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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan


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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

  1. 1. First Black secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan has become one ofthe most recognizable figures in world diplomacy since he persuaded Iraq's Saddam Hussein (below) to agree to a settlement that avelted a major international clisis. At a White House news con­ ference, Aimall alld President Clinton (left) field questions. EBONY • October 1998 Continued on Page 1.38
  2. 2. Touching bases with major world leaders, Annan confers with u.s. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (left), who is the fonner U.S. ambassador to the UN. At right, Annan meets with South African President Nelson Mandela. UNCHIEF Continued Since persuading Iraq's Saddam Hussein to agree to a settlement that averted a major international crisis, interest in Annan's position has reached far beyond the handshakes ofheads of state. And although the Iraq crisis con­ tinues to unfold, he is now known far outside the walls ofthe palaces, estates, castles and compounds that bound his predecessors. Today, he is recognized wherever he goes. Mamas and daddies now want his autograph for their children, wives of servicemen want to hug him, grandmas want to kiss him, and-perhaps the most telling sign that his life has changed forever-grade-school stu­ dents are chOOSing him as the subject of their current-events reports. For Annan, it means no more soli­ tary walks in the woods, no more indis­ tinct b·avels around New York City, no more low-key visits to his West African homeland ofGhana. "Nowthose days are gone," Annan says resigningly as he sits in his office atop the UN's New York City headquarters. "My life changed when I became secretary-general. And since Iraq, one is easily recognized re­ gardless of where one is.. .It's a new experience for me." Annan follows in the footsteps of such Black diplomatic giants as Ralph Bunche, a former Howard University professor who helped organize the UN in 1945 and served as the organization's undersecretary-general. Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1950 for successfully negotiating a historic 138 truce in the 1949 Arab-Israeli conflict. Like Bunche, Annan's keen negoti­ ating skills have gamered global praise. Few gave Annan a chance when he left for Iraq in February with hopes of set­ tling a disagreement over the search of eight Iraqi sites for weapons. Preparing for a U.S.-led military strike, President Bill Clinton had ordered the positioning ofwarships in the Persian Gulf. Missiles were aimed. Targets locked in. Iraqi women and children had taken shelter, expecting showers of missiles to rain down on them at any moment. With neither side budging, Annan headed to Baghdad to meet with Saddam Hussein, the world's most clit­ icized dictator. How could Annan-per­ haps the most soft-spoken ofthe six pre­ vious secretary-generals-successfully negotiate with a man some considered to be mad? But while others doubted him, Annan was optimistic. "In all the nego­ tiations, I try to go into it with positive expectations that I'm going to give it my best, and try to come out of it "vith results that are in the interest of the intemational community," he says with a calm so cool that it comes across as complete confidence. "In my job, I need to be optimistic, hopeful and per­ sistent. Otherwise, I will lose heatt ." After days of negotiations with Hussein's underlings, it was head that led Annan deep inside Hussein's palace bunker on the bank ofthe Tigris River, and it was head that brought him out-three hours after meeting alone with the Iraqi leader-with a Signed EBONY • October agreement in hand. "We have been able to demonstrate that if given the chance the UN can make a difference between peace and war bywhat we did in Iraq," saysArman, who was praised for his ability to effec­ tively handle the spectrum interests and egos that sabotaged previous negotia­ tions. "Reaching an agreement was impOltant in the sense that it demon­ strated that diplomacy, handled careful­ ly, and backed up with fairness and the threat of force, can make a difference. That war would have been devastating for the entire region. So I'm proud of that achievement because it reaffirmed the position ofthe UN,it reaffirmed the role of diplomacy, and, personally, also gave me a chance to playa role." In his wildest dreams, Annan never thought he would be playing such a role - leading the UN into t..he 21stcentury. He grew up in Ghana in the '50s, dur­ ing a time when Blacks were struggling for basic human rirrhts. The countryhad been under British rule for more than a century before protests and demon­ strations by Blacks brought about its independence in 1957. "There was a lot of political activity, and you could feel the political elec­ tricity. A lot of impOltant changes were takingplace," says Annan,whowas raised in a prominent family,his father serving as the govemor ofthe Ashanti Province and hereditary paramount chief of Lne Fante people. "The students and young people were very much aware and very engaged. We used to debate in schools, talk about the changes, the end ofcolo­ nialism, what independence meant. I 1998 Continued on Page 3.40
  3. 3. UN CHIEF Continued grew up in an atmosphere that was politically aware and active." Annan expedenced the same activist atmosphere when he moved to the United States in 1959 to attend college. Enrolled in Minnesota's Macalester College on a Ford Foundation scholar­ ship, he saw a similar freedom move­ ment unfolding in America. "Blacks here were going through the same things that we had been through," he says. "So I knew what was happening." He graduated in 1961 with a de­ gree in economics, and received a master's degree in management from 140 MIT in 1972. By then, he had begun his career at the UN, where, outside of a break in the mid-'70s when he went back to Ghana, he has worked for the last three decades. DUling his 33-year stint at the UN, Annan held positions as personnel director, budget director, comptroller and undersecretary of peacekeeping operations. As undersecretary, Annan was given high marks for his practical approach to carrying out a number of sensitive diplomatic assignments, including the negotiation of the release of Western hostages in Iraq following that counbis invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In less than five years, Annan transformed what was EBONY • October a tiny peacekeeping office into a divi­ sion of the UN that was managing 75,000 troops from more than 70 coun­ tdes on 19 separate missions. But even with all of his achieve­ ments, succeeding Egypt's Boutros Boutros-Ghali to become secretary­ general last year came as a surprise to Annan. "I could never have guessed it. Even joining the UN was an acci­ dent. I thought I would stay with the UN for about two years and go back to Ghana and work there," says Annan, whose fluency in English, French and several African languages helped him move up the ranks at the UN. "But I could never have dreamt that I could have become the secretary-general, even though in career terms I had done quite well and moved up. But no staff member, no member of the sec­ retariat had ever become secretary­ general, so that was something that was really not in the plans. It hap­ pened suddenly and it was a sur­ prise." When Annan became secretary­ general, he and his wife, Nane Lager­ gren, moved from their middle-class home on New York City'S Roosevelt Island to the secretary-general's offi­ cial residence on posh Sutton Place on the other-{lJld more expensive-side of the Hudson River. For lunch, A.'1llan is usually whisked away- in a police-escorted annored Mercedes-to his nearby estate home for a quick meal vith his wife. On nice days, the couple eats in the garden. There's a deafening quietness that fills the home, the only noise being the intermingling of her Swedish accent with his West Afdcan dialect. 1998 Continued on Page 142
  4. 4. Looking to the future, Annan greets schoolchildren visiting the UN's New York City headqmuters. He has brought a more open, relaxed style of lead­ ership to the organization's top post. African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche, the first Black Nobel Peace Prize winner, helped organize the UN. UN CHIEFContinued It's just the two of them. It's been that way since their son and two daugh­ ters (from previous maniages) grew up and moved out. It's the second marriage for Annan, whose maniage to his first wife, a Nigerian, ended in divorce. Those close to the couple repOlted­ ly say that the two are soul mates. Both love to travel, read, take long walks in the woods, and share other interests. The two usually travel to Ghana every other year. "You miss friends, you miss family," the secretary-general says ofhis homeland. "Now when I go home, the private moments you spend with them are diminished. You miss that." Nane Lagergren is a lawyer-turned­ artist, and the niece of the late Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, a World War II hero who disappeared in a Soviet pli son after saving 20,000 Hungalian Jews from the Nazis. On this day, the two discuss Kofi Annan's work schedule, which typical­ ly includes hosting foreign dignitalies, and attending a host of council meet­ ings, special sessions, ceremonies and receptions. But most days aren't typical. Annan usually finds himself putting out fires, either internally at the UN, or interna­ tionally from the seemingly daily con­ flicts that mise across the world. From India's nuclear testing to the continued sbife between Israel and Palestine, and conflicts in Burundi, Afghanistan, Somalia and Rwanda, Annan and the UN have, and will con­ tinue to have, their plates full. "We are trying to resolve quite a few crises around the world," Annan says. "After the Cold War we knew we were going to go through a peliod of adjustment and destabilization, but the past year has been incredible. The number of clises which has exploded around us has kept the organization extremely busy and also underscored the point that the UN is needed today perhaps more than ever." Annan's election to a five-year term was spurred largely by the United States' dissatisfaction with Boutros­ Ghali. Congress was so upset with the performance of the UN that during the past decade, it has sporadically withheld payment of its yearly dues to the organization. As UN leadel; Annan's first goal has been to attempt to restore credibility to the organization. He has bimmed the UN's staff of 9,000 civil servants work­ ing around the world, and re-focused its mission. His goal: Convince the 185-member states that the UN can work. "I think it's gone quite well," he says. "It's been quite a tough peliod. We have been able to push the refonn agen­ da very aggressively." Annan hopes bettennent of the UN and successful peacekeeping missions, like his negotiations coup in Iraq, will convince the United States to pay its past debt, now totaling about $1.5 billion. Successful in pumping credibility, life and color into a previously lacklus­ ter UN, Annan is looking fOlward to the challenges that lie ahead, and under­ stands how important his success is to Black people worldwide. "I laio" that my position and my role is an inspiration to most of the people on the continent [of Afiica] and Black people everywhere," he says. ''I'm con­ scious of the fact that I'm seen as a role model a11d that what I'm doing is inspir­ ing quite a lot of young people not to put any limitations on their own dreams and on their own ambitions. I'm happy that I'm able to inspire them that way, to really aim high and live their lives to the fullest without any inhibition about what they can do or be allowed to do.. .Eleanor Roosevelt once said, 'No one can make you feel infelior without your pennission.' Those are words to live by." 0 EBONY • October 1998142