Kofi Annan: global statesman leaves a mixed legacy

The former UN secretary-general sought a better world but leaves one more turbulent than ever before

FILE PHOTO -  Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan participates in a panel discussion at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, September 24, 2009.  REUTERS/Chip East/File Photo
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A proud son of Africa. A global statesman. A guiding force for good. And a self-proclaimed stubborn optimist.

As the tributes poured in today for the late Kofi Annan, who died in Switzerland, surrounded by his family, one thing was clear: admiration for the Ghanaian, who rose to the highest rank in the United Nations, was universal and came from all quarters, crossing political affiliations and geographical boundaries. The tributes came from political leaders, freedom fighters, friends and opponents alike. As his successor, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, said: "In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations".

When he joined the United Nations in 1962 as a 25-year-old, the organisation – set up in the wake of the Second World War to prevent another catastrophic conflict – was even younger than he was. At its foundation, it had 51 member states; there are now more than 190. “The UN can be improved,” he admitted in a BBC interview on his 80th birthday in April. “It is not perfect but if it didn’t exist, you would have to create it.”

Annan rose through the ranks to become the first black African secretary-general, serving two terms from 1997 to 2006. His legacy is a mixed one; he conducted himself with dignity, quiet determination and charisma, guided by his conviction that mediation and dialogue could effect a peaceful outcome.

He devised the Millennium Development Goals still in use today and a UN philosophy called the “responsibility to protect”, which member states pledged to abide by.

He oversaw Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 2001. After leaving the UN, he formed his own foundation and joined The Elders, a group of former leaders founded by the late Nelson Mandela.

But his position also led to criticism over UN failures to act, most notably in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. And while he decried the 2003 invasion of Iraq as “illegal”, he did not do so publicly until 2004.

Annan was also challenged over failing to investigate corruption allegations against his son Kojo in Iraq’s oil-for-food programme. “I think that my darkest moment was the Iraq war and the fact that we could not stop it,” Annan said recently.

In many ways, his personal failures were the failures of the UN as an institution; where it, and he, fell short was an inability to prevent catastrophes on a global scale. He recognised this by resigning as special envoy to Syria after a frustrating seven months in 2012 as Security Council members embarked on their own course of action.

But what is in little doubt is that he was guided by a higher-minded purpose and the need to find "a path to a better world". Ghanaian flags will be flying at half-mast this week for the national son who became an international hero.