Kofi Annan: The Quintessential Liberation Internationalist Written By Professor Bolaji Akinyemi

Kofi Annan

This is a tribute written Professor Bolaji Akinyemi who was Nigeria’s former Minister of External Affairs at the Kofi Annan Memorial under the auspices of the United Nations and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abuja.

I am honoured and humbled to be invited to add my own voice to the torrent of world-wide tributes that have followed the transition of former Secretary General Kofi Annan. My acquaintance with Mr. Annan dated back to the latter part of the 1970s when I assumed duty as the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs and he was resident in Lagos as a United Nations official. He attended several of the conferences, lectures and symposia that the Institute organized. Our conversations were not earthshattering. They centered primarily around how the Institute and the United Nations should cooperate on the level of intellectual endeavor.
Then we went our several ways. He to United Nations exalted positions and I to the slippery slope of public office in Nigeria, enough of that. Today is about Kofi Annan.

Almost every tribute started with the mantra about his being the first Black United Nations Secretary General. Some of the tributes have preferred to use the term “the first African Secretary General.” This juxtaposition of the terms “Black” and “African” reflects the conundrum that the African continent presents to the world.

What is Africa is the unanswered question. Geographically, Africa stretches from Southern Mediterranean in the north, to the southernmost tip of the Atlantic Ocean, in the South; and from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Indian Ocean in the East. Africa can also be defined in relationship to membership of the African Union. Thirdly, Africa can be defined in terms of colour. This is not the occasion to resolve this conundrum, assuming that it is possible to resolve it.

But this conundrum is relevant to the circumstances under which Kofi Annan was elected Secretary General. Most of the tributes that I have read, have delicately refrained from making any reference to the circumstances. But we will never appreciate the enormous talent of Mr. Annan without deconstructing the circumstances.

When it was decided that it was African turn to produce the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali from Egypt was elected. Time and space will not permit me to deal with the issues that led to the problems, which arose during his first term in office and led to the decision not to re-elect him. At that point in time, the United Nations, or to be more specific, the super-powers in the Security Council, were faced with a dilemma. Do they play up to the uneasiness about leaving the United Nations in African hands and move on to another region? Or keep their fingers crossed and look for another African pair of hands. To have moved to another region, would have antagonized African countries which would have felt that Africa had been denied its second term as tradition demanded. History is often made by many variables including luck and it is African luck that a liberal United States President, Bill Clinton, was in the White House.

It was decided that Africa would be given another chance and Kofi Annan was elected. It is to the eternal credit of Annan that he was sensitive to the circumstances surrounding his election. He decided that he would be more a Secretary and less a General in the execution of his duties. Most people in the world focus on the political activities of the United Nations. But there is more to the UN than that.

If you read the United Nations Charter, you will notice that Article 1(3) reads: “To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion;” while Article 13 1(b) calls for promoting international co-operation in the economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields, and assisting in the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.

A whole chapter, Chapter 1X, comprising Articles 55-60 was aptly titled International Economic and Social Cooperation. Activities of the United Nations centered around these articles are seldom controversial, and it is easy to build a consensus around these articles. Kofi Annan quickly realized this and sought to focus his initiatives on programmes centered around these articles. This assessment is borne out by some of his famous quotes:

“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development. “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.

“In the 21st century, I believe the mission of the United Nations will be defined by a new, more profound awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life, regardless of race or religion”. It is around these articles that most of his successful initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Establishment of the Global Fund, targeting HIV/AIDS pandemic, United Information Technology Service (UNITES) and United Nations Global Compact are based.

These stood him out as a technocrat, which should not have been surprising since he came up through the ranks. But the effect was more than this. It was like breathing new life into the United Nations, as if the United Nations was either being born anew or having a rebirth. This is not hyperbole. The Swedish Academy was so impressed about this that in 2001, it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the United Nations and its Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. This amounted to not only a seal of recognition but also a seal of approval for the new United Nations rejuvenated by the new liberation ideology of functional internationalism. The award could have gone to the United Nations alone. But the Swedish Academy wanted to make the point that it also recognized the critical role of its Secretary-General in bringing this change about.

But Kofi Annan was more than this. He was fortunate that no major political crisis arose during his first term. So, he had time to calm frayed nerves, to reassure the superpowers that he was a safe pair of hands. His second term was a different kettle of fish. There was the September 11 New York Tower bombing, Afghanistan, Iraq etc. Some of these brought him into conflict with those he had sought to avoid coming into conflict with.

As we mourn or perhaps, I should say that as we celebrate the passing of this “gentle peacemaker” to use the words of James Traub (columnist of FP.com), we should reflect on the what might have been if the words of this man had commanded more respect. He was opposed to the second invasion of Iraq and extrapolating on that, we can surmise that he would have been opposed to the invasion of Libya and the exploitation of the Arab spring to secure regime change in several Arab countries. If these had not taken place, would there have been mass immigrant exodus into Europe with the consequent upsurge in right-wing voters? In the elections in Austria, Italy and Germany, Poland and Sweden, populist right-wing governments came to power in Austria and Italy, while Germany, Poland and Sweden saw an increase in right-wing representation in their Parliaments. We have no idea, how far these negative changes will go and what will be the ultimate consequences of these changes.

I am quite aware of the Annan doctrine which propounded that the United Nations had the Responsibility to Protect. This did not come as a surprise given Annan’s background in peacekeeping and his agony over the Rwandan and Bosnian massacres. But Annan’s Responsibility to Protect was to be exercised by the United Nations and not unilaterally by individual states as happened in Iraq, Libya, Syria etc. As we say farewell to this remarkable man, we must do so with a recognition of his considerable talent in successfully navigating the competing interests of the superpowers and yet successfully building a universal consensus around a rejuvenated United Nations.

I leave you with the words of Kofi Annan which defines the man, and which should guide us as we navigate our own steps in life: “To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.” And “We need to keep hope alive and strive to do better.”


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