Man in the Middle
Travels with Kofi Annan
- By Stanley Meisler
- Smithsonian magazine, January 2003, Subscribe
(Page 5 of 5)
A Portuguese official urged the Secretary-General to leave his mark. In his understated way, he wrote “Kofi Annan” in a neat, clear hand, adorning his signature with nothing more than tiny letters: “U.N.”
The trip would take Kofi Annan, the Secretary- General of the United Nations and a Nobel Peace laureate, first to Vienna for a meeting with Iraqi officials and then to Africa, where he would visit four nations in eight days to continue his particular brand of relentless yet soft-spoken diplomacy. Annan, 64, has been with the U.N. for 40 years, but unlike many career bureaucrats, he doesn’t shrink from trouble and is said to grow calmer as a crisis mounts. He has represented the world body in international and civil conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor and other hot zones, and he oversaw the U.N.’s 70,000 peacekeeping troops and civilian workers from 1993 to 1996. The next year he became the seventh Secretary-General—the first to rise through the U.N. ranks and the first black “diplomat in chief.”
After the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, about which he said “we have entered the third millennium through a gate of fire,” it seemed especially important to observe Annan in action. So one day this past July, I found myself sitting on a chartered Boeing 737 at New York’s Kennedy Airport with the Secretary-General’s entourage when Annan walked up to me shortly before take-off. He touched my shoulder and, alluding to the days I covered the U.N. for the Los Angeles Times (for five years in the 1990s), gave me a warm greeting. “It’s good to see the old warrior back,” he said.
He has a soft voice and speaks English with a British- African lilt. He was born into a prominent family in Kumasi, Ghana, a British colony from 1874 to 1957, where his father, Henry Annan, managed a Lever Brothers subsidiary that exported cocoa before working for the British as governor of AshantiProvince. Kofi’s mother, Victoria, was a homemaker. His twin sister, Efua, died in 1991. Young Kofi (the name means Friday, the day he was born) started college in his home city but won a Ford Foundation grant and finished at MacalesterCollege in St. Paul, Minnesota, receiving an economics degree in 1961. He went on to graduate studies in economics at the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Études in Geneva and, a decade later, earned a master’s degree in management at MIT. Tellingly, his most advanced academic training is in getting things done.
It was after attending school in Geneva that he went to work for the U.N., as a low-ranking World Health Organization functionary. Except for an unhappy interlude running the Ghana tourism bureau from 1974 to 1976—where he said he “couldn’t move the system, there was too much red tape, too many roadblocks”—he would spend his entire career with the U.N., taking posts in Geneva, Addis Ababa, Ismailia and New York.
Annan’s colleagues trace his climb to the top of the vast U.N. bureaucracy, comprising some 15,000 employees, in large part to his efficiency, evenhandedness and dignity. “It is difficult to imagine how straightforward he is,” says Lamin J. Sise, a Gambian who has worked with Annan for a decade. “His style is very open, very inclusive. And he is that way with everyone, whether you are a king or a queen or a man in the street.” Annan was Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping when the U.N.’s police role was growing fast; though initially expected to handle only administrative and budget matters, he ended up running field operations and making policy. Turns out he was good at it and earned the admiration of diplomats and the U.N. elite alike.
Annan’s approach as Secretary-General differs from that of his predecessors. He’s a world apart from Kurt Waldheim, of course, the Austrian known to some reporters as “the Headwaiter” because he was so obsequious to the United States and the Soviet Union; Waldheim ultimately brought disgrace to the U.N. office when it was revealed that he had been a Nazi Students League member and served in a German Army unit that arrested thousands of Jews and sent them to Auschwitz. Temperamentally, Annan is a mirror image of his predecessor, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, an Egyptian intellectual who struck some observers as arrogant and alienated some diplomats, particularly U.S. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright. In Annan’s view of the U.N.’s overarching moral authority, he is perhaps closest to Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish political economist, diplomat and mystic poet who was awarded a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize in 1961 after trying to negotiate an end to civil war in the Congo and dying in a plane crash in Central Africa. Annan was then about to begin his U.N. career, as he pointed out in his 2001 Nobel address, in which he said Hammarskjöld and fellow Peace laureate, South African antiapartheid activist Albert Luthuli, “set a standard that I have sought to follow throughout my working life.”
Swedish statesmanship is something of a theme in Annan’s life. He’s married to Nane Cronstedt, a Swedish artist, lawyer and social activist—and a niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis at the end of World War II. Annan and Cronstedt met in 1981 when both worked in Geneva for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. They married in New York three years later. He has two grown children from a previous marriage, and she has one. In addition to painting and sculpting, she works on behalf of AIDS education and other U.N. causes and has written a book about her experiences accompanying Annan on official visits. The couple, who live in the official Secretary-General residence in Manhattan, blaze through the city’s highest circles, counting Mayor Michael Bloomberg among their friends. Annan is the “social star of New York society,”William H. Luers, the former president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the New York Times. Annan said he accepts social invitations and attends functions during the week (the couple reserve weekends for themselves) because the city is so vibrant that “on any subject—you name it—you’ll find someone to discuss it with.” Others divine a deeper motive, speculating that Annan recognizes the value, as few other U.N. leaders have, of mixing with important people outside politics. A clue to his effectiveness as a diplomat appears in a Times photograph of him at a Manhattan soiree with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates: Annan is doing the listening.
Annan, who is also fluent in French and a few African languages, parries as well as any diplomat, but he isn’t glib. He seems completely at ease with himself, and is often more candid than one might expect. He once told a French interviewer that he had trouble recruiting African troops to serve on U.N. peacekeeping forces because some African leaders “probably need their armies to intimidate their own populations.” And he’s egalitarian in his approach to on-the-job training. He told me he likes to meet with former leaders—to learn from their mistakes.
Nothing has tested Annan’s skill and resolve, nor tried the patience of U.S. leaders, more than his negotiations with Iraq. In 1998, Annan flew to Baghdad to negotiate an agreement with Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. inspectors to go anywhere in the nation. “Saddam is very calm and polite,” Annan told British author and journalist William Shawcross at the time. “He looks like somebody’s uncle. But if you mistake his calmness and soft-spokenness for weakness, you’re in trouble.” In that conversation, Annan invoked a comment famously made by his wife’s uncle, Wallenberg: “To do good, you sometimes have to deal with the devil.” After the Iraqis signed the agreement, the United States suspended plans to bomb Iraq, and Annan was hailed as a hero. But Hussein soon reneged on the deal, and U.S. and British forces bombed military and suspected secret armament sites throughout Iraq for four days.
Annan had been duped by the Iraqi leader and made to seem weak before the whole world. Senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, accused him of “appeasement.” Despite setbacks, Annan keeps trying. “In the kind of work I do,” he told me, “whenever you have the opportunity to try to help avoid a conflict, even if you can save only one life, it is worth it. To try, and then to fail, is not something I consider a discredit.”
Then, at the first stop on July’s trip, Annan pressed his case yet again, at U.N. offices in Vienna, where he held closed formal talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri. Iraq had barred U.N.-sponsored weapons inspectors for four years. Sabri kept listing onerous conditions for the return of inspectors, but Annan said he would not meet with the foreign minister again until Iraq allowed unconditional inspections of its weapons facilities. The talks ended without an agreement after two days.
Annan, like the Bush administration, was seeking to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. But Annan hoped he could achieve the goal peacefully—or, failing that, by multilateral military action backed by U.N. approval, not unilateral U.S. intervention. The position inflamed conservatives who believed Annan was undermining U.S. interests. A Los Angeles Times cartoonist depicted Annan as Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who tried to appease Hitler on the eve of World War II.
Vindication finally came this past November, when the U.N. Security Council, the 15-member body that sets U.N. policy, approved a United States-sponsored resolution demanding that Iraq accept weapons inspectors or face a possible invasion. Annan personally ensured the unanimous vote— he wanted Iraq to see a world united—by lobbying Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, the last holdout. At a White House meeting with Annan, President Bush thanked him for rousing the U.N. to action. At a dinner in Washington honoring Annan, CNN founder (and United Nations benefactor) Ted Turner said: “He has the toughest job in the world and everybody loves him. He doesn’t make anybody mad at him, not even Saddam Hussein.”
The middle east may preoccupy him these days, but Africa still defines him. “I feel very African,” Annan says. “My roots are deeply, deeply African.”
We stopped for fuel in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Receiving the group at the airport, Prime Minister Jean- François Ntoutoume-Emane led us past an honor guard of female soldiers in royal blue kepis and gold-trimmed capes. At a reception in a terminal, U.N. workers gathered around Annan to tell of a pressing humanitarian problem. Gabon is a rich nation, thanks to hardwood forests and oil reserves. Parents in Cameroon, Nigeria and other nations, seeking a better life for their children, arrange for them to be smuggled across the border. Some 15,000 to 20,000 foreign children are in Libreville illegally. Many roam the streets begging. The U.N. and private humanitarian groups are trying to return them to their homelands, but Gabon levies a fee on each exiting child. Annan urged advocates to lobby the government to abolish the fees.
Aboard the plane after it left Libreville, Annan, relaxing in a bright red sweater, consented to a lengthy interview. In the old days, if a journalist’s question promised to stir controversy, he would smile and his eyes would glint as he contemplated the trouble that would likely engulf him if he replied without inhibition. Then he would barge ahead and answer anyway. He laughed when I recalled that tendency. But as Secretary-General, he could no longer speak so frankly. “Words are powerful,” he said. “They consume. They can inflame. They can complicate. So given the situations I often deal with, I cannot always speak my mind as I like.”
Still, he showed flashes of the old candor. Recalling his years of work on behalf of human rights and economic growth in African nations, he criticized local leaders’ failures to follow through. “Sometimes I’m appalled by the posturing and lack of realism that goes on,” he says. The crawling pace of progress has angered him. “There are times when I became frustrated and exasperated. If you take my own country, Ghana, it became independent about the same time as Malaysia. I think about the time of independence, we had about the same amount of reserves at the Central Bank. And yet look at the difference—where Malaysia is today and where we are.” Malaysia’s gross domestic product is $10,300 per capita, while that of Ghana is $1,900. In fact, if Ghana had had a healthier economy back at the time Annan got out of college, he once said, he probably would have stayed there and worked for a big corporation, perhaps entering politics in his later years.
Thus the world would have been deprived of a diplomat whose gifts for bettering his fellow man’s lot, by many accounts, were apparent even in his childhood. After he led a hunger strike at his boarding school—the MfantsipimSecondary School in CapeCoast—to protest the food, the British headmaster capitulated and improved the cooking. Akipataki O. Akiwumi-Thompson, a Ghanian businessman and a classmate at Mfantsipim, recalls Annan’s diplomatic skills. Though seniors had the right to punish lowerclassmen for infractions like disrupting study hall or sporting dirty fingernails, Annan “had his way of talking to the seniors without antagonizing them,” says Akiwumi-Thompson. “He could calm them down and persuade them not to punish him.” The pair broke the rules on many Saturdays, he recalled, by visiting the nearest girls’ school, which they reached by pedaling their bicycles 20 miles. For that infraction, Annan’s powers of persuasion were not needed. “We were never caught,” says Akiwumi-Thompson.
Ghana is a long way from Minnesota, and Annan learned a thing or two about adapting to a foreign culture his first winter at MacalesterCollege in 1959. Seeing the earmuffs that locals wore, he couldn’t bring himself to put on such unsightly headgear—until the windchill plummeted to 35 degrees below zero and his ears stung. He ran out and bought the biggest earmuffs he could find. “The lesson,” he recalls telling students at a Macalester commencement ceremony a few years ago, “is never think you know more than the natives do.” His time there wasn’t entirely humbling. He won an oratory championship with a speech about America’s responsibility toward the newly developing nations of the world. His debate coach, communications professor Roger K. Mosvick, recalls being dazzled by Annan’s “wonderful, powerful Ghanaian Oxford-like accent.” And on the track team, he set a school record in the 60-yard dash that stood for a dozen years.
Annan, who is descended from chiefs of the Fante ethnic group in both his father’s and mother’s families, has occasionally said that he plans to return to Ghana when he retires. A decade ago, tribal elders, following the death of a paramount chief—the highest tribal post—asked if he would be interested in taking over the honored role. He declined.
A key step in Annan’s U.N. rise was engineered by the United States. In 1993, when Marrack Goulding, then Annan’s boss at the peacekeeping department, balked at the Clinton administration’s plan to replace U.S. Marines in Cambodia with a U.N. peacekeeping force, the Americans pressured Boutros-Ghali to replace Goulding with Annan because they viewed him as “more flexible.” Boutros-Ghali did so.
It was a tumultuous time to lead the blue-helmeted forces that world citizens had increasingly come to rely on to patrol cease-fire lines, protect humanitarian convoys and stem violent conflict. When ethnic carnage persisted in Bosnia, and U.N. peacekeepers were too few to prevent massacres in Rwanda, the brunt of the blame went to Boutros-Ghali and the U.N. generally, not Annan. U.N. Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor, of India, who worked for Annan at the time, says Annan wasn’t tarnished by the peacekeeping failures because “an awful lot of people saw him as someone doing the best job he could in impossible circumstances, and doing it in a way that was completely transparent.”
The United States again intervened on Annan’s behalf, in 1996. By then, relations between Boutros-Ghali and Albright had become so strained that the American ambassador vetoed his bid for reelection, though the 14 other Security Council members voted for him. Two things favored Annan’s ascension: his popularity among diplomats and staff, and his African birth. Boutros-Ghali had been elected Secretary- General after African delegates insisted it was Africa’s turn to fill the job. Now, five years later, Security Council members agreed to name another African to succeed Boutros-Ghali; Albright convinced the council it should be Annan. He was elected to a second term in 2001.
Not long after Annan made it to the top, questions surfaced about possible mistakes he had made during the Rwan da crisis. In response, he commissioned an independent probe of his actions and those of the U.N. generally. The commission, headed by former Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, concluded in December 1999 that Annan and his peacekeeping staff had failed to heed warnings of an impending massacre, and it also faulted the United States and other Security Council members for doing too little once the killings began. Annan said he accepted the report’s findings, saying: “On behalf of the United Nations, I acknowledge this failure and express my deep remorse.”
We arrived in Durban, an industrial city on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa, for a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), a body whose direction Annan has helped shape by the force of his moral authority. South Africa is the continent’s main success story. Its transformation over the past decade from a racist, undemocratic, oppressive state to a multiethnic democracy dominated by an African majority has been remarkably smooth. The nation has enormous problems—poverty, AIDS, crime, stubborn pockets of racism—but the cruel, shameful products of apartheid have disappeared, from the “whites” and “non-whites” labels on benches to segregated taxis, from prisons for political dissidents to “pass” laws restricting black Africans’ travels.
The gathering of the heads of 53 OAU delegations took place amid buoyant signs of goodwill, at least compared with my last visit in South Africa 35 years ago. This time, at the restaurant in my hotel I was served by white, black and South Asian waiters, and none seemed to pull rank on the others; a white officer led the military band that showed up at the conference’s festivities, but most of the musicians were black (except, inexplicably, for the tuba section, which was white).
The OAU, which was founded in 1963, was abolishing itself during four days of meetings and reconstituting as the African Union, patterned somewhat after the European Union. In 1997, during his first year as U.N. Secretary-General, Annan had appealed to leaders at an OAU summit in Harare, Zimbabwe, not to grant membership to anyone who came to power through the barrel of a gun. “That was a bold speech,” Salim Ahmed Salim, the OAU Secretary-General, told him afterward. “You are the only one who can make this speech and get out of here without being lynched.”
The OAU adopted Annan’s idea and drew up a charter for the African Union that prohibits membership to dictators who come to power through a coup or other unconstitutional means. The union will also have the authority to intervene in any country to halt war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. But, as Annan warned at the summit’s opening session, “Let us not imagine that, once proclaimed, our Union will become a reality without further effort.”
Behind closed doors, Annan met with a parade of leaders. Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Laurent Kabila of Congo came to discuss the causes of the bloody feuding between their nations. Annan did his best to defuse a confrontation between President Kumba Yala of Guinea-Bissau, wearing a suit and a red stocking cap, and President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, wearing a gleaming white flowing robe and an Islamic skullcap. Their two countries are tiny; neither can boast a population of as much as 1.5 million. But Yala accused Jammeh of training dissidents in Gambia and sending them off to Guinea-Bissau to bring down the government— an accusation Jammeh denied.
Annan suggested to the Guinea-Bissau president that he accept Jammeh’s offer to allow representatives of Guinea- Bissau into his country to investigate the claim. Annan also coaxed the two presidents to agree to sign a Memorandum of Understanding. The presidents hugged each other in front of press photographers outside the Secretary-General’s makeshift office at the convention center. But neither president showed up later for the signing. “Africa is in trouble with these men in charge,” muttered an African official on Annan’s staff.
Also at the conference was Nelson Mandela, and when the 1993 Nobel Peace laureate stopped by to visit with Annan, Annan graciously called in the three journalists on the U.N. trip—Carola Hoyos of the Financial Times, Shawcross and me. Mandela’s very presence commands special respect. He endured 28 years of imprisonment, inspired the struggle against apartheid, preached reconciliation upon his release, helped forge a democratic government, governed for five years, until 1999, as the first South African president ever elected by universal suffrage, and then, in a rare show of discretion, stepped down from power when his term ended.
My face must have been frozen in awe. Mandela, after chatting with Shawcross about his father, former British Attorney General Hartley Shawcross, now almost 101 years old, turned to me, smiled and said, “Why do you look so aggressive?” Then he burst out laughing. I had no reply except to laugh with him. The journalists stepped out of the suite, leaving Mandela and Annan in conversation. “There are only two people with great moral stature in the world today,” Shawcross said, pointing in their direction. “And both are Africans with gray hair.”
Sudan has been at civil war for most of its 47 years of independence, and Annan alighted in the capital of Khartoum to encourage what seemed like a promising peace process. The southern Sudanese, who are Christian and animist, have been in rebellion against a government historically dominated by northern Muslims. The war has ravaged the south and forced the northern-dominated government to spend fortunes on munitions. Peace talks involving the two sides, ongoing in Kenya, were moving toward some kind of solution. “From Ghana to the Sudan,” Annan said in a speech at the airport, “we did not fight for independence to have starvation. Those of us who fought for independence, all of us, shouted one word, Freedom. Now there are many more people hungry than ever before. So where is our freedom? Is a hungry man free?”
For the first time on the trip, Annan betrayed annoyance. He was scheduled the next morning to tour a nearby war refugee camp that U.N. officials in Khartoum said was a showcase. “So why am I going?” Annan asked pointedly. But it was too late to change itineraries, and the next morning we drove ten miles from Khartoum to the camp, our motorcade lifting swirls of sand in the desert heat.
The government-run camp was set up in 1988 to house southern Sudanese fleeing the war. The refugees, who wore Western-style shirts and trousers, looked markedly different from the northerners of Khartoum and Omdurman, who dress in turbans and loose white robes known as djellabas. The camp included a Roman Catholic church but no mosque. Chanting refugees carried signs that proclaimed in English, “Stop War,” “We need De velopment,” “No for War,Yes for Peace.” Refugee leaders, representing different tribes, addressed the Secretary-General, calling for peace, invariably ending their orations with the slogan, “Sawa Sawa.” That meant, we were told, something like “We are all together.”
Annan toured a spotless medical clinic and visited a primary school in the refugee camp, conversing with the young girls there. At the church, he addressed refugees: “Everywhere I have gone, I have the sense that the people want peace. I think the leaders owe it to you, and you owe it to yourselves, and if we all work together and put the enmities of the past behind us, we should be able to bring peace to this land. Sawa Sawa.” It’s hard to gauge what Annan’s presence in that remote outpost might accomplish, but he cannot resist preaching peace whenever he can.
Our last stop was Abuja, the new capital of Nigeria. It is a contrived city, like Brasília in Brazil, with massive new buildings and wide boulevards. It lacks the confusing twisted streets and crowding and turmoil of Lagos, the former capital, a bustling port 300 miles to the southwest. (The northern- dominated government moved the capital north to Abuja in 1991.) The Secretary-General’s children, 34-year-old Ama Annan and 29-year-old Kojo Annan had traveled to Abuja to see him. (Annan and their Nigerian mother, Titi Alakija, divorced in the late 1970s.) Ama and Kojo live in Lagos, where they work in the shipping business. “Lagos is very exciting,” Ama said. “I love it. There is nothing happening here,” she added, referring to Abuja.
The Secretary-General had gone to Nigeria to show support for the nascent democracy of Africa’s most populous country. At a breakfast for Annan put on by President Olusegun Obasanjo at the fortresslike official residence, the president sat at the end of a long marble table with a dozen members of his cabinet, the Secretary-General and his entourage. The breakfast menu was partly British, with scrambled eggs, sausages and baked beans, but mostly Nigerian, featuring akaras (savories made from black-eyed peas), ogi (a corn porridge), fried plantains, fried yams and beef stew. Annan once again spoke of the need for democracy in Africa. “In Asia,” he said, “Indonesia collapsed because it did not have a democratic base. It was built on sand.”
At a news conference, a Nigerian reporter asked the Secretary- General if he would support Obasanjo’s bid for reelection in 2003. Annan laughed. “I don’t travel around the world to cause excitement,” he said.
En route to New York, we stopped to refuel on the island of Santa Maria in the Portuguese Azores. In the airport’s small VIP lounge was a guest book filled with the signatures— and testimonials, some quite florid—of world leaders, including Fidel Castro. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, for instance, saluted the “warm, sympathetic, marvelous, generous people of the Azores who shared an Iberian heritage” with the Venezuelan people and signed his name in bold script, adding, “President of the BolivarianRepublic of Venezuela.”
A Portuguese official urged the Secretary-General to leave his mark. In his understated way, he wrote “Kofi Annan” in a neat, clear hand, adorning his signature with nothing more than tiny letters: “U.N.”
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