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As Kofi Annan passes on

As Kofi Annan passes on

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Sonala Olumhense

Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary-General who died two weeks ago, was always something of a curiosity to me.

I met him in Somalia in 1994 when he visited Mogadishu in his capacity as Assistant Secretary-General.  I worked in the UN Mission there, which was under his supervision

It was while he held that office that the genocide in Rwanda, in which over 800,000 were killed. The Force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda blamed the genocide on Mr. Annan having been “overly passive” in his responses.  When he rose to Secretary-General, Annan accepted the criticism, as he did of the Srebrenica massacre, admitting he “could and should have done more.”

While I had been excited when he assumed that office, I was an objector to his second term, given that he had got into office in the first place to finish the Africa tenure which was begun by Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

In “Not Another UN Secretary-General,” a 2000 article in The Guardian (Nigeria), I criticized his ambition, as well as African leaders who appeared to see the position as an African chieftaincy to be consolidated in the hands of a “son” of Africa.

But Africa did not need a child in New York, I believed, it needed development in Africa.  And a New York chieftaincy did nothing to fulfill that need.

If genuine advancement was the objective of African leaders, I argued, then they should have been making a different calculation, and I offered three suggestions:

“…The first is to take away the burden of Africa’s debt – not put her on a diet of grants and loans – and let Africa run on its own talent and steam. The next would be to help to rebuild Africa’s schools and libraries.  Thirdly, how about a scheme that would provide opportunity and challenge for Africa’s brightest young brains and inventors who are often now having to be rescued from war while their leaders loot the treasuries and hide the money in the developed economies?”

Days later, in New York, after I confirmed to my boss that I was indeed the author of the article, which I had written while I was on vacation in Nigeria, I was frozen out of my job.

Let the evidence show that Annan retained the chieftaincy. But what about Africa’s challenges?

It is somewhat curious, isn’t it, that despite the presence of the UN in Africa for so many decades, allegedly pursuing Africa’s best interests, the continent remains in a terrible state.

The answer is not difficult to find: African leaders.  And that was where I thought Annan had the loudest voice since—or alongside—Nelson Mandela to make a difference.

In his first speech to leaders of Burundi in January 2000 in Tanzania after he assumed duty as Facilitator of the Burundi Peace Process, Mr.  Mandela looked from one face to the other and told them they were the only problem Burundi had.

“The fact that women, children and the aged are being slaughtered every day is an indictment against all of you,” he thundered, comparing them to barbarians.  “Why do you allow yourselves to be regarded as leaders without talent, leaders without vision?”

It was a brutal but frontal admonition, and it led to immediate progress.  I was confident the same strong kick in the derriere, and eyeball-to-eyeball candor, was what African leaders needed.  In an article in OVATION, I urged him to seize the opportunity.

But Annan had exchanged his courage for his second-term chieftaincy, and the bureaucrat-turned-diplomat, a massive voice in all things multilateral, could find no voice among his own people. And rather than focus on the challenges at home, those leaders travelled in style to New York each year to spend vast sums in development funds.

There are people who offer the excuse that Annan’s was a global rather than African appointment.  To which I reply in the famous words of a wise man: “If you want to do it, you’ll find a way.  If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

Nonetheless, Annan continued the tradition of his predecessors in strongly affirming the mission of the UN. In his own case, his greatest contribution was in pushing for the reform of the Organization, a process that stalled after he left office.

But roses have thorns: during his tenure he endured the invasion of Iraq, which he described as illegal but could do nothing about.  The United States took no recognition of the Organization or of Annan.

And the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food program, which had been in place in the country since 1996, somehow rotted under his care, the Secretary-General strongly criticized in an official report for poor management.

While he escaped being personally indicted, his staff was blasted for corruption and mismanagement.  His son, Kojo, was exposed as having taken advantage of his father’s position and privileges to import into Ghana a Mercedes SUV in 1998.  The car vanished soon after, but not before it was discovered that no customs duties had been paid on it.  During the same period, Kojo served as a consultant for Cotecna Inspection, which in December 1998 received a lucrative Oil-for-Food contract to “authenticate” relief imports into Iraq.

The senior Annan enjoyed a lot of adulation at the UN, a converted bureaucrat who was “acceptable” to all, but Kojo’s Mercedes finally broke his famous equanimity.  It was at the 2005an end-of-year press conference, and a London Times had asked a question about Kojo.

“I think you’re being very cheeky,” Annan replied in a voice of steel, his demeanour unchanged.

“Listen James Bone, you’ve been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy in this room for many, many months and years.  You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession…let’s move on to a serious subject.”

He never answered the question, power apparently being of far more moment than morality. The business of seeking peace among peoples apparently does not travel on the same track as justice and accountability.

But that is exactly what I was saying about Annan as Secretary-General finding the courage to tell African leaders the “Mandelan” truth.  He was a nice guy who became a leader; he was not a leader who was a nice guy.

I did not find Annan to be a complex man, a man with a complex.  I couldn’t understand it, but there were those Security Council events when there happened to be but two black faces in the room—his and mine—and he turned the other way every time.

And so, 60 years later and nearly 20 after the argument, Africans are still sending their children overseas to obtain a “good” education.  And although there are Mercedes cars everywhere, many people still lack water and a library. And overseas—not African farms or resorts or hospitals—is where we go for relaxation or when we are ailing, and to die.

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