Soft-spoken and patrician diplomat who redefined United Nations

Kofi Annan obituary: Ghanian became first black African to lead UN as secretary-general

Kofi Annan: Annan was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Photograph: ReuterS/Denis Balibouse

Kofi Annan

Born: April 8th, 1938

Died: August 18th, 2018

Kofi Annan, right, breaking a 12-year record for the 60 yards sprint at Carleton Stadium at Macalester College, St Paul, Minnesota in the US. Photograph: EPA/United Nations
Kofi Annan, left, with fellow students, during his younger years, as an MIT Sloan Fellow, studying copper industry, in Zambia, 1971. Photograph: EPA/United Nations

Kofi Annan, the soft-spoken and patrician diplomat from Ghana who became the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations, projecting himself and his organisation as the world’s conscience and moral arbiter despite bloody debacles that stained his record as a peacekeeper, died Saturday, August 18th, in Bern, Switzerland. He was 80.


His death, at a hospital there, was confirmed by his family in a statement released by the Kofi Annan Foundation, which is based in Switzerland. It said he died after a short illness but did not specify the cause.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, Annan was the first black African to head the United Nations, doing so for two successive five-year terms beginning in 1997 – a decade of turmoil that challenged that 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 globalisation and the struggle with Islamic militancy.

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

Revitalising the UN

He came to be likened in stature to Dag Hammarskjold, the second secretary-general, who died in a mysterious plane crash in Africa in 1961. Annan was credited with revitalising the UN’s institutions, shaping 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, he was lauded for persuading Washington to unblock arrears that had been withheld because of the profound misgivings about the UN voiced by American conservatives.

His tenure was rarely free of debate, however. In 1998, Annan travelled to Baghdad to negotiate directly with Saddam Hussein over the status of UN 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 that 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 Sérgio Vieira de Mello, his representative in Baghdad, died in a suicide truck bombing in August 2003 that struck the UN office there, killing many civilians.

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

‘Secular pope’

While his admirers praised his courtly, charismatic and measured approach, Annan 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 predecessors 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 UN 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 US 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.

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

In Rwanda and Bosnia, UN forces drawn from across the organisation’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 had looked to UN 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 became the US ambassador to 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.”

World stage

Despite the serial setbacks, Annan commanded the world stage with ease in his impeccably tailored suits, goatee 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: A Life in War and Peace" (with Nader Mousavizadeh), in The New York Review of Books.

“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.”

After Annan’s death, Bijan Farnoudi, a spokesman for the Kofi Annan Foundation, said in an email that he had lived in Geneva for the past decade, running the nonprofit. He had recently returned from a working trip to Zimbabwe “a little weakened”, Farnoudi said, “but all those working closely with him day in and day out did not see this coming.

“He worked until the very end, without giving himself a break,” he said. “And he looked strong and fit doing it.”

Kofi Atta Annan was born on April 8th, 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, Minnesota; in Geneva; and at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His first appointment with a UN agency was in 1962, at the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Annan returned briefly to Ghana to promote tourism and worked in Ethiopia with the UN Economic Commission for Africa before returning to the health organisation’s European headquarters.

Later, in New York, he worked in senior human resources and budgetary positions until, in the early 1990s, the secretary-general at the time, Boutros Boutros Ghali of Egypt, appointed him first as deputy and then as head of peacekeeping operations.

Personal life

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.

Annan married Lagergren, a divorced lawyer working at the United Nations, in 1984. She, too, was a scion of a prominent family, a niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who protected thousands of Hungarian Jews during the second World War but disappeared after being captured by Soviet forces. Lagergren had a daughter, Nina, from her first marriage. He is survived by Lagergren and his children.

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.” – NYT Service