The elder statesmanKofi Annan, in one of his interviews, had said that he wanted to join Ghanaian politics, “retire at the age of 60 on a farm, and die in my bed at 80.” Annan managed only the latter part of that desire, dying at the age of 80 on August 18, 2018.
Kofi Annan, in one of his interviews, had said that he wanted to join Ghanaian politics, “retire at the age of 60 on a farm, and die in my bed at 80.” Annan managed only the latter part of that desire, dying at the age of 80 on August 18, 2018.
Annan never joined Ghanaian politics, even though he could easily have been elected president before or after the completion of his term as Secretary General of the United Nations. He did not die on his farm either; rather, it was in a hospital bed in Switzerland’s capital city of Bern. And, he did not retire at the age of 60; instead, he remained active until the end of his life. The last leg of his journey was in Zimbabwe, most likely one that involved a silent diplomatic mission to resolve a brewing crisis in aftermath of its recent election.
Much has already been said and written about Annan and his contributions to global peace and prosperity. Here, I would like to confine myself to personal encounters, direct and indirect, to pay homage to one of the most well-respected and globally-admired statesmen of our time.
Kofi Annan had left the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) long before I joined the organisation in 1989. He had already established himself as one of the most prominent senior staff members at the United Nations headquarters in New York. At that time, my eldest daughter Bandita was about to join Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and when the UNHCR director of human resources heard this, he remarked casually, “There’s where my friend Kofi graduated from.”
On the first day of college, Annan, honoured as the ‘Man of the Year 1994’ was there to welcome the new students. He was then Under Secretary General and head of the UN Peacekeeping Force. Four years later, during Bandita’s graduation, Kofi Annan, by then UN Secretary General delivered the keynote address to the graduating students of 1998. My second daughter too went on to share the same alma mater with Annan.
Annan reportedly maintained the same close relationship with Mfantsipim School and Kumasi College in Ghana, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Massachusetts. Admittedly, the education he received at these institutions must have contributed to his ability to reach the top of the UN and remain at the helm of international diplomacy. But his devotion to give back to these institutions, in a very personal manner, is equally noteworthy.
Annan visited UNHCR headquarters in Geneva twice while I was still working there. In 1999, I had the opportunity to listen to him as a guest speaker at the Lester B Pearson International Peacekeeping Training Center. He is one of the few speakers I have heard, who, while delivering a speech or during his personal conversation, chooses each and every word with care, and delivers it with the utmost sincerity and eloquence.
While at UNHCR, I came across a few senior colleagues, including those from Ghana, who were recruited by and worked under Kofi Annan. Some of them preferred to call him their friend. However, to my knowledge, he selected only four of his colleagues from UNHCR to join him in New York. Among them was Nane Lagergren, who he married in 1984 and remained lifelong partners with. The other three were Sergio Vieira de Mello, Mark Malloch Brown and Sashi Tharoor. Sergio Vieira de Mello died in August 19, 2003 when a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives inside the UN headquarters in Baghdad. De Mello was then Special Representative of the Secretary General, and in all likelihood, would have been the second UN staff member to be appointed as Secretary General after Kofi Annan. Shashi Tharoor was defeated by Ban Ki-moon by a narrow margin to succeed Kofi Annan. After resigning from the UN, Tharoor went on to join the Indian Congress and was elected Member of Parliament. Soon after, he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and continues to be a member of the Indian Parliament. Mark Malloch Brown, a British citizen, was appointed by Kofi Annan as Deputy Secretary General. After leaving the UN, Brown became the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Such were Annan’s leadership skills—to not only exalt himself, but to lift others who can leave their own marks behind.
Many Nepalis, particularly those working for the UN during different time periods, knew Kofi Annan. However, Bhojraj Pokharel, former Chief Election Commissioner, was handpicked by Annan to serve as a member of the Electoral Integrity core team of the Kofi Annan Foundation. Established in 2007, the Kofi Annan Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit organisation that works “to promote better global governance and strengthen the capacities of people and countries to achieve a fairer, more peaceful world.” Top world leaders are on
its governing bodies. It’s a matter of pride and honour for us Nepalis that one of our fellow citizens is one of its members.
When I got the news about Kofi Annan’s demise, I immediately called up Bhojraj ji, who had received the news from the Kofi Annan Foundation long before I heard from the BBC. According to Bhojraj, Annan possessed an unpretentious personality blended with a combination of self-assurance, self-control, and simplicity. He was a man with global trust and credibility—virtues that enabled him to work with all types of Heads of State and world leaders, and also command their respect. Annan was concerned with democracy, peace and prosperity and strongly believed in the integrity of the electoral process. Bhojraj is a bit concerned about the future of the Kofi Annan Foundation, having lost its central force. He believes that Annan’s shoes are too big for anyone to fill in the field of global peace and electoral democracy.
It is no secret that Annan advocated for a strong UN system to help eliminate poverty, reduce income disparities and make and maintain peace. “We are not only all responsible for each other’s security, we are also in some measure, responsible for each other’s welfare,” he once said. “Global solidarity is both necessary and possible. It is necessary because without a measure of solidarity no society can be truly stable, and no one’s prosperity is truly secure”. With the demise of Kofi Annan, this world has lost a statesman who advocated for freedom from poverty, inequality, oppression and injustice.