Kofi Annan often described himself as a ‘stubborn optimist’. Winston Churchill defined an optimist as one who “see the opportunity in every difficulty.” Kofi Annan was, indeed, an eternal optimist who always faced seemingly insuperable challenges with such optimism that in the end, would lead to a solution. Kofi – whose name means born on Friday and his middle name Atta means twin - had a twin sister, Efua, who died in 1990.
Born in Kumasi, Ghana on 8 April 1938 Kofi’s family was a mixture of Fante and Ashanti. His father, Henry Reginald Annan, was Ashanti and his mother Rose was Fante. The Ashanti are known to have been warlike, while the Fantes are laid back. Kofi had Fante qualities on the surface: gentle, soft-spoken, relaxed, but had Ashanti qualities underneath: strong, stubborn, and fought for what he believed in. In times of international crisis Kofi’s inner strength came out. That was the Ashanti in him.
I first met Kofi in Washington, D.C. in 1993. I was Namibia Ambassador to the United States while he was United Nations Under-Secretary-General and head of the Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO). He came to Washington to appear before the US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations; I was invited to attend. Kofi interacted briefly with African ambassadors and briefed us on peacekeeping operations in DRC, and Somalia, among others.
Kofi Annan visited Namibia in 1989, in his capacity as head of the Office of Human Resources Management to oversee the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Namibia. After his election as UN Secretary-General from Sub-Sahara Africa in 1997, Kofi chose Namibia and South Africa as the first countries he visited. That visit provided the opportunity for my second meeting with Kofi. He was the guest of Founding President Sam Nujoma.
In February 1997, I was part of President Nujoma’s delegation to an OAU Peace Conference on Zaire (DRC) in Lome, Togo. Unbeknown to me, Secretary-General Annan and President Nujoma met to discuss the situation in Liberia. I did not sit in the meeting. President Nujoma later called me to his room and told me Secretary-General wanted to see me to discuss Liberia. The President told me the Secretary-General was considering appointing me his special representative for Liberia. President Nujoma encouraged me to accept the appointment.
I accepted the appointment and flew to New York for debriefing. I had a detailed discussion with Annan on the key role players in the conflict in Liberia and my mandate to help find a lasting solution through elections. It was a ten thousand strong peacekeeping mission. Five years later, in April 2002, Kofi Anna called to tell me he intended to appoint me as Assistant Secretary-General in the Department of Political Affairs. I told President Nujoma and Prime Minister Hage Geingob about the call. Both encouraged me to accept. My relationship with Kofi Annan, thus, started as professional and developed into personal friendship. It took some time and little effort to get to know Kofi well, to appreciate him and to gain his confidence and, ultimately his friendship.
I started to greatly admire Kofi Annan’s unique leadership qualities both as his special representative for Liberia 1997 and especially when I became his Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. We faced multiple challenges of armed conflicts ravaging some African countries ranging from DRC and the broader Great Lakes Region, Darfur, South Sudan, Cotê d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, among the most violent and intractable conflicts.
As the first UN Secretary-General elected from the ranks of the United Nations, Annan came to office with a hard-won knowledge and appreciation for the limits of the power of the Secretary-General and the Secretariat he led. But he was equally determined not to give up in the face of challenges and setbacks – always believing that the UN could do better.
There is universal, almost unanimous recognition that Kofi Annan was the most successful and consequential UN Secretary-General, in addition only to Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, (1953 – 1964) the second UN Secretary-General. Dag Hammarskjold died in a mysterious plane crash in Zambia, while on a peace mediation Mission in the Congo in 1964. Kofi brought a vast wealth of experience and gravitas to the office of the Secretary-General.
At personal level Kofi Anna was at once reserved but not aloof. He made everyone feel comfortable in his presence. He had an exceptional empathy. Kofi got on well with everybody. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word. Kofi also had exceptional ability to trust his colleagues and his subordinates. Kofi Annan was intellectually curious with wide interests on issues of international peace and security. He was great on strategic matters and did not micromanage his subordinates. He often seamlessly combined simplicity and substance. He also had extraordinary ability to absorb an enormous amount of details on a wide range of the many conflict situations he dealt with across the world
In working for Kofi Anna, I found in him a leader who was not ego-driven. He was an enabling, an empowering leader as well as an effective manager. He had sound judgement in dealing with complex issues and complicated world leaders and peoples from different and composite cultural backgrounds and entrenched political, ideological and, at times religious positions and views. Kofi was a leader who set the big agenda, set the objective, laid out the priorities and identified the right people who could help him achieve the goals he set for himself and the United Nations. His diplomatic skills were legendary.
Among the many notable achievements were the unanimous adoption by the UN General Assembly in 2000, of the Millennium Development Goals which were drafted and elaborated in close cooperation with Theo-Ben Gurirab, then Foreign Minister of Namibia and President of the 54th Session of the UN General Assembly. In his report titled: “We the peoples,” Kofi Annan set quantifiable and time-bound targets for poverty eradication, access to education, especially for the girls and the ending of hunger.
He established the Peacebuilding Commission to deal with the economic recovery and reconstruction of the countries emerging from conflicts in the hope of preventing such countries relapsing into conflicts. He created the post of the Deputy Secretary-General and appointed the first female, Louise Frechete, former Defence Minister of Canada. The Deputy Secretary-General’s portfolio included overseeing the reform agenda of the Secretary-General. Kofi Annan restructured the operations of United Nations funds, programmes and agencies and put them under one “UN House” coordinated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Kofi promoted gender mainstreaming within all UN operations. He tried hard to implement resolution 1325 on the role of women in peace making, mediation and conflict resolution. Kofi was an indefatigable campaigner against HIV/AIDS and had successfully organized pharmaceutical companies and private businesses into a compact to raise funds and provide cheap and affordable antiretroviral medicine to developing countries.
Kofi Annan will furthermore, be remembered for the role he played in deploying for the first time a UN/AU hybrid peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Sudan, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for South Sudan that led to its independence, the implementation of the International Court of Justice ruling on the territorial dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakasi Peninsula and the deployment of the largest Peacekeeping Mission in the DRC. Kofi Annan was opposed to the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain in 2003. He called the invasion of Iraq “illegal” because it was not authorized by the UN Security Council. Annan’s opposition to the war in Iraq earned him the enmity of the George W. Bush Administration who went on a vicious campaign to denigrate him and attempting, in vain, to link him personally to the Oil-for-Food corruption in Iraq. On the other hand, his opposition to the illegal war earned Kofi “a permanent place in history as the most courageous, truthful and independent UN Secretary-General” according to Ted Sorensen, former Counsellor and speechwriter to President John F. Kennedy.
Drawing from his experience of the tragedies of the genocide in Rwanda and massacres in Bosnia, Kofi introduced new principles and standards of preventing the occurrences of the horrors of civil wars. One of the significant chances he introduced was the “Responsibility to Protect”, an enhance mandate for prompt and unified international response to massive human rights abuses within sovereign states. However, UN member states accepted the principle of the Secretary-General’s proposal at the summit of the General Assembly in 2005, but have had difficulty in accepting in practice. He also transformed the UN Human Rights Commission into the present Human Rights Council with stronger mandate to investigate human rights violations in member states.
Kofi Annan’s commitment to democracy, good governance, rule of law and respect for human rights did not endear him to those world leaders with autocratic and authoritarian dispositions, including in Africa. The death of Kofi Annan came almost two years after the demise of Hidipo Hamutenya; one year after the passing of Andimba Toivo ya Toivo; four months after professor Adebayo Adedeji of Nigeria; and one month after the passing of Theo-Ben Gurirab. I knew them all personally. They inspired and mentored me in different ways. Their departure, in succession, from this earth has brought to an end an era of a generation of remarkable extraordinary African leaders. They left a void in the lives of so many and on the continent. With Kofi Annan’s demise, Africa and the world have become Diplomatic Orphans.
Tuliameni Kalomoh is a Namibian diplomat who worked in the UN department of political affairs as Assistant Secretary-General.