Kofi Annan, the first and only African to serve as Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and the 2001 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, died in a Swiss hospital on Aug. 18 at 80 years old of undisclosed causes.
Annan’s residency at the helm of the UN spanned some of the turbulent episodes of its existence since it’s beginning in 1945.
A native of Ghana who counted tribal chiefs on both sides of his ancestry, Annan and his twin sister Efua (who died in 1991) were born in the rain forest city of Kumasi in 1938. Winning a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at St. Paul, Minn’s. Macalester College, he went on to graduate school at Paris’ Institute of Higher International Studies, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Briefly working at the World Health Organization, Annan went on to serve at the UN for the rest of his career.
Appointed as Secretary-General in 1997, he launched the UN Global Compact to bring global corporations together in a common push for human rights and environmental issues.
Annan was credited with reforming and restructuring the UN, while mending the tension between the intergovernmental agency and the United States. In contrast to his predecessor Egyptian Boutros Broutros-Ghali’s ham-fisted approach, Annan’s calm demeanor and deft diplomacy enabled him to secure a truce between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.
His successes were marred by charges that he was slow to address the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, resulting in the deaths of 500,000 to two million Tutsi tribesmen. He was implicated through his son in a 2005 Iraqi food for oil scam involving despot Saddam Hussein, rife with bribes, fraud, and graft. The elder Annan was later exonerated.
In 2001 Norway’s Nobel Committee made its selection for that year’s award “…in two equal portions, to the United Nations (U.N.) and to its Secretary-General, Kofi Annan “ in their efforts towards improving the globe, especially in issues of international terror and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
“In an organization that can hardly become more than its members permit, he has made clear that sovereignty can not be a shield behind which member states conceal their violations.” In 2006 he mediated a border dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula.
After leaving his post in 2006, Annan continued his push for world peace, as when he brokered an agreement to end violence in the aftermath of violence during a contested presidential election in Kenya in 2008. In a 2016 editorial for the German news weekly Der Spiegel, he made an impassioned plea for the legalization of narcotics, in the wake of mounting evidence that the war on drugs was a failure.
His passing brought tributes from across the globe, including a joint statement from Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“It was an honor to work with him in his efforts to reform the UN, strengthen global health and peacekeeping, and reduce poverty.” Ex-president George W. Bush, who clashed with Annan over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, said, “Kofi was a gentle man and a tireless leader of the United Nations.”
Bush’s successor, Barack Obama stated that Annan “…embodied the mission of the United Nations like few others.”
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu remembered Annan as representing “…our continent and the world with enormous graciousness, integrity and distinction.”