Kofi Annan, UN chief who won Nobel Peace Prize, dies at 80

Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general and 2001 Nobel peace prize winner.
Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general and 2001 Nobel peace prize winner.PHOTO: ST FILE

ACCRA/GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) - Mr Kofi Annan, the soft-spoken Ghanaian diplomat who served as the first United Nations secretary-general from sub-Saharan Africa, has died. 

Mr Annan died on Saturday (Aug 18) after an unspecified short illness, according to a statement from his family and the Kofi Annan Foundation. He was 80. 

“Kofi Annan was a global statesman and a deeply committed internationalist who fought throughout his life for a fairer and more peaceful world,” the statement said. 

Mr Annan devoted almost his entire working life to the UN, navigating through multiple wars in the Middle East, the Balkan breakup, African genocides and a raft of other crises over a career that spanned more than five decades. 

He was the co-recipient, along with the UN, of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, to recognise “work for a better organised and more peaceful world”.

His opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 endeared him to antiwar groups and drew sharp criticism from US conservatives, including Mr John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN who became national security adviser to President Donald Trump. 

Although broadly admired as a bureaucratic reformer and quiet insider, Mr Annan was often assailed as ineffective. He was criticised for his handling of UN peacekeeping operations at the time of the genocide of Rwandan Tutsis in 1994 and the killing of Muslims from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica the following year.

His reputation was tainted further by a corruption scandal that touched his family and a failure to help resolve the Syrian crisis in 2012, when it was in its infancy. 

Peacekeeping Push

“A lot of his time as secretary-general was devoted to redeeming both the UN’s battered reputation and his own,” said Mr Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Annan and his advisers managed to nurse UN operations back to life, and launch new blue missions in trouble spots like Congo and Liberia. If Annan hadn’t pushed the UN back into peacekeeping in Africa, the organisation would be even less credible in global security than it is today.”

Following his two terms as secretary-general, Mr Annan became a member of “The Elders”, an elite group of retired liberal leaders, including Mr Nelson Mandela and Mr Jimmy Carter, partly financed by Mr Richard Branson to resolve conflicts around the world through informal counsel. 

In February 2012, Mr Annan was appointed the first UN special envoy to Syria in an attempt to end the civil war that had broken out the previous year. He resigned six months later, citing intransigence of both government and rebels. He called for UN peacekeeping troops to be deployed, but world powers could not agree to such a plan. 

Syrian Uprising

In his 2012 memoir, Interventions: A Life In War And Peace, Mr Annan wrote that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s response to the popular uprising “confirmed my more troubling suspicion that he was a man beholden to a small group of Alawite security officers and willing to employ any means to retain power”.

Nonetheless, Mr Annan maintained his stature in world diplomacy and in 2016 was appointed to head a UN commission to investigate the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. 

Mr Annan was born on April 8, 1938, in Kumasi, Gold Coast, which later changed its name to Ghana.

He attended an elite boarding school in Cape Town before studying economics at the Kumasi College of Science and Technology. He received a Ford Foundation grant to complete his studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Joins UN

After graduation in 1962, Mr Annan joined the World Health Organisation, a UN agency, as a budget officer before leaving to earn a master’s degree in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971. 

Mr Annan returned to the UN as head of personnel for the UN High Commission for Refugees in Geneva before moving to New York to become an assistant secretary-general. In 1992, after secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali established the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Mr Annan became its head. 

In January 1994, Mr Annan failed to authorise UN peacekeeping troops to seize a Hutu arms cache to preempt plans for mass killings in the capital. Mr Annan ordered the local commander not to take any action and failed to keep the Security Council informed even as the genocide had started. 

Accepts Responsibility

In his memoir, Mr Annan accepts responsibility, and writes that the UN “had no genuine, deep expertise on the country”.

Months after the Rwandan massacre, UN troops stood by as more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Serbian paramilitary units in the town of Srebrenica. Mr Annan later apologised. 

Mr Annan was appointed secretary-general in 1996 after the US said it would veto a second term for incumbent Boutros-Ghali of Egypt.

Mr Annan’s rise to head the UN was “a moment of joy and pride for me, all of us, his mates, the school, Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa”, said Nana Nsaful, 76, a school friend. 

During the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Mr Annan called on the US and the UK not to attack without the support of the UN. He later called the invasion illegal. 

"When he had the courage to describe the Iraq War as illegal under the international law, the Americans tried to destroy him," said Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large and former Permanent Representative to the UN, on Saturday.

"I salute him because he tried his best to bring peace to this troubled world and because he was a kind and gentle man," Prof Koh  wrote on social media.

"He was very popular with the western media because of his food looks, his sonorous voice and his quiet sense of humour," the veteran diplomat added. "RIP dear Friend."

Towards the end of his tenure, Mr Annan became embroiled in charges that his son, Kojo Annan, had received payments from the Geneva-based Cotecna Inspection SA, which had won a lucrative contract under the UN’s oil-for-food program for Iraq. 

Volcker’s Inquiry

An inquiry led by former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker found in September 2005 that Mr Annan knew about Saddam Hussein’s corruption of the almost US$70 billion (S$96 billion) programme and did little to stop the illegal activity. 

Mr Annan “maintained a passive attitude and made no serious effort to curtail the surcharge scheme”, the report said. His response to the smuggling “reveals a pattern of inaction and inadequate disclosure”. He finished his term at the end of 2006, succeeded by Mr Ban Ki-moon of South Korea. 

After the UN, Mr Annan, set up the Kofi Annan Foundation, which works to promote good global governance and peace. 

In 1984, Mr Annan married Ms Nane Lagergren, a Swedish lawyer at the UN and the niece of Mr Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary. His son, Kojo, and daughter, Ama, were from an earlier marriage. Mrs Annan has a daughter, Ms Nina Cronstedt de Groot, from a previous marriage.

With contribution from The Straits Times