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 go there – Kofi A. Annan.
The quotation above reflects my worldview. But these are not my words. They belong to someone much older and wiser, and whose mentorship and friendship has taught me many lessons in life. I salute Kofi Annan of Ghana, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations and my boss of many years, Nobel Laureate and renowned global elder statesman as he turned 80 on April 8.
On a recent visit to Mr Annan at his Foundation’s offices in Geneva, Switzerland, I was pleasantly surprised to see him just as spritely, well-kept and un-aged as I had last seen him several years ago. In 2009 I had met him at his office in Geneva to let him know I had decided to resign from my UN system career and was going into the private sector as the founder of a global strategy and risk management consulting firm. As someone who always had the courage to launch out in new, versatile directions during his 35-year UN career before he became Secretary-General, he was very encouraging of my decision to seek new horizons. Later that year, he telephoned to congratulate me on my appointment as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Incidentally, the unplanned journey to that appointment began at a World Economic Forum dinner in Cape Town, South Africa at which Annan, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and I had been among the guest attendees.
So, here we were again in Geneva a few months ago as I briefed him on my decision to offer myself to serve my country as its President if elected in 2019. He was clearly pleased with my decision, believing as he does that Africa needs a new, vibrant generation of leaders. As I left him after an hour of rejuvenating one-on-one discussion in which, as usual, he shared several wisdoms that left me shaking my head in awe, we took photographs. We shook hands as the camera clicked. “Ah, politician,” he intoned to general laughter from all present.
Kofi Atta Annan did not begin his illustrious UN career on the political or diplomatic side of the ledger. Rather, he was a competent manager of human and financial resources. After graduating from Macalester College in Minnesota, USA and post-graduate studies at the Graduate Institute for International Studies in Geneva in the early 1960s, Annan joined the World Health Organization in Geneva, at the lowest professional entry level of “P-1” and later transferred to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He later returned to school as a mid-career student at the Sloan School of Management at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he obtained a Master of Science degree in Management in 1972.
He subsequently served in the UN peacekeeping mission that supervised the truce between Israel and the Arab States in the Middle East, as a senior manager in the UN Joint Staff Pension Fund in New York, and as Chief of Personnel at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. In the mid-1980s he became Director of Personnel at UN Headquarters in New York and, in 1990, Annan was appointed Assistant Secretary-General and the United Nations Controller with responsibility for the budget and fiscal management of the world body.
Kofi Annan’s political career really took off when UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made him Assistant Secretary-General in the peacekeeping department and later promoted him to Under-Secretary-General and head of UN peacekeeping. This was historic because that important part of the UN’s work had hitherto been led exclusively by officials of American and British nationality since the organization was founded in 1945. I had joined the UN Secretariat in 1992 and, after serving in the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia for a year, I was appointed a Political Affairs Officer in the peacekeeping department at the New York headquarters in 1993.
With Mr. Annan now my boss, I observed him closely. I learnt from him how to manage cultural, ethnic and racial diversity in the global workplace in addition to my daily political duties. It turned out also that we were neighbors in Roosevelt Island in Manhattan. We frequently took the cable car together over the Hudson River into the city and walked to work at the UN most mornings. Unlike most African “big men”, Kofi Annan loved to walk, disliked driving, and to the best of my knowledge did not have a driver. He would tell me stories about his career and advise me on mine as we trekked to the office.
In the mid-1990s Egypt’s Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the brilliant but pompous Francophile who in 1991 became the first African to be elected Secretary-General of the UN, was engaged in a running battle with the United States government. “BBG”, as he was known, was the master of all he surveyed. For this reason, he clashed often with Dr. Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN who later became the American Secretary of State. Albright was not a woman to be scorned without consequence. As Boutros-Ghali’s first five-year tenure drew to a close, Washington blocked his re-election by casting a veto against him in the first ballot for the selection of the Secretary-General in the UN Security Council. Boutros-Ghali “suspended” his candidacy and the rest is history. He later wrote a riveting memoir titled “UNvanquished”. You could interpret that to mean that he had not been defeated, or that the UN itself had been vanquished.
Most pundits and UN staffers did not give Kofi Annan much of a chance of becoming Secretary-General. In their narrow conventional wisdom, they saw him as lacking experience as a “political heavyweight” in the diplomatic world, unlike several African ministers of foreign affairs who had home or regional “constituencies”. On the contrary, it was obvious to me long before the end of Boutros-Ghali’s tenure that Annan would replace him. The reason was simple: quite apart from the convenience of Annan being a black African (in which case no one could successfully accuse Boutros-Ghali’s American traducers of racism), his qualifications matched the mood and needs of the time. Management reform was the big issue at the UN in those days and, unlike his competitors from Africa who were all African politicians in the traditional sense of the word, Annan’s technocratic and management credentials redounded to his advantage in the mind of the Western powers that in reality control the UN. I was therefore not surprised when he emerged victorious in the selection process.
Before then, a situation arose in which, despite my deep respect for Annan, I had to make a decisive personal choice. In 1995, as Boutros-Ghali’s tenure wound down to a close and rumors swirled that Annan might be in the running for his job, the Egyptian diplomat appointed Annan as his Special Representative for the Former Yugoslavia, which had become known as “the graveyard of diplomats”. The assignment lasted four months. Soon after Annan’s arrival at his base in Zagreb, Croatia, I received official word that he had directed that I be released from New York to join him there as his Special Assistant. This was the kind of career opportunity any young officer would die for, and colleagues assumed I would jump at the honor. Under “normal temperature and pressure” I certainly would have, but there was an important complication: my wife was heavy with our first child and close to delivery. As a young couple we did not have a house-help in New York. Faced with a choice between strategic career advancement and a critical family obligation, I opted to stay with my spouse in New York and sent word to Annan apologizing but explaining the situation. He was most gracious and indicated that he had not known the intimate details of my family circumstances and that he understood and respected my decision.
Kofi Annan went on to become perhaps the most successful Secretary-General of the UN in its history. Those who hold that position have always been assessed through the prism of whether they were more “secretary” or “general”, but Annan managed to escape this simplistic categorization. Boutros-Ghali was a general. Ban Ki Moon, the South Korean that succeeded Annan a decade later, was seen as a secretary. Annan’s personality and his personal technocratic competence were what made him so successful in running the UN. He led far-reaching management reforms in the UN (I served as a member of the high-level Redesign Panel he appointed to reform the accountability, regulatory and internal dispute resolution framework governing the 60,000-strong global workforce of the UN and its senior management), launched an ultimately successful war against the HIV/AIDS pandemic including the establishment of the social investment fund The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in Geneva), and launched the Millennium Development Goals.
It was not all-smooth sailing. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 complicated his second term in office. His relationship with Washington soured after Annan boldly described the intervention as “illegal” under international law, and the remainder of his tenure was troubled as the Americans undermined his authority and prestige with orchestrated attacks against him. Out of office as UN scribe Annan, alongside Nelson Mandela, became a leading global statesman and remains so to date. Among his global interventions were his efforts, together with the respected former Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria, to ensure a peaceful outcome and transfer of power in Nigeria’s 2015 presidential election. He also played a similar role through his intervention in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election in his native Ghana. Besides Mandela, it’s doubtful that any African has projected the black race into the global mind with as much success as Kofi Annan. That’s called a life of consequence.
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