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Man in the Middle

Travels with Kofi Annan

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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.

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