Bizarre New Yorker Article on Kofi Annan

remembering kofi annan

Bhaskar Menon

I knew Kofi Annan as a senior colleague at the UN years before he was Secretary-General, and like many in the Secretariat, was on first name basis with him. 

Once shortly after he became SG I was having breakfast in the cafetaria when he came in with Elizabeth Lindenmeyer and the Staff Union president (whose name escapes me). He waved me over to the vacant seat at their table, which was on the central raised island. Within a few minutes other staff noticed he was there and as Kofi was sitting where they could come up and shake his hand, they did. For the next 40 minutes or so the conversation at the table was extremely spotty as he would greet those coming up by name and ask about their families. When we were leaving I asked him how many UN staff in NY he knew by name. "About half" he said.

The warmth of his interpersonal relations was not reserved for those with rank and status. A G-4 retired staffer from India told me that Kofi saw him standing in front of the DC-1 building from across First Avenue and crossed to greet him. 

He also never forgot those who let him down. I was working late one day in what was then CESI when the phone rang. It was Kofi, asking if I could come up to his office. He had just taken over as the head of Personnel (which he renamed OHRM). When I got up there he handed me a set of galley proofs of Secretariat News. "It's lucky I asked to see these," he said. "It has me speaking gibberish." The editor of the Secretariat News had taped an interview and not bothered to clean it up at all. The guy went on to prosper in Washington.

His extraordinary gift for dealing with people was not just for colleagues. Early one morning as I was heading for my office on the Press Floor, I noticed Iqbal Riza standing rather forlornly at the side of the Conference Building lobby leading to the Delegate's Dining Room. In answer to my quizzical look he gestured with his chin at the Zanetti mural, and there amidst a gaggle of tourists was Kofi, entirely comfortable, chatting with complete strangers. (Can you imagine Kurt Waldheim doing that!)

Personal charm has not been a particular gift of those who have held the top job at the UN, and it was lucky for the UN Kofi had it in abundance, for one of his first jobs was to negotiate full US-funding of the organization with two firmly anti-UN members of the Congress, Senator Jesse Helms and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Not only did Congress restrore full funding to the UN, Helms visited the UN and was pleased as punch to be shown around the place and sit at the Security Council table.

On that first visit to Washington in January 1997 Kofi also met with President Clinton at the White House. After their meeting in the Oval Office they came out to the Roosevelt Room for a brief Q&A with the gathered Press. I happened to catch Clinton's eye and got in a question: On a scale of 1 to 10, where would he put US-UN relations? I thought that would pin him down but his answer was "Rising rapidly." It was generally taken as a compliment to the new SG. 

No other head of the UN has had Kofi's personal warmth and capacity to communicate easily with people. Hammarskjold had a clearer sense of spiritual mission and sacred drama, Perez de Cuellar had more solid diplomatic achievements, and Boutros-Ghali was a likeable maverick; but Kofi was uniquely graceful. 

He passed away a day before the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the UN office in Baghdad that killed 22 people, most of them UN staff. The incident was a particular burden on his conscience because one of the victims was a close friend, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, then the High Commissioner for Human Rights. He had been reluctant to leave Geneva for Baghdad, but the pressure on Kofi from the Bush administration was high and Sergio went. He survived the truck-bomb that detonated directy under his office and was conscious but died trapped in the debris. Poignantly, it happened as his term in Baghdad was ending.

Those of us who annually mourn the death of friends and colleagues on the 19th of August can now begin the sad observance a day earlier. 


Once Boutros-Ghali was out of the picture, the Security Council considered four African candidates. Kofi Annan, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, soon emerged as the front runner. But because he was so clearly Washington’s candidate, France, a firm supporter of Boutros-Ghali, vetoed him several times. Paris relented under growing pressure from African countries but not before exacting a pledge that its nominee would get the post of Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations.

On Friday, 13 December, Kofi Annan, consummate UN insider, was picked to be Secretary-General. He was the first sub-Saharan African to get the post, the first career staff member of the UN, the first with broad administrative experience. He had headed, successively, the offices of Personnel, Finance, Administration and Peacekeeping. Unlike any of his predecessors, he also had a politician’s capacity to relate to people, to charm.

Within the Secretariat, Annan was seen as a new broom that would, at long last, know where to sweep clean. He brought immediate and marked improvement in tone and spirit, but mainly to the top echelon of the Secretariat. At regular weekly meetings of Under- and Assistant-Secretaries (those outside New York participating over the corporate teleconferencing facilities of the World Economic Forum), his collegial lead helped ease long-standing rigidities. Turf battles faded, department Heads cooperated in new thematically oriented management groups. In the larger UN System, he had a similar impact. The traditionally stiff and unproductive meetings of theAdministrative Committee on Coordination (now the Chief Executives Board), relaxed into productivity. For the first time in UN history, the Heads of UN agencies and programs, including the World Bank and the IMF, attended enthusiastically. Real work got done.

On the stultifying internal culture of the Secretariat as a whole, corrupted by many years of low standards and mismanagement, Annan’s impact has been minimal. Staff morale is low and reform efforts have had little impact. After a honeymoon period with the Staff Union, the job of dealing with them was delegated to Under-Secretary-General Joseph O’Connor, a former head of Pricewaterhouse World Company who had arrived at the United Nations as part of the effort to placate critics in Washington. His tendency to ignore due process in making decisions, and on occasion to back out of agreements with staff, created increasing sourness. Efforts by the Staff leadership to see the Secretary-General were fruitless. “As far as you are concerned” Mr. O’Connor told Staff Representatives, “I am the Secretary-General.”

Closely surrounded by a number of well-connected Americans, the Secretary-General’s relations with Washington remained excellent throughout the Clinton administration. In the media he achieved celebrity status. That changed after the Secretary-General failed to support the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq, and decidedly so after he said publicly that the coalition forces were, as occupiers, bound by the Geneva Conventions. That was seen as perfidy at a time when the neo-conservative activists who led the way into Iraq fully expected American forces as liberators.

The August 2003 bomb attack on the UN Office in Baghdad that killed a number of UN staff members, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy in Iraq, moved Annan into completely new territory in relations with Washington. In his opening speech to the General Assembly session in the fall of 2003, he flagged unilateral use of force as a threat to world order. As the occupation of Iraq became increasingly bloody during 2004, he refused to rebuild the UN’s international presence in the country. A small electoral team was sent in to help with the first Iraqi elections, but it was a minimal effort. As President Bush headed for re-election, the Secretary-General told a BBC interviewer that the American invasion of Iraq was “illegal.”

Against that background, most observers at the United Nations took the first allegations of Annan’s personal involvement in the corruptions of the Iraq Oil for Food Program as retaliation. But the September 2005 findings of the Independent Investigation Commission headed by Paul Volcker have made clear that the charges were not entirely smoke. The Secretary-General’s son, Kojo Annan, was found to be clearly involved in influence peddling. There was incontrovertible evidence that the head of the Iraq oil for food program, Benon Sevan, had helped a small company headed by a friend to get Iraq oil contracts, and strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that he had received $147,000 in bank deposits while that was happening. Sevan claimed the deposits were from a deceased aunt, but she had exhibited few signs of such wealth when alive. A procurement officer dealing with Iraq oil for food contracts was indicted by federal authorities in New York of requesting and receiving bribes, and he implicated over a score of others, including the Chairman of the prestigious Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).

There was no reasonably conclusive evidence that Kofi Annan had known of his son’s activities, or of the other corruptions in the program. But investigators found that his Chef de Cabinet, Iqbal Riza, had shredded the chron files in his office two days after instructing all UN System officials involved in the Iraq program to preserve all relevant paperwork. The Commission did charge with mismanagement the Secretary-General and Louise Frechette, the Deputy-Secretary-General (a former Canadian Minister of Defense who was appointed in 1998 in the first wave of UN reforms under Annan). Frechette had offered to resign in 2004 after being criticized in a report on the security failures surrounding the August 2003 bombing of the UN Office in Baghdad, but was kept on. She seemed likely to continue in office despite the acid comments of the Volcker Commission on her managerial incompetence, but in early 2006 it was announced that she would be leaving the Secretariat to join a think tank in Canada.

The Iraq war cast a shadow on Kofi Annan’s last years at the UN but his established record as a consummate diplomat helped him through. After the end of his tenure at the UN he was asked several times to help the UN deal with difficult situations in Kenya, Syria and Myanmar. 


KOFI ANNAN 1938-2018

Kofi Annan died "after a short illness" in Bern, Switzerland, on 18 August 2018. The UN Foundation that sent out an email announcing his demise did not specify the nature of the illness. See here for speculation about cause. He was buried on 13 September in Ghana.


The Kofi Annan Foundation sent out the following email on 18 August.

It is with immense sadness that the Annan family and the Kofi Annan Foundation announce that Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Laureate, passed away peacefully on Saturday 18th August after a short illness. His wife Nane and their children Ama, Kojo and Nina were by his side during his last days.

Kofi Annan was a global statesman and a deeply committed internationalist who fought throughout his life for a fairer and more peaceful world. During his distinguished career and leadership of the United Nations he was an ardent champion of peace, sustainable development, human rights and the rule of law.

After stepping down from the United Nations, he continued to work tirelessly in the cause of peace through his chairmanship of the Kofi Annan Foundation and as chair of The Elders, the group founded by Nelson Mandela. He was an inspiration to young and old alike.

Kofi Annan was a son of Ghana and felt a special responsibility towards Africa. He was particularly committed to African development and deeply engaged in many initiatives, including his chairmanship of the Africa Progress Panel and his early leadership of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy. He selflessly placed others first, radiating genuine kindness, warmth and brilliance in all he did. He will be greatly missed by so many around the world, as well as his staff at the Foundation and his many former colleagues in the United Nations system. He will remain in our hearts forever.