Kofi Annan: A Global Icon | Daily News

Kofi Annan: A Global Icon

Kofi Annan, who passed away on Saturday in Geneva at the age of 80, may have been African but he was a true citizen of the world who almost single handedly reshaped the mission and vision of the United Nations which he headed from 1997 to 2006. Midway through his two terms, he won the Nobel Peace Prize along with the UN for their work for a better organised and more peaceful world.

Kofi Atta Annan was born on April 8, 1938, into an elite family in Kumasi, Ghana, the son of a provincial governor and grandson of two tribal chiefs. He shared his middle name Atta - “twin” in Ghana's Akan language - with his twin sister, Efua. He became fluent in English, French and several African languages, attending an elite boarding school and the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi.

After studying in Ghana and at Macalester College in St. Paul, in the US state of Minnesota, he joined the United Nations in 1962 as a low-ranking officer with the World Health Organization in Geneva. His initial plan was to stay on only for a few years but he ended up working there almost for the rest of his life, until he became its Chief. He was the first African to hold the post of the “world’s top diplomat” and also the first to climb to the top from within the UN. The fact he was selected uncontested for a second term speaks volumes about Annan’s commitment to the UN.

Incidentally, Annan’s passing away occurred just a few days after the loss of an equally high profile black global icon – Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and a few months after the birth centenary celebrations of legendary South African statesman Nelson Mandela, which Annan attended.

“In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations,” current U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said. “He rose through the ranks to lead the organisation into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination.” In fact, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), largely envisioned by Annan, are regarded as his prime legacy. They made a visible transformation in the developing world and have now morphed into Sustainable Development Goals, to be attained by 2030. He also played a central role in creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the U.N.'s first counter-terrorism strategy.

Called by Bill Gates as “one of the greatest peacemakers of our time”, Annan nevertheless faced one of the most turbulent periods in human history while helming the UN. He bitterly opposed the Iraq War along with most Members of the UN and regularly sparred with the leadership of the US, which led the war. "I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war, and the fact that we could not stop it,” Annan said in a February 2013 interview with TIME magazine.

There were other dark moments too. Just before becoming Secretary-General, Annan served as U.N. Peacekeeping Chief and as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition in Bosnia from U.N. protective forces to NATO-led troops. The U.N. peacekeeping operation faced two of its greatest failures during his tenure: the Rwanda genocide in 1994 in which around 800,000 people were killed and the massacre of Muslim boys and men in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995. This was to haunt him for the rest of his life and he admitted that more should have been done to prevent both atrocities. As Secretary-General, Annan turned these experiences into a doctrine called the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) - that countries accept- at least in principle - to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

At a farewell news conference, Annan listed as top achievements the promotion of human rights, the fight to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth and the U.N. campaign to fight infectious diseases like AIDS. Even out of office, Annan never completely left the U.N. orbit. He engaged in special roles, including as the U.N.-Arab League's special envoy to Syria in 2012. He remained a powerful advocate for global causes through his Kofi Annan Foundation until his death. He also joined The Elders, an elite group of former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, eventually succeeding Desmond Tutu as its chairman.

At the end of his Nobel acceptance speech Annan reminded the world why the UN mattered to him and the entire world. “Beneath the surface of states and nations, ideas and language, lies the fate of individual human beings in need,” he said. “Answering their needs will be the mission of the United Nations in the century to come.”

Indeed, when he departed from the United Nations in 2007, he left behind a global organisation that had undergone a radical transformation internally and was far more aggressively engaged in peacekeeping, fighting poverty, human rights and social development. The UN is still not perfect and more reforms are needed, but Annan was a guiding light who showed that global cooperation under the UN principles can create a perfect world. 

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