Antonio Guterres, current UN Secretary-General, very accurately summed up Kofi Atta Annan’s life when he described the former UN scribe as “ a champion for peace and a guiding force for good”. All through his life, peace stood at the core of both Annan’s consciousness and his philosophy for human existence. He fought for it, advocated it, and implemented it wherever and whenever he had the opportunity to do so. His three-term reign as the UN Secretary-General is profusely decorated with evidence of his love for humanity. It is not for nothing that his work received global approbation when jointly with the UN he was awarded the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.
Early Years and Education
Koffi Atta Annan was born along with a twin sister Efua Atta, who died in 1991, on 8 April 1938 in Kofandros, Kumasi, Ghana. His parents Henry Reginald and Victoria were of Asante and Fante aristocratic families, and his great-grandfather and great uncles were respected tribal chiefs. His middle name Atta means “twin” in Akan, and his first name Kofi is the Akan for Friday. He was so-named in accordance with the Akan tradition to name children based on the day of their birth or their position in the family.
He attended the Mfantsipim School, an elite Methodist school in Cape Coast, graduating in 1957 and proceeding thereafter to the Kumasi College of Science and Technology. The college later renamed the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology is where he began to study Economics. He, however, did not complete his undergraduate studies at the school as he won a Ford Foundation grant that enabled him to transfer his studies to the Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, United States. There, in 1961, he graduated. He later completed a Master of Advanced Studies course in International Relations at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He also studied for a master’s in Management in 1972 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan School of Management in the Sloan Fellows programme.
Kofi Annan joined the UN in 1962, working with the World Health Organisation at the Geneva Office as a budget officer. He went on to work in various capacities, moving from one UN office to another. He was posted to the UN headquarters, then to Ethiopia, spent one year studying for his master’s in International Relations at the MIT, and then was posted to Ghana, to manage the nation’s tourism agency. He returned to the Geneva office in 1980 to work at the High Commission for Refugees as head of personnel.
In 1983, he was posted back to New York as director of administrative management services of the UN Secretariat. He was subsequently appointed as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management and Security Coordinator for the UN system (1987), and Assistant Secretary-General for Programme Planning, Budget and Finance, and Control (1990). When the then Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali established the Department of Peacekeeping in 1992, Annan became its pioneer Deputy Under-Secretary-General, working under Marrack Goulding, the new department’s first Under-Secretary-General. In 1993, he was appointed as the Under-Secretary-General of the same department.
One significant moment in history, precisely on 29 August 1995, was to bring Annan into global recognition. He made the bold move, on behalf of the Secretary-General at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali who could not be reached, to suspend UN veto on air strikes in Bosnia. This order allowed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to engage in a sustained air campaign in collaboration with the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) ground operations to undermine the military capability of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), which had attacked UN-designated ‘safe places’ during the Bosnian War. From 1995 to 1996, he served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the former Yugoslavia.
In 1997, he became the UN Secretary-General after the US vetoed the election of Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a second term, winning an election against fellow contestant Amara Essy by a single vote. Notably, France vetoed his election four times before finally abstaining from further vetoing him. On 1 January 1997, Kofi Annan became the UN Secretary-General and was re-elected for another two terms back to back, a rare achievement by all standards.
His reign at the UN helm was marked by far-reaching reforms. He created the position of Deputy Secretary-General of the UN. He also incorporated as part of the activities of the UN partnership with civil societies and the private sector, a 10 percent reduction in administrative posts. He significantly reduced the organisation’s administrative costs and consolidated its presence at the country-level. Peacekeeping operations became stronger and began to attract greater zeal by member nations.
In 2000, he issued a report now adopted by the UN Secretariat as the Millennium Development Goals, entitled “We the People: the role of the United Nations in the 21st Century”. The report urged that the UN put people at the centre of its activities. As part of the recommendations of the report, he suggested that the UN should establish a United Nations Information Technology Services as a UN ICT taskforce. He urged that the UN and businesses guided by a principle-based framework will work together to catalyse actions in support of the UN achieving its Millennium Development Goals.
His efforts towards tackling HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases are equally remarkable, having established in that regard a global health trust fund. Perhaps his most significant achievement as UN Secretary-General is the enshrinement of the Doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, following the Rwanda genocide and accusations that the UN did not do enough to prevent the genocide from happening. Addressing the issue, Annan pointed out that member states need to decide on whether they would agree to intervention from external forces during a crisis to protect human lives or rigidly hold on to their sovereignty. In the end, and for the first time in the UN history, a resolution to intervene to protect populations at risk using both military and diplomatic measures was adopted by member nations in the General Assembly. Further landmark achievements of Annan as Secretary-General of the UN include his role in Nigeria’s return to civilian rule in 1998-1999. He was also supportive of the efforts of East Timor to secure independence from Indonesia; certified the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon in 2000, and led talks between Cameroon and Nigeria on the dispute over the Bakassi Peninsula. At some point in his career, he was rocked by accusations that he awarded contracts illegally to a Swiss inspection company Cotecna, where his son works. The scandal, popularly called the ‘Oil-for-Food Scandal’, almost tarnished his image and public approval. However, after investigations were made, he was found innocent of the charges levelled against him.
In 2001, Kofi Annan was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations for “their work for a better organized and more peaceful world”. His revitalization of the UN and prioritization of human rights and efforts to stem the spread of HIV in Africa and Third World countries were also cited as part of his merit for the award. In his farewell speech at the end of his tenure in 2006, Annan had signed off by highlighting three major problems of the world as including an unjust world economy, world disorder, and widespread contempt for human rights and the rule of law.
Post-UN Humanitarian Work
After his retirement from the United Nations, Kofi Annan began to work in partnership with other humanitarian organisations to address global humanitarian issues. He established the Kofi Annan Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that works to achieve good global governance, strengthen the economic capacities of people around the world and strive to make the world a fairer place. Following the outbreak of violence and social upheaval after the 2007 Kenya Elections, Kofi Annan headed the panel established by the African Union to facilitate reconciliation between the two aggrieved parties: President Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). The two parties eventually agreed to a coalition government.
Other involvements include his appointment as Special Envoy to Syria, chair of the Global Commissions on Elections, Democracy and Security. He also led the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State which looked into the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Shortly before his death, the commission’s recommendations were later adopted by the Myanmar civilian government. He was also a member of the Advisory Board for Investcorp Bank B. S. C. Europe, which was a private investment equity company owned by the United Arab Emirates. He was also involved with other organisations in one capacity or another including the United Nations Foundation, as member of the board of directors; the University of Ghana, as Chancellor; the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, as the Li Ka Shing Professor, and the Global Centre for Pluralism, as member of the board of directors, among many others.
Personal Life and Death
Annan was first married to Titi Alakija, a Nigerian woman from one of Nigeria’s aristocratic families. Their marriage in 1965, produced two children: a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo. However, the couple separated in the 1970s and eventually divorced in 1983. By this time, Kofi had met and fallen in love with a Swedish lawyer working with the UN, Nane, who herself was divorced and already had a daughter from her previous marriage.
On the morning of 1 August 2018, Kofi Annan died in his home in Bern, Switzerland at the age of 80 after a brief illness. His remains were taken to his native Ghana on 10 September 2018 and a brief solemn ceremony was held in his honour. Three days later, on 13 September 2018, a state funeral was organized for him at the Accra International Conference Centre. In his memory, the UN released a new stamp bearing Annan’s portrait.