Kofi Annan, seventh Secretary-General of the UN.
Kofi Annan, seventh Secretary-General of the UN. UN

His full name is Kofi Atta Annan. Many of us have not reflected on or digested the role that he has played in international relations, diplomacy, and world affairs since he took over leadership at the United Nations almost nine years ago.

We looked away out of a lack of interest in real leadership from people of African descent, we’ve been watching more hip-hop than learning about the Africa we ought to know better. We have also been pushed off by talking about the scandal at the UN.

But the Kofi Annan at the UN is the man that the world looks to for strength in today’s topsy- turvy world. In layman’s terms, he is the top-dog of the world, often holding a fragile balance of diplomacy to make sure the world is not blown apart by the irrational folks from far and near.

The “chief administrator” at the UN is from Ghana, an African nation known for its gold, ancient kingdoms, Ashanti and Fante tribes. Ghana is the country of Kwame Nkrumah, the man who championed Africa’s fight against colonial rule and helped it become the first African nation to gain independence from Britain in 1957.

Today, Ghana is also a multi-party democracy.

It’s a big deal for whoever holds the role of UN chief at any time. The UN has had only seven Secretary Generals since its founding. Annan’s tenure as chief ends in December 2006. The selection process for a new Secretary-General is often compared to the selection of a new pope because of their similarities.

While he still has 6 months to go, the bickering has already started. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is being touted as a contender because of his diplomatic, negotiation skills and connections around the world.

If it’s the big issues of global warming, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, poverty, human rights, to the basic things of electricity, sanitation, and drinkable water, no organization does more than the UN. It is the most important organization in the world today. Every UN chief is expected to play the crucial role of “world moderator” and “chief administrator” at the same time. It is even so because we live in the age of the so-called axis of evil, shoe bombs, and computer viruses and there is no job as tough as to be the man the world holds accountable if things break loose.

Annan holds the tight rope the world is now walking. “I am a cheerleader, I am a promoter, I am a salesman, I am a debt collector, I am a father confessor,” Annan said in describing his role.

Let’s look at some history.

The League of Nations was the organization that preceded the U.N. The impetus to create the League came through U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, even while the U.S. never became a member officially. At the time leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Mussolini defied it on matters of border security and arms control. They made a mockery of the institution.

In the end–the League failed and the world was plunged into the most horrific catastrophe of all times –WWII. Historians have given many reasons for why the League collapsed. One of them is a lack of leadership.

Lacking leadership meant that, as an organization, the League lacked the vision that was needed to effect change which eluded the dictators and tyrants at the time.

The U.N. which Annan now leads came into being on October 24th, 1945 after a meeting of 50 nations held in San Francisco, California. That was immediately following WWII.

Today, it operates through various organs that include the UNDP, UNICEF, the IAEA, WHO, UNHCR, and others. Since 1945, the U.N. has been through many crises. Some, like the Korean and Vietnam wars, exploded. Others, such as Kashmir, the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, have lingered, remain tense or fragile.

Yesterday-it was Asian earthquakes and Tsumani. Today, it is the bird flu and the HIV/AIDS pandemic that he has to deal it. Tomorrow, no one knows. If the Iraq war put the UN to a real test, then the current contentions with Iran have created a monumental challenge for it.

Annan is part of the UN’s brain thrust and together with 191 member nations, helps it with critical thinking and analysis about what to do and not do in matters of war and peace.

The UN is not a country it itself. Like the defunct League of Nations, it does not have an army. The UN is an entity of choice with every member voluntarily becoming part of it out of shared interests. It is bounded by set norms, guidelines, and agreements. But we live in times when it cannot afford to be seen as a failure.

The US is the largest contributor to the UN-basically contributing about a third of its budget. These contributions are dollars from every US taxpayer. The US likes to hold the UN accountable, according to members of the US congress. The UN headquarters is located in New York. The General Assembly, the yearly meeting of all 191 members of the body meets every December at its New York Headquarters. Besides the 5 permanent members of the Security Council; the US, China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany, there is a rotating membership of the council.

Here- every member nation is given a shared responsibility and opportunity to participate and make an impact on the very smallest to the toughest of decisions. The UN has its own radio and TV unit and other media to create and disseminate information.

The man from Ghana is the face of the UN, to enemies and foes alike. He is also the face of Africa to the world. We have seen his picture for many years in the major magazines that celebrate black culture and history. He was born and raised in a continent many of his admirers still dream to visit. He is often calm under pressure, like in the oil-for-food debacle involving his son Kojo. He is also very thoughtful such as during his May 2006 Newsmaker interview with Jim Lehrer on PBS.

During the interview, Annan was methodical in his answers about where he wants to lead the UN in this day and age.

He demonstrated what diplomats are made of–patience. He said his vision was to see diplomacy take its course on many of the pressing international matters of the moment in response to questions about Iran and relations between the UN and the US.

At the top of his agenda, he said, is reforms, meant to reflect the changing dynamics of the world today. Other questions included the situation in Chad and Sudan. It was talking about what the Africa Union(AU) was going to do with the Sudan crisis.  Annan lauded the role that the AU was playing to bring peace to Darfur. He mentioned the involvement of former OAU chair Salim Ahmed Salim, Nigeria’s president Obasanjo and current AU chair Denise Sassou Nguesso in bringing the warring factions in Sudan to the peace table. Days afterward, a peace deal was announced in Sudan.

He is an inspiration to many young people around the world. He gave the May 2006 commencement address at George Washington University in D.C. He received thunderous applause after his speech about the role of the UN in the world. One of the undergrad students in International Relations–speaking on behalf of her fellow graduates–said they wanted to walk in the footsteps of Annan.

He is a career UN officer who got his start at the UN in 1962. He has been Secretary-General since January 1997.

After the completion of his first term in January 2002, member nations of the UN were impressed with his performance and decided to keep him for a second term. He is the only UN chief ever to have come from within the ranks of the UN. Annan basically worked his way to be UN chief, after other positions such as an Administrator, Budget Officer, and Under-Secretary-General. As part of his job, Annan has to run-around and meet with other leaders-many of whom may not like the idea of peace with their neighbors. He continues to work around-the-clock as UN chief to get everyone to the communion table.

He is a grey-haired black man, born and raised in Ghana. He attended college in Ghana, Switzerland, and the US. The only other African to have been Secretary-General was Boutros Boutros-Ghali from Egypt.

At 68-he the father of three. Currently, he is married to Nane Maria Annan, a Swedish lawyer, and artist. He was previously married to a Nigerian, Titi Alakija.

Back in Ghana where he was born a man of his stature -in a position to be UN chief-gets a red feather in his hat. It is a sign that he not only holds an esteemed leadership role in the community–but that the wisdom of the ancestors guides his daily deliberations and decisions.

Annan was born to Henry Reginald and Victoria Annan in the Kofandros section of Kumasi in Ghana. In the Akan tradition-his name signifies the day of the week he was born and his position in the family. He was born on a Friday and is the fourth child in the family. He is also a twin(Atta in fante) and that is seen as special in Ghana. His family is part of an elite circle; his grandfathers were chiefs and his father worked as an export manager for the Lever Brothers Cocoa company and later became Governor of the Ashanti province of Ghana.

In Ghana, there is the Kofi Annan International Peace Keeping Training Center is named after him. Annan himself helped commission the center in 1998 after it was approved by the Ghana Ministry of Defence.

His accomplishment is unique for someone with his background. It’s not only working diligently within the world body, it is helping the UN define itself and its role in the 21st century. In 2001, Annan, together with the entire UN– won the Nobel Prize for Peace. It was an acknowledgment of the UN’s role “for a better organized and more peaceful world.”

He’s been under a lot of fire and lots of heat too- about the inadequacies of the UN and inability to function. We all thought he would be pressured to quit prematurely in 2005. Annan is hanging in there and seems determined to serve out his full term.


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