Kofi Annan, Who Redefined the U.N., Dies at 80

Kofi Annan, the first black African to lead the United Nations, has died at age 80.  He served as Secretary-General at a time when worries about the Cold War were replaced by threats of global terrorism, his efforts to combat those threats and secure a more peaceful world brought him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for his extraordinary humanitarian work to revitalize the international body, and his efforts against the HIV/Aids pandemic.

“He provided people everywhere with a space for dialogue, a place for problem-solving and a path to a better world. In these turbulent and trying times, he never stopped working to give life to the values of the United Nations Charter. His legacy will remain a true inspiration for all of us.”  — United Nations

Annan, who was born in Ghana in 1938, served as the seventh UN Secretary-General, from 1997 to 2006, and was the first to rise from within the ranks of the United Nations staff.

Annan was descended from tribal chiefs on both sides of his family. After studying in Ghana and at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he joined the United Nations in 1962 as a low-ranking officer with the World Health Organization in Geneva.  On taking the helm as Secretary-General in 1997, Annan became a high-profile figure who championed human rights and urged the United Nations to protect civilians if their own governments turned on them.

In February 2012, the United Nations appointed Annan the UN and Arab League joint special envoy to Syria. Only six months later, he quit, citing increasing militarization in Syria and “the clear lack of unity” at the UN Security Council.

He was the founder and chairman of the Kofi Annan Foundation,  an independent, not-for profit organization that works to promote better global governance and strengthen the capacities of people and countries to achieve a fairer, more peaceful world. It was founded and legally incorporated in Switzerland in 2007.  He had also been a member of The Elders, a humanitarian group of a dozen leaders and activists of worldwide stature formed by Nelson Mandela and in 2013, Annan became its chairman.

Kofi’s legacy will also live on in the work of the United Nations, the institution he led so ably as secretary-general from 1997 to 2006. As the current secretary-general Antonio Guterres said so warmly in his own tribute, in many ways Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He was the consummate diplomat, listening with respect and attentiveness to all interlocutors but firm in his commitment to the UN’s values.

“He was the consummate diplomat, listening with respect and attentiveness to all interlocutors but firm in his commitment to the UN’s values.”

Never was this more apparent than in the period around the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Kofi was adamantly opposed to what he viewed as an illegal act of military aggression, and rightly fearful of the consequences of invasion and occupation not just in Iraq but across the wider Middle East. He maintained this opposition despite sustained and often personal attacks from the administration of then-US president George W Bush, which persisted for many years afterwards.

I know that Kofi took no pleasure in being right about the wisdom of invading Iraq. He was never motivated by vindictiveness. Instead, he was profoundly distressed by the war’s disastrous aftermath, the sectarian bloodletting that so scarred Iraq, the systemic violation of human rights and the rise of ever more vicious strains of extremism.

Yet thanks to his determination and refusal to compromise his independence, the UN retained its integrity and is still in a position today to work for peace and justice in Iraq and across the Middle East.

After a long life exposed to some of the worst aspects of humanity, one might easily have expected Kofi Annan to lapse into despondency or fatalism. Yet the opposite was true; he constantly declared himself to be an optimist, however challenging the environment in which he was working.

“Annan embodied the mission of the United Nations.” “His integrity, persistence, optimism, and sense of our common humanity always informed his outreach to the community of nations,”Former US President, Barak Obama

Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo on Saturday August 18, 2018, hailed the late former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as a consummate international diplomat who had brought immense pride to his country.  He ordered Ghana’s national flag to be flown at half-mast across the country and in all of the country’s diplomatic missions from Monday for the entire week.


 “To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.”  — Kofi Annan


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