By Winston A. Tubman
Even by life spans in developed countries, the death at 80 of Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary general of the United Nations and the first and only sub-Saharan African to hold that exalted position was premature and a great loss to the entire international community.
When civil conflicts convulsed Liberia seemingly interminably, Kofi Annan stepped forward to focus international action on Liberia’s pitiful plight. Of course, Liberia was not the only African country experiencing meltdown and crumbling governance following the end of the cold war. As Representative of the Secretary General to one such country, Somalia, I found out firsthand that not every country needing international intervention was able to attract it. UN Security Council peacekeeping authorizations do not happen automatically. Circumstances, personalities and at least one of the P-5 veto wielding members of the Security Council must all be in sync for any peace keeping mission to be undertaken. Crucially for Liberia in its hour of peril, Kofi Annan as secretary general was the indispensable factor.
Even after ceasing to command the UN with all its experience and global clout, Kofi Annan continued; sometimes single handedly to work for peace: in Syria, Kenya, West Africa, the Middle and Far East plus for a profusion of other places and causes literally up to the day he died.
Since Kofi Annan publicly declared the war in Iraq illegal, one often hears reference made to the oil for food scandal from which in fact Annan was exonerated as a stain on his UN stewardship; it was no such thing! The real scandal was how masses of vulnerable people in Iraq including infants were rendered destitute and starving until the UN egged on by Annan’s can do leadership developed a scheme for the humanitarian needs of Iraq to be met from some of the proceeds of its own oil sales. I was privileged to work with Annan during grueling sessions of negotiations with reluctant, angry Iraqi officials. Afterwards we engaged friendly oil producing countries like Norway to assist UN bureaucrats to undertake oil operations and transactions; albeit not totally without mistakes. Such a matchless man of poise and peace who unfailingly rose up with energy and imagination to tackle new and difficult challenges for the world will likely not soon be seen in the world again.
Immediately upon taking charge of the world’s governments at the United Nations, Kofi Annan turned a laser-like focus upon “we the people”; upon the individual, upon persons; the seminal, catalytic instrument by which good things on Earth become better. With his ever gentle voice, unhurried unthreatening motions and friendly flashing eyes Kofi Annan attracted nations and people, from all walks of life to see him as a friend and benefactor. It was during his watch at the UN that the world body became universal, the default protector of human rights and caretaker of the environment, the only space this side of Heaven where man may live, move and have his being. SG, he famously said, stood more appropriately for ‘scape goat’ rather than for secretary general. If the UN did not exist it would have had to be created. The only alternative to the UN in today’s world he maintained was chaos.
Hailing from Africa the least developed and poorest of the continents, he had little besides his personality and charisma to persuade people and nations into action. In this respect, no other secretary general surpassed him.
Kofi Annan became my friend and mentor long before he became UN Secretary General, in which position we often found ourselves in far flung corners of the globe battling tough international crises; but always never forgetting and discussing about Africa our common birthplace and home. Thus we were in the wintry Balkans far away from sunny West Africa when he was summoned back to UN Headquarters in New York and began the majestic inexorable climb which saw him, first from the ranks of the secretariat to be elected to the helm of the world body. Later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace plus many other high honors and distinctions, even long after he had left the UN.
When Kofi Annan appointed me Representative of the Secretary General for Somalia, friends asked me: “Wasn’t Annan supposed to be your friend? Why then did he give you such a “Mission Impossible?” Mission Impossible could and did become Mission preparation. Thus when time came for Kofi to step down from the post of UN Secretary General, in one of our conversations, I think it was in Paris I urged him to seek the presidency of his country Ghana just as I was planning to do in mine, Liberia. He politely declined! Nevertheless, the Mandela like aura which he had acquired by the time of his home going as the worldwide praise and lamentations bestowed on him since then attest cannot but inspire people of goodwill, especially the young to lift up our respective countries; not all of them at once altogether in one giant stride but country by country and principally by the people of each country themselves. May God grant that this becomes the legacy which Kofi Annan a great and beloved son of Africa leaves behind for people everywhere to emulate and embellish!