The secretary general of the United Nations is charged with the unenviable duty of safeguarding international peace and security, with few tools at his command other than political antennae and the powers of persuasion. Kofi Annan, who has died aged 80, brought strong moral convictions, careful judgment and a quiet determination to the task of demonstrating that the secretary general’s post is relevant to the search for solutions to some of the more acute problems confronting the international community.
He was elected to the office in 1996 at a time when the world body’s peacekeeping operations were overstretched, the vital US commitment to the UN was at a dangerous low and there was a widespread feeling that the UN had lost its way. A likable and popular choice as secretary general, Annan was a firm believer in multilateral solutions, but also recognised that the UN had to be revitalised and streamlined, and its purposes redefined to respond to the challenges of globalisation.
He saw it as a top priority for the UN to focus more constructively on the elimination of poverty in the developing world. Annan also argued that the UN membership must accept limits to the doctrine of national sovereignty: he had become convinced that the UN was entitled to intervene to prevent ethnic conflict and human rights abuses within nation states.
Personal diplomacy has always been an important element of the UN secretary general’s work. Dag Hammarskjöld, the first holder of the office, asserted that he represented not only the member states but also the charter of the UN itself.
Annan, the seventh holder of the post, shared Hammerskjöld’s definition of the job. Though his personality was very different, a combination of self-assurance, self-control and unpretentiousness enabled him to make the most of opportunities to act as an honest broker. He was by nature a conciliator, a “diplomat’s diplomat”. But he also had the courage of his convictions and stuck to his guns even when powerful UN members urged retreat. A notable example was his intervention in Baghdad in 1998 to defuse a crisis over UN arms inspections in Iraq, where he went ahead with negotiations, against strong pressure from Washington to stay away; and he spoke out against the US invasion of 2003. Similarly, he defied Britain and the US when he negotiated with Libya to end a Security Council stalemate over the Lockerbie bombing.
Annan’s approach to personal diplomacy was a study in contrast to his immediate predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose imperious character had antagonised member countries to such an extent that the Security Council refused him a second term in 1996 and instead sought out a “safe pair of hands”. The Americans championed Annan, and he won easily enough.
Unlike the previous holders of the secretary general’s office, Annan was a classic insider who had spent his entire working life within the UN system. When he joined the UN civil service in 1962, he could not have envisaged that his career ladder would stretch all the way up to the 38th floor of the UN headquarters in New York, where the secretary general has his spacious office. It was without precedent.
One of four children, and a twin, Annan was born in Kumasi at a time when the city was the provincial capital of the Ashanti tribe, the aristocracy of the Gold Coast – as Ghana was known while it remained a British colony. His father was a cocoa buyer for Unilever. Kofi was sent to boarding school in the Gold Coast and went on to the College of Science and Technology in Kumasi. He described his childhood as “a tribal life in a tribal society”. This, he said, shaped his character: “I have always preferred to lead the simple life, since it gives you more freedom and room for manoeuvre in adjusting to any setting in which you find yourself.”
Ghana gained its independence in 1957. A year later, Annan won a Ford Foundation scholarship to study in the US, at Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. He went to Geneva for graduate studies in economics at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales. There he also perfected his French and joined the World Health Organisation as an administrative officer in 1962.
Annan took time off from UN work in 1971-72, to gain a master’s degree in management at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Afterwards, in a steady progression of jobs both within the UN secretariat and with US specialised agencies, Annan served with the UN Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva and with the UN Emergency Force in Egypt. From the mid-80s onwards, he was firmly anchored at UN headquarters in New York, occupying a series of high-level positions, including under-secretary general of peacekeeping operations, 1993-95. In 1995, Boutros-Ghali sent him to Bosnia to act as the secretary general’s special representative to the former Yugoslavia to oversee the implementation of the Dayton peace agreement in Bosnia.
Annan had his first direct experience of Saddam Hussein, when he was sent to Baghdad in 1990 to negotiate the repatriation of 900 international staff and the release of western hostages in Iraq. After the end of the Gulf war, he led the UN team that negotiated with Iraq under the terms of the security council resolution to ease sanctions far enough to permit limited sales of Iraqi oil to pay for medicines and other humanitarian aid to Iraq.
The UN civil service cheered when Annan was elected secretary general, not only because one of their own had made it to the top, but because they had confidence in him and believed that he could lead the UN out of the doldrums. Within a year he cut 1,000 jobs, and set up a cabinet system composed of handpicked senior officials to whom he delegated a great deal of decision-making. But he was rebuffed when he also tried to secure some control over the UN’s specialised agencies, such as Unesco and WHO, to end overlap and budgetary excess.
The budget-cutting exercise was part of Annan’s effort to persuade the US Congress to support the UN and to authorise payment of America’s huge budget arrears. But while it was important to secure friends in high places in Washington, Annan always saw it as his main concern to use the UN for the fight against poverty, injustice and disease in the less advantaged member countries.
To mark the millennium he issued the report We the Peoples: The Role of the UN in the 21st Century, which called on member states to commit themselves to an action plan to end poverty, improve education and reduce HIV/Aids. He developed his own “Kofi doctrine” that sovereignty could no longer be a shield against UN intervention on behalf of “we, the peoples”.
Having been directly involved with peacekeeping before becoming secretary general, Annan was familiar with the shortcomings of UN operations. He not only tried to strengthen the organisational back-up in New York but called for member nations to organise rapid reaction forces, specially trained and available to assemble and operate at short notice. He also supported the practice that regional organisations – such as the Organisation of African Unity or Nato – should act as surrogates for the UN to supply peacekeepers for crisis areas.
Annan summed up his philosophy in a speech delivered in Niger in 2000: “We have learned that power has to be shared in the home, between men and women, and from there on up to the highest levels of the state, and indeed of the international system. Oppression is not an alternative to poverty. Nor is development an alternative to freedom. Poverty and oppression go hand in hand, while true development means freedom from both. My generation of Africans has learned the hard way that no state can truly be called democratic if it offers its people no escape from poverty, and that no country can truly develop so long as its people are excluded from power.”
In 2001, the year he began his second term in post, Annan was awarded the Nobel peace prize, with the committee describing him as Africa’s foremost diplomat. In 2006, at the end of his second term as UN secretary general, he nominally retired. In fact Annan devoted the last decade of his life to using his diplomatic skills to promote the ends to which he had always been devoted: peacemaking, human rights and economic development.
In 2007 he established the Kofi Annan Foundation. In 2013 he became chair of the Elders, a group founded by Nelson Mandela of retired world statesmen who meet regularly and make behind-the-scenes interventions in search of conflict resolution. Briefly, in 2012, he acted as a special envoy of the UN and the Arab League in Syria, but abandoned the task after realising that he could do nothing to end the conflict. He was still at work during his last few months as the head of a commission seeking to resolve the Rohingya crisis in Burma.
Naturally, Annan was not without his critics. He was often accused of being too cautious, most notably in Rwanda, where he was said to have failed to understand in time the gravity of the conflict and most notably the genocide. More recently there were question marks about an oil-for-food scheme in Iraq in which Annan’s son had a marginal involvement. An inquiry concluded that Annan was in no way involved.
Annan is survived by his wife, Nane (nee Lagergren), whom he married in 1984, and a stepdaughter, Nina; and by the son, Kojo, and daughter, Ama, from his first marriage, to Titi Alakija, which ended in divorce.
• Kofi Atta Annan, diplomat, born 8 April 1938; died 18 August 2018