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Man in the Middle

Travels with Kofi Annan

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.”

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