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Kofi Annan, the first black African to lead the United Nations died at the age of 80. The Kofi Annan Foundation, which he founded and was the chairman of issued a statement on social media around his death.
“It is with immense sadness that the Annan family and the Kofi Annan Foundation announce that Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Laureate, passed away peacefully on Saturday 18th August after a short illness. His wife Nane and their children Ama, Kojo and Nina were by his side during his last days.”
Kofi Annan, born in Ghana in 1938, served as the 7th UN Secretary-General (SG), from 1997 to 2006, and was the first to rise from within the ranks of the United Nations staff. He had also been a member, since 2007, of the Elders; a humanitarian group of a dozen leaders and activists of worldwide stature formed by Nelson Mandela.
The UN Years
As an important historical figure who played massive roles in many key events of the 1990s and 2000s, Kofi Annan’s death is an opportunity to celebrate his life and to assess his contributions to the world.
As with most world leaders, his legacy is complex.
During his tenure as both the head of United Nations peacekeeping and SG, human tragedies were marked. More than 800,000 Rwandan civilians, for example, were killed during an ethnic genocide that occurred between April and July in 1994. Similarly, in 1995, while Mr Annan was serving as the Special Envoy to former Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serb armed forces in the town of Srebrenica killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims within 10 days in a UN safe area.
In both cases, Kofi Annan was under fire for failing to do more to prevent the atrocities. His role in these events raised difficult questions about individual responsibility and the role of international organizations in creating peace.
Despite these failures, Kofi Annan’s achievements in the UN were many.
When he took over the organization it was facing multiple challenges. Arguably the most prominent was a hostile relationship with the US - it sits most powerful member state, inability to fulfill peacekeeping and a difficult budgetary situation.
By the end of Kofi Annan’s term, things looked better. The UN had a good fiscal position, the relationship between member countries had been restored and both he and the organization were awarded the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize
The United Nations under his leadership launched relevant initiatives. For example, it adopted the Millennium Development Goals, which contributed to better health care, education and human welfare in many countries like Sweden, Nigeria, Denmark, and Malawi. The initiative set a foundation for global cooperation that eventually led to the Sustainable Development Goals.
Furthermore, the International Criminal Court was established and began prosecuting war criminals around the world. Annan also started the process of reorienting the UN’s focus towards human rights issues, embodied of course by the establishment of the Human Rights Council in 2006.
After the United Nations
Kofi Annan’s good work did not end with the United Nations.
After stepping down from the UN, in 2012 he served for 6 months as its special envoy for war-torn Syria. A post he later resigned from in protest over a lack of unity by world powers. Annan also chaired an independent commission investigation into Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, which saw more than 700,000 people last year alone fleeing the country to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Interestingly, he had a role to play in Nigeria’s 2015 elections. The diplomat was a member of the UN peace accord committee alongside Gen Abdulsalam Abubakar and Bishop Mathew Kukah. Through the committee, the 2015 Presidential candidates, Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari were made to affirm their commitment to a peaceful electoral process.
Notably, Kofi Annan’s impressive trademark attributes include his tremendous introspective ability and his inability to become overwhelmed by any seeming infallibility. He, for instance, owned up to the failures of his leadership of UN peacekeeping during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda. And through his ability to accept he could be wrong, he gave others the allowance to do so too.
Kofi Annan’s greatest legacy will, however, not be his historic accession to the leadership of the United Nations. Nor will it be his charming use of the media and his position to shine a spotlight on issues that needed the eyes of the world. It will be his effect on young people, many of them African, who grew up with him as their Secretary-General and will believe they too can serve the world in as high a position. That legacy is unlikely to be ever forgotten.