his son, Kojo Annan.

One researcher has pointed out that this was due to Annan’s leadership style underpinned by delegation of duty and a laissez faire approach with regards to disciplining errant UN staff.  In elevating him to the helm of the UN, member states must have favourably considered the fact that Annan had already made a mark as “a man of peace”, for instance having negotiated the release of UN staff held hostage in Iraq in 1991 as part of the Iraq-Kuwait war. Eulogising Annan, the current UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres captured this consistency streak by saying, “in many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations”.
Leaders are masters at what they do but they are not infallible.

A major blot on Annan’s career is that as Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping operations (1993 – 1995), he failed to intervene in the 1994 Rwanda genocide during which nearly 800 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally massacred. In a similar case, the UN under Annan’s watch was blamed for ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995. Leaders however recognize, admit and learn from their mistakes. 

Annan repeatedly cited his failure in Rwanda as he advocated strong peacekeeping interventions in the world’s trouble spots such as Darfur and the DRC in Africa. Of the failures in Bosnia, Annan wrote, in 1999: “Through error, mis-judgment and an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the [Bosnian] Serb campaign of mass murder.”

A number of episodes in his career hold up Annan’s diplomatic skills. Hardly two years into his UN leadership, Annan, was faced with a deadly confrontation between some of the members of the UN Security Council and the former Iraqi strongman, the late Saddam Hussein. On Hussein’s refusal to allow UN nuclear inspectors to access sites suspected of harbouring deadly weapons, the US and Britain promptly deployed warships in the Persian Gulf ready to strike. 

France and Russia favoured a diplomatic approach with China swinging ambivalently between the two positions. In the end, Annan convinced the Security Council to take the negotiation route, traveling to Baghdad to personally negotiate with Hussein. With two options on the table; cooperate or face military strikes, Hussein demurred and a war was averted. 

It is a diplomatic skill that Annan would leverage to similar situations including after his retirement when he helped nip in the bud an ethnically-inspired post-election conflagration in Kenya pitting then president Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odingain early 2008. Within the UN system, Annan will be remembered most as a transformational leader. He downsized a bloated UN human resource and rationalized entities within months of assuming office. Analysts agree that this led to a more efficient UN system.

Perhaps more significantly, he drove the global developmental agenda for the twenty first century by convening the UN Millennium Summit of September 2000 which ultimately led to the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It was the first time the UN set time bound targets for poverty reduction and it has since been succeeded by the Sustainable Development Goals or the Agenda 2030.


Dr Bob Wekesa is a media and geopolitics scholar at Wits University.