Kofi Annan was the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, serving two five-year terms, from January 1, 1997 to January 1, 2007. Annan replaced departing Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, becoming the first person from a black African nation to serve as Secretary-General of the UN. On December 10, 2001, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee said that Annan “had been pre-eminent in bringing new life to the Organization.”
Annan was born in Kumasi, Ghana on April 8, 1938, to Henry Reginald Annan and his wife Victoria. He was born into an elite family in the Akan ethnic group, the largest of Ghana’s indigenous tribes. Annan had two grandfathers and an uncle who were chiefs of tribes deeply involved in Ghana’s gold trading. When his father retired as an export manager for Lever Brothers, he (the father) was elected governor of Ghana’s Asante province.
Annan in 1954 entered the elite Mfantsipim School, a Methodist boarding school, which to this day he credits with teaching him “that suffering anywhere concerns people everywhere.” His first political activity was organizing a successful hunger strike by students seeking better cafeteria food there.
Annan began his higher education in 1958, studying for a degree in economics at the Kumasi College of Science and Technology (which was later renamed the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology of Ghana, after the Communist-allied founder of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party). With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, Annan later completed his undergraduate degree in economics from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1961. In 1961 and 1962 he studied economics at the Institut Universitaire des Hautes Etudes in Geneva, Switzerland. As a 1971-1972 Sloan Fellow, Annan earned a Master of Science degree in Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He speaks fluent English, French and several African languages.
Annan joined the United Nations system in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer with the World Health Organization (WHO). Promoted rapidly through many different UN offices, he was appointed Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations in March 1992 and Under-Secretary-General in March 1993. Later that year, Annan was promoted by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to the top post for Peacekeeping.
In 1994 Annan was criticized by Canadian ex-General Roméo Dallaire, who was force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Dallaire alleged that Annan had been largely unreceptive to calls for UN troops to be sent to quell the genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority by members of the Hutu majority. Dallaire maintained that Annan particularly had failed to respond to calls asking for admittance to a weapons depository, which could have aided in the defense of the threatened Tutsis. Annan’s reputation for being too passive in the face of military conflict would haunt him throughout his career.
By 1995, Annan oversaw 70,000 military and civilian personnel from 77 countries working in 17 peacekeeping operations worldwide, and was credited with successes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and failures in Somalia.
On December 13, 1996, the United Nations Security Council recommended Annan for the position of Secretary-General, to which he was confirmed four days later by a vote of the General Assembly. Annan began his first term as Secretary-General on January 1, 1997.
In his personal life, Annan is married to lawyer-artist-author Nane Annan, the half-niece of anti-Nazi human rights activist and defender of Jews Raoul Wallenberg, who died in Soviet captivity. They are the parents of three children.
One of those children, son Kojo, was employed by the Swiss company Cotecna until approximately 1998, when he left and became a contract consultant. Soon thereafter (in 1998), this company was appointed by the United Nations to administer the flow of $100 billion in the UN-overseen Oil-for-Food program in Iraq.
This program was supposed to provide food and other necessities for impoverished people in Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, which was then under international embargo for refusing to disarm and to allow unfettered UN weapons inspections in the wake of the first Gulf War. The program was to allow the sale of a certain amount of Iraqi oil, and to ensure that revenues from those sales not be used by Hussein to acquire weapons or enrich himself.
This Oil-for-Food program was ultimately under the direct control of Kofi Annan, who signed off on every aspect of it, including the selection of a company with links to his son to administer it. The program’s Executive Director, Benon Sevan, was a veteran diplomat and close friend hand-picked for the job by Annan.
And Annan, according to his official UN biography, “led the first United Nations team negotiating with Iraq on the sale of oil to fund purchases of humanitarian aid” long before he became Secretary-General. He fully understood the issues involved and the potential for corruption.
In 1998 Annan met with Saddam Hussein to discuss the Iraqi leader’s failure to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions set forth after the Gulf War. During the meeting, Saddam protested the economic sanctions imposed by the UN on Iraq. In turn, Annan criticized Saddam for having refused to permit UN arms inspectors to properly carry out their investigations. In the end, Annan failed in his diplomatic efforts, and on December 16, 1998, the UN ordered all weapons inspectors out of Iraq.
Despite the setback, Hussein and Annan developed a mutual admiration, and Annan managed to gain the respect of the Iraqi leader, who even invited him back to Iraq for a vacation. Of Hussein, Annan said, “Saddam is very calm and polite … But if you mistake his calmness, soft-spokenness for weakness, you’re in trouble.”
Despite Iraq’s continued failure to comply with UN resolutions calling for the return of weapon inspectors, Annan stipulated that the U.S. and its allies should not invade Iraq without the support of the UN. The UN, however, was becoming increasingly irrelevant with each resolution Hussein ignored.
On October 11, 2002, the U.S. Congress granted President Bush the authority to attack Iraq if Hussein did not openly give up his weapons programs. On November 9, 2002, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, offering Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations” that had been laid out in ten previous resolutions — specifically, to provide “an accurate full, final, and complete disclosure … of all aspects of its programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.” Iraq once again failed to comply, and on March 19, 2003, the U.S.-led coalition launched its invasion.
By 2004 a major scandal began to emerge involving the Oil-for-Food program. Evidence suggests that perhaps $10 billion was diverted or skimmed from the program in various ways. Contracts were signed with companies that did not even exist, or that apparently charged inflated prices and kicked back part of the gain to Saddam Hussein (and perhaps to UN officials also). Many of these companies were based in Russia and France, both of which have veto power on the UN Security Council, and both of which opposed U.S. efforts to remove Hussein from power.
Among the biggest oil beneficiaries of the UN program reportedly was a close political and financial advisor to [French] President Jacques Chirac, Patrick Maugein, CEO of the oil firm SOCO International. Other contracts were with companies that had close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Investigator Claudia Rosett of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute described the Oil-for-Food program as a “tidal wave of graft.” It was Kofi Annan’s man Sevan, noted Rosett, who “began treating as confidential such vital information as the names of specific contractors, quantities of goods, and prices paid,” thereby deliberately making outside scrutiny of the program difficult.
Annan, who famously said “I think I can do business” with Saddam Hussein, said he wanted an investigation of the Oil-for-Food program, but the United Nations subsequently refused to turn over its documents to independent investigators and auditors. The Swiss company Cotecna and the key French bank BNP Paribas likewise refused to turn over their records. All insisted upon doing their own internal audits with no outside scrutiny.
Whatever money was stolen or misused in the UN Oil-for-Food program was stolen from the poor and needy people of Iraq. Evidence suggests it was Kofi Annan’s lack of proper oversight of the program that — whether through corruption or incompetence or both — may have prevented those people from getting the supplies they needed.
“It is highly possible there has been quite a lot of wrongdoing,” Annan said of the Oil-for-Food scandal. In April of 2004, he finally appointed an independent, high-level inquiry committee into the alleged abuses of the program. In its final report the committee did find fault with the program’s Executive Director, Benon Sevan, but cited insufficient evidence to indict Annan on any illegality.
On September 19, 2006, Annan delivered his farewell address at the UN headquarters in New York, prior to his official retirement on December 31. In that address, Annan pointed to the three major troubles he believes are still affecting humanity: “an unjust world economy, world disorder, and widespread contempt for human rights and the rule of law.”
Annan’s successor as UN Secretary General was Ban Ki-moon of the Republic of Korea, who took over the position on January 1, 2007. At the time of his election to this post, Mr. Ban was the Republic of Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Once retired, Annan returned to his native Ghana. In 2007 he was selected for the MacArthur Foundation Award for International Justice, in honor of his “life work” which “embodies the values of justice and human rights and the eternal hope for a humane, peaceful world that justice makes possible.”
Also in 2007, Annan founded the Global Humanitarian Forum, an international project dedicated to dealing with “the mega-disasters from [the Indian Ocean] tsunami to Katrina to the Asian earthquake.”
In January 2014, Annan traveled to Iran with several members of the so-called “Elders” — an independent group, founded by Nelson Mandela, of global leaders “who work together for peace and human rights.” One of the Elders who accompanied Annan on the trip was Desmond Tutu. According to Iranian media, the trip began “with a visit to the mausoleum of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini” where the former UN Secretary General “praised the role of the Islamic Republic, especially in the area of peace.” Fars News described Annan as “paying tribute” to the Ayatollah.
In Ghana, the Asante King has given Kofi Annan a title usually reserved for kings — Busumuru, which means “wise advisor.”
He passed away on August 18, 2018.