By Alan Cowell
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-Qaida 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, Annan was the first secretary-general to be chosen from the international civil servants who make up the U.N.’s 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 U.S. 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, Annan traveled to Baghdad to negotiate directly with Saddam Hussein over the status of U.N. 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, Annan called the 2003 invasion of Iraq illegal and suffered an acute personal loss when a trusted and close associate, the Brazilian official Sergio Vieira de Mello, his representative in Baghdad, died in a suicide truck bombing in August 2003 that struck the U.N. office there, killing many civilians.
The attack prompted complaints that Annan had not grasped the perils facing his subordinates after the ouster of Saddam.
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, 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 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 Annan’s personal role as head of the U.N. peacekeeping operations from 1993 to 1997 – a period that saw the killing of 18 U.S. 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, U.N. 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, Annan was accused of failing to safeguard those who looked to U.N. 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, 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 Annan’s 2012 memoir, “Interventions.”
“Personal charisma is only part of the story,” 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 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.
In February 2012, Annan was appointed as the joint envoy of the Arab League and the United Nations to seek a settlement as civil war tightened its grip on Syria. But he resigned in frustration in August of that year, citing the intransigence of both sides in a conflict that convulsed and reshaped the region and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Kofi Atta Annan was born on April 8, 1938, in the city of Kumasi in what was then Gold Coast and which, in 1957, became Ghana, the first African state to achieve independence from British colonialism. Born into an aristocratic family, he had three sisters, two of them older. The third, Efua, was a twin who died in the 1990s.
After a spell at the elite Mfantsipim boarding school founded by Methodists, he went on to higher education as an economist in Ghana, at Macalester College in St. Paul, in Geneva, and at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
In 1965, he married Titi Alakija, a woman from a prosperous Nigerian family. The couple had two children, a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo. The marriage foundered in the late 1970s.
In 1984, Annan married Lagergren, a divorced lawyer working at the United Nations. She, too, was a scion of a prominent family, a niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who protected thousands of Hungarian Jews during World War II but disappeared after being captured by Soviet forces. Lagergren had a daughter, Nina, from her first marriage.
He is survived by Lagergren, along with Ama, Kojo and Nina.
Most of Annan’s working life was spent in the corridors and conference rooms of the United Nations, but, he told author Philip Gourevitch in 2003, “I feel profoundly African, my roots are deeply African, and the things I was taught as a child are very important to me.”
His first appointment with a U.N. agency was in 1962, at the World Health Organization in Geneva. Annan returned briefly to Ghana to promote tourism and worked in Ethiopia with the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa before returning to the body’s European headquarters.
Later, in New York, he worked at first in senior human resources and budgetary positions, and, in the early 1990s, the former secretary-general, Boutros Boutros Ghali of Egypt, appointed him first as deputy, then as head of peacekeeping operations.
The appointment plunged Annan into a maelstrom of conflicts where U.N. forces were deployed. As genocide approached Rwanda in 1994 – months after the downing of a Black Hawk helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the killing of U.S. service personnel – the Clinton administration in Washington had little appetite for intervention.
But on the ground, the Canadian commander, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, heading a modest force of 2,500 U.N. troops, sought permission from Annan’s office to raid an arms cache that he believed would be used in massacres. Permission was refused. Only years later, after the release of a critical report in 1999, did Annan declare that “all of us must bitterly regret that we did not do more to prevent it. On behalf of the United Nations, I acknowledge this failure and express my deep remorse.”
In Bosnia, too, the United Nations was accused of being overcautious and restricted by the mandate approved by the Security Council for the establishment of so-called safe havens under U.N. protection that proved, in Srebrenica, to be illusory. European powers opposed airstrikes to halt the advancing Bosnian Serbs, who overran Srebrenica despite the presence of peacekeeping troops from the Netherlands.
Later that year, Annan seemed to adopt a tougher line, approving the NATO bombing campaign that forced Serbia to the negotiating table for the Dayton peace accords. At that time, airstrikes required a so-called dual key approval of the NATO command and the United Nations.
“When Kofi turned it,” Richard Holbrooke, the former American envoy, told Gourevitch, “he became secretary-general in waiting.” With Washington pressing for the ouster of Boutros Ghali, Annan took office as secretary-general with American approval on Jan. 1, 1997.
He was, Power wrote, “the primary guardian of the U.N. rule book,” which insisted on the paramountcy of the Security Council as what Annan called “the sole source of legitimacy” in approving overseas interventions. Those rules were openly flouted by NATO in March 1999, with its bombing of the former Yugoslavia, forcing Annan to seek some kind of middle ground.
“It is, indeed, tragic that diplomacy has failed,” he said on the first day of NATO bombing, choosing words that largely defined the dilemmas confronting policymakers throughout and beyond his tenure, “but there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.”
“We will not, and we cannot accept a situation where people are brutalized behind national boundaries,” he continued later as the 78-day aerial campaign ended its second week of efforts to halt a crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
“For at the end of the 20th century, one thing is clear: A United Nations that will not stand up for human rights is a United Nations that cannot stand up for itself.”