Amongst the tributes to Ghanaian-born Kofi Annan is one from Alec Russell, the comment and analysis editor of the Financial Times
Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general (1997 to 2006), was at the helm of the UN during the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition, which came despite his diplomatic efforts to stave off conflict. His opposition to that war led to a rupture with Washington.
Hella Pick in the Guardian adds that though Annan was by nature a conciliator, a “diplomat’s diplomat”, he also had the courage of his convictions and stuck to his guns even when powerful UN members urged retreat.
“A notable example was his intervention in Baghdad in 1998 to defuse a crisis over UN arms inspections in Iraq, where he went ahead with negotiations, against strong pressure from Washington to stay away; and he spoke out against the US invasion of 2003. Similarly, he defied Britain and the US when he negotiated with Libya to end a security council stalemate over the Lockerbie bombing”.
Alec Russell adds that Kofi Annan was criticised by some when, as head of UN peacekeeping operations in 1994, he was accused of ignoring warnings from his own mission about the impending genocide in Rwanda in which up to 1m people were killed in a matter of months.
He was also in charge of the UN during the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, a humanitarian programme to relieve the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis that ended in widespread abuse and corruption.
In retirement, he served as a UN special envoy for Syria and sought to intervene in Myanmar where the government has been accused of ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.
Less well known were his efforts to improve the efficiency of agriculture in Africa
The Kofi Annan Foundation was set up in 2007 to work for a fairer and more peaceful world. One of its projects furthered his dream, which was, Russell added, to transform the lot of Africa’s smallholders so that the world’s poorest continent could feed itself:
“No farmer went unquizzed as we toured smallholdings on the rust-red earth at a blistering pace”.
Seeing agriculture as crucial to lifting tens of millions out of poverty and contributing to wider development goals, he told the FT in 2011. While much of the continent is amazingly fertile, agriculture has long been hobbled by poor infrastructure and transport, meaning that many countries cannot feed their populations, let alone export. The only way Africa could reduce hunger, he concluded, was by increasing food production:
“Africa imports $75bn worth of food each year. For a continent with all the land we have, it’s just intolerable.” Annan urged the US and Europe to remove farm subsidies to help African farmers compete on a level playing field. More detail in a report from a 2017 Malawian newspaper here.
Annan also spearheaded the fight against the HIV/Aids epidemic, which was particularly severe in his own continent and he championed the Millennium Development Goals designed to prod governments into reaching minimum standards of health, education and gender equality.
In 2000, a report from an independent commission chaired by Ingvar Carlsson found the UN culpable of weak management and oversight during his time in charge – a time when it was overstretched due to America’s failure to pay its dues. But as the late John Ferguson said in his highly recommended book, Not Them But Us: In Praise of The United Nations:
“People tend to talk about the UN as `them’. But the UN is not `them’; it is `us’. The UN has no existence apart from the nations which compose it. The Secretary-General and his staff are there to fulfil the decisions of the nations, no less and no more.
“U Thant, the first Asian to hold that office, wrote in his memoirs: `There is a widespread illusion that the Secretary-General is comparable to the head of a government. He is often criticized for failure to take an action – when over 130 sovereign member states collectively fail to act.
“The plain fact is that the United Nations and the Secretary-General have none of the attributes of sovereignty and no independent power.’ So if you hear anyone saying `The UN has failed,’ say to them, `I’m glad you admit your failure. Now what are you going to do about it?” We are the UN; its failures are our failures and its successes are our successes . . . “