International diplomat Kofi Annan (born 1938) of Ghana is the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations and the first black African to head that organization.
Noted for his cautious, serene style of diplomacy, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Kofi Annan is sometimes criticized for his soft-spokenness, which some say may be mistaken for weakness. But Annan abides by a lesson he learned back in his college days. Unused to the frigid winters of St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied economics at Macalester College, he took one look at the local students and decided they looked ridiculous in their huge earmuffs. Then he took a walk around campus. When his ears froze, he went out and bought earmuffs. He said of that experience, as noted in U.S. News & World Report, "I learned an important lesson. You never walk into a situation and believe that you know better than the natives. You have to listen and look around. Otherwise you can make some very serious mistakes." As the head peacekeeping officer of the world's chief peace-keeping organization, mistakes are just what Annan wants to avoid.
Kofi Atta Annan was born in Kumasi, in central Ghana, on April 8, 1938. Located between the Ivory Coast and Togo on the southern coast of west Africa, Ghana has been a republic within the British Commonwealth since 1960. Named for an African empire along the Niger River, it was ruled by Great Britain for 113 years as the Gold Coast. Annan is descended from tribal chiefs on both sides of his family. His father was an educated man, and Annan became accustomed to both traditional and modern ways of life. He has described himself as being "atribal in a tribal world."
After receiving his early education at a leading boarding school in Ghana, Annan attended the College of Science and Technology in the provincial capital of Kumasi. At the age of 20, he won a Ford Foundation scholarship for undergraduate studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he learned about economics and earmuffs. Even then he was showing signs of becoming a diplomat. As communications professor Roger Mosvick commented in U.S. News & World Report, "I don't think anyone on this planet has heard Kofi raise his voice in anger." Annan received his bachelor's degree in economics in 1961.
Shortly after completing his studies at Macalester College, Annan headed for Geneva where he attended the Institut Universitaire des Hautes Etudes Internationales for graduate classes in economics. A decade later, he became the Alfred P. Sloan fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At the end of his fellowship in 1972, he was awarded a master of science degree in management.
Following his graduate studies in Geneva, Annan joined the staff of the World Health Organization (WHO), a branch of the United Nations. He served as an administrative officer and as budget officer in Geneva. Later UN posts took him to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and New York City, New York. Annan had always assumed that he would return to his native land after college, although he was disturbed by the unrest and numerous overturns of government that occurred there during the 1970s. Rather than return to Ghana during this period, he accepted a position with UN headquarters in New York City. In 1974, he moved to Cairo, Egypt, as chief civilian personnel officer in the UN Emergency Force. Annan briefly changed careers in 1974 when he left the UN to serve as managing director of the Ghana Tourist Development Company.
Annan returned to international diplomacy and the UN in 1976, leaving the private sector permanently. For the next seven years, he was associated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. He returned to the UN headquarters in New York City in 1983 as director of the budget in the financial services office. Later in the 1980s, he filled the post of assistant secretary-general in the Office of Human Resources Management and served as security coordinator for the United Nations. In 1990, he became assistant secretary-general for another department at the UN, the Office of Program Planning, Budget, and Finance. In fulfilling his duties to the United Nations, Annan has spent most of his adult life in the United States, specifically UN headquarters in New York.
Annan has filled a number of roles at the UN, ranging from peacekeeping to managerial, and the 1990s were no different. In 1990, he negotiated the release of hostages in Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait. Five years later, he oversaw the transition of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to the multinational Implementation Force (IFOR). In this transfer of responsibility, operations in the former Yugoslavia were turned over to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Annan had been associated with the Office of Peace-keeping Operations since 1992. In 1993, he had been promoted to under-secretary-general of this office. In recognition of his abilities, Annan was appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations by the General Assembly in December of 1996. He began serving his four-year term of office on January 1, 1997.
Joining him in this new post was his second wife, former attorney Nane Lagergren. The secretary-general has been married twice, first to a woman from Nigeria, with whom he has two children. His second wife, Nane Lagergren, is from Sweden. She is the niece of the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of European Jews from the Nazis during World War II. Annan and Lagergren were married in 1985. The couple has one child.
Heading the UN
The post of Secretary-General of the United Nations has been called one of the world's "oddest jobs." According to the United Nations website, "Equal parts diplomat and activist, conciliator and provocateur, the Secretary-General stands before the world community as the very emblem of the United Nations. The task demands great vigour, sensitivity and imagination, to which the Secretary-General must add a tenacious sense of optimism-a belief that the ideals expressed in the Charter can be made a reality." The Secretary-General is the boss of 10,000 international civil servants and the chief administrator of a huge international parliamentary system.
In this post, Annan is expected to coordinate, although he does not control, the activities of such groups as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He is also obliged to practice "preventive diplomacy," meaning he and his staff must try to prevent, contain, or defuse international disputes. Above all, Annan must try to maintain world peace. In an address to the National Press Club, Annan declared: "If war is the failure of diplomacy, then … diplomacy, both bilateral and multilateral, is our first line of defence. The world today spends billions preparing for war; shouldn't we spend a billion or two preparing for peace?"
Almost immediately after Annan's election came the question: Is this man just too nice a person for the job? His reputation for "soft-spokenness," according to U.S. News & World Report, could be mistaken for weakness. National Review contributor Stefan Halper, however, called Annan a "subtle and capable presence" with "an extraordinary feel for the [United Nations]…. [H]is influence on world opinion, and hence his power, is striking." Another factor that made people question Annan's toughness was his involvement in the UN efforts at peacekeeping in Bosnia from 1992 to 1996. Despite the UN's presence, Bosnia remained the site of an ethnic war where thousands died. Sir Marrack Goulding, head of peace-keeping, once commented that Annan never expressed his doubts about the UN policy in a forceful manner. Annan disagreed, saying that he always pressed the involved countries-the United States, Britain, France, and Russia-to rethink their limited mandate on sending soldiers to the peace-keeping force. Not one to raise his voice in anger, Annan favored diplomacy. In a press conference in Baghdad in 1998, Annan noted: "You can do a lot with diplomacy, but of course you can do a lot more with diplomacy backed up by fairness and force."
All eyes turned to Annan and his handling of the touchy situation with Iraq in 1998. Early in that year, threats of war seemed all too real. Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq, was once again a threatening presence, refusing to let UN observers into certain areas of his country, as previously agreed upon, to check for illegal possession of chemical warfare items and the like. President Bill Clinton of the United States hinted strongly at the use of force to make Saddam comply. In his role as Secretary-General, Annan went to Iraq in February of 1998 to meet with the Iraqi leader. After talking with Annan, Saddam agreed to what he had refused before-unlimited UN access to the eight sites that he had previously called completely off-limits. Due to Annan's intervention, war was averted. "There were millions of people around the world rooting for a peaceful solution and praying for us-this is why in Baghdad I said you should never underestimate the power of prayer," declared Annan upon returning to UN headquarters that month, as noted on the UN website.
Annan's code of soft-spoken diplomacy was given a boost by the outcome of his talks with Saddam Hussein in 1998. United Nations observers wait to see how additional crises will be handled by the gentle but determined man from Ghana. As a long-time acquaintance of Annan commented to People, "He has in mind a goal: world peace."
Further Reading on Kofi Annan
Christian Century, April 1, 1998.
Maclean's, March 9, 1998.
Nation, March 16, 1998.
National Review, April 20, 1998.
New Republic, January 6, 1997.
Newsweek, March 9, 1998, pp. 28-32.
New York Times Magazine, March 29, 1998.
U.S. News & World Report, March 9, 1998, pp. 36-37; March 23, 1998.
"Kofi Annan," Newsmaker Profiles, CNN Interactive, http: //www.cnn.com (May 14, 1998).
United Nations website, http: //www.un.org (March 2, 1998).
Annan's address to the National Press Club, Washington, D.C., January 24, 1997.
Annan's joint press conference with Deputy Minister of Iraq Tariq Aziz, Baghdad, February 23, 1998.