Kofi Annan

By: Victoria Yates

Kofi Annan was born in Kumasi Ghana on the 8th of April 1938, part of an elite family in a region where both one of his grandfathers and uncles were tribal chiefs. At 16, Annan attended the British Methodist Mfantsipim Boarding School where some of his earliest activism came through, leading the student body in a hunger strike for better food in the cafeteria (an action which was a success).  Annan lived through the 1950s movement that, led by Kwame Nkrumah, made Ghana the first British colony to become independent.

Annan got his first degree from the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana where he studied economics. During his time there he served as the Vice-President of the Ghanaian Students Union, a role that allowed him to attend a meeting of African Student Leaders in Sierra Leone. The Ford Foundation had sent a scout to the meeting who, impressed with Annan, offered him a full scholarship to Macalester College, Minnesota where he completed his studies. Initially. on graduation in 1961, Annan had planned on taking a job at a new Pillsbury Mill in Ghana. However when the plans fell through he headed instead to Geneva where he took a postgraduate degree in International Affairs at the Institut Universitaire des Hautes Etudes Internationales.

His time with the UN began directly after he graduated when he took a job with the World Health Organization as a budget officer. He stayed with the WHO for three years until moving to the Economic Commission for Africa based in Ethiopia where he focused on development projects. Annan choose to return to the US to complete a Masters in Management at MIT. He returned to Ghana in 1974 as the Director of the Ghana Tourist Development Company in an attempt to give back to his country. He however found himself in a constant struggle with the military during the period of political instability brought about by a chain of coups.

Annan decided to return to the UN and spent the next few years working his way up the ranks through positions in human resources and finance. His first moment of international fame came when in 1990, as the UN budget and finance controller, he successfully negotiated the release of 900 UN personnel and thousands of other western hostages who had been held in Iraq.  He spent a year working as the Assistant-Secretary General in 1993 before being appointed the Under-Secretary General of UN Peacekeeping. His first major job was when he was assigned as the Secretary-General’s special representative for the former Yugoslavia.  Washington saw the UN’s involvement in the region as a failure and it was a critically important moment for Annan who gained a good reputation amongst US bureaucrats for overseeing a smooth transition from UN to NATO in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The failure of UN intervention in Rwanda, which ended in withdrawal before stability was achieved, was widely placed at Annan’s door who accepted the results of an independent enquiry and expressed deep remorse.  

Annan had married the Swedish attorney Nane Lagergren in 1984. This was his second marriage - his first being to Titi Alakija with whom he had two children. It was partly his marriage that caused Annan to hesitate over whether he wanted the job of Secretary-General when it came up in 1996, because of the marked decrease in personal privacy for them both. Regardless he was elected as the 7th Secretary-General, starting his first term on January 1st 1997.

During his tenure Annan had to negotiate face-to-face with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to ensure his compliance to Security Council regulations. The move was ultimately unsuccessful as UN arms inspectors left the country not to return until 2002.  Further challenges included helping end a stalemate between Libya and the Security Council as well as crafting an international response to violence in East Timor. He also certified the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon in 2000 and worked hard to forge peace in the Middle East.  In April of the same year Annan wrote a report which outlined the role of the UN in the 21st century, covering issues such as the end of poverty, inequality, improving education, reducing HIV/Aids, and protecting people from the effects of violence. It was this work that served as the basis for Millennium declarations from Nation States.

In April 2001 Annan shared a Nobel Peace Prize with the UN for his work in helping to revitalize efforts for stability on the world stage.  In the same month Annan issued a ‘call to action’ against HIV/AIDS which he considered his personal priority. Annan proposed the creation of a Global AIDS and Health fund, which has received more than $1.5 billion in contributions to date.

Annan retired from his position as Secretary-General at the end of 2006, at which time he spoke of the continuing issues facing the world and the conflicts he felt had not been solved during his tenure. Since his retirement Annan has continued to be involved with various global organizations. These are largely centered around Africa where he has continued to work for peace and improvement in the region, even mediating in negotiations in Kenya after the civil unrest that followed elections in 2008.

Annan’s life has been one of leadership in some of the world’s greatest, most complex, and most pressing problems. He has shown himself to be untiring in his work to make the world a safer, healthy, and better place. He is a true inspiration who deserves his international reputation and the host of accolades afforded him.