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Man in the Middle

Travels with Kofi Annan

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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.

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