Uneasy the post of the Secretary General
A review of the book “Interventions”
by the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr.
Reading biographies of world leaders without knowing who they
are as persons is always an abstract endeavor. But knowing the
real men behind the words is an exercise that can prove very
Such was my view as I read
Interventions, by Mr. Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General
of the UN. In the process, the complexity of the job he held
at the UN became real.
In 1997, Mr. Annan became the first sub-Saharan African to
occupy the office and also the first to rise from within the
UN ranks to this top post.
The ideal qualification
headaches that every Secretary General
met while overseeing the huge UN organization remained.
As he noted, the challenges at the UN were huge internally and
externally - in structure and composition; made more complex
by the inherent national interests of representative
governments. These challenges, as backdrop, often impeded the
exalted vision of the UN for advancing “collective security”
for the world.
The UN Security Council, for example, had a structure and
composition that were not in consonance with the modern era,
Mr. Annan observed. He offered proposals, intending to change
the makeup of the Council. He was later to observe, “The
policy of a good number of countries appeared to support
Council expansion in theory but to oppose any specific
proposal in practice.”
Many critical decisions to save lives were, therefore,
compromised as a result of the cumbersome nature of the
relations between member states on the UN Security Council and
their client nations.
However, as brutalities unfolded in places like Kosovo,
Rwanda, East Timor, and later Iraq, a debate on "intervention
and sovereignty" in consonant with "the rights of peoples and
the responsibilities of states" resulted at the UN.
Mr. Annan responded to the situation, as soon as he assumed
the office, with a philosophy of preventive intervention; “The
Responsibility to Protect doctrine,” which should
appropriately be called the Annan doctrine, a very
humanitarian concept indeed in this writer's view.
It was, perhaps, in pursuit of this doctrine that brought Mr.
Annan one of the most controversial challenges of his career.
He met with Saddam Hussein, then president of Iraq, in an
effort to stop the build up to the Iraq war and found him as
“cool and polite and friendly …often the way with those
responsible for massive bloodshed.”
The war happened and Mr. Annan would write in his book, “If
9/11 changed the world, the consequences of the Iraq War were
of similar magnitude.”
UN actions or inactions in some critical situations could test
a reader’s faith in the organization. However, Mr. Annan’s
interventions in places like East Timor made the doctrine
“Responsibility to protect” useful. The purpose was to save
lives and it did.
But Africa was where the UN was really tested.
Mr. Kofi Annan, as African and the chief executive in charge
of the world’s premiere organization, was tested most.
Mr. Annan never complained about racism in his book. But it
would be fair for a reader to note that as African, a failure
on his part would have dimmed chances for future African
leadership at the UN. That he succeeded and was awarded a
Nobel Prize (December 2001) should cause all Africa to
By the time Mr. Annan settled in office, intractable problems
from Africa were already pilling up at his desk.
Somalia and Rwanda had happened. Both events would resonate
throughout his time in office as attempts were made at the UN
to arrive at definition for a word like genocide. Was ethnic
cleansing genocide when it happened in Bosnia and different
when the same happened in Rwanda?
From a practical point, Africa had the most
problems; HIV/AIDS, malaria and the like. Mr. Annan saw these
diseases as threat to world security. His effort in the
formation of the UN
Global Fund, together with help from U.S President George
PEPFAR, slowed the epidemic.
The other epidemic was a bit nebulous;
getting some African leaders to own up to their failings.
Mr. Annan wanted African leaders to take responsibility for
the bad jobs done so far on the continent. Passing blame unto
the colonial experience wouldn’t do. And that the mindset
“African solution to African problems” though necessary, help
from outside, if it produced the right result, was also
His dealings with political players revealed a side of Mr.
Annan’s sense of humor and skill at deploying the personal
touch to check political problems. The creation of the UN
Human Rights Council brought such opportunity.
Mr. Annan had observed “a curious coalition” between the US,
Cuba and Pakistan against the idea. The US Ambassador at the
time, Dr. John Bolton, though deeply opposed, was “hoping to
hide behind Cuba and Pakistan.”
In a private call to Cuba, Mr. Annan managed to get President
Castro to shift his country’s opposition to the idea and
quickly informed the Pakistani Ambassador about the news.
Mr. Akram, the Ambassador, who for long had maintained strict
opposition, hesitated when he heard that Mr. Annan was
planning to call his president also. The ambassador asked for
a 15-minute respite and came back within time with a change of
mind and to give full support for the creation of the council.
Of this encounter, Mr. Annan concluded, “This was typical of
some ambassadors who routinely claimed to have ‘very strong
instructions’ but could then change those instruction if
This masterful handling left the U.S position exposed and
further opposition from Dr. Bolton became unnecessary.
Again, in Kenya, December 2007, as tragedy loomed during the
constitutional crisis and political violence erupted in the
streets, there was Mr. Annan and his personal touch.
Mr. Annan had retired as the SG when President Kufuor of
Ghana, then chair of the AU, called on him to help. The issue
was an alleged stolen presidential election and the need to
stop the ensuing mass killings.
Mr. Annan conveyed an emergency meeting in Kenya with the
rival political parties. However, a problem arose when the
positioning of the special presidential chair became the
President Kibaki’s team had insisted that the president sat in
the chair as the head, between Mr. Raila Odinga and Mr. Annan.
They forgot for the moment that the very occupancy of that
chair was the subject in question and the purpose for the
Deftly, Mr. Annan allowed the chair into the meeting, but not at
the head. The negotiation was concluded successfully and thus
exposed with humor a flaw in modern African governance; the
big man mentality that puts ego above all exigencies!
He was to remark, “the lack of urgency and childish nature of
these obstacles were something to behold”!
Other political players had a taste of the same skill.
President Musaveni of Uganda, who came to maneuver for
President Kibaki during the same crisis, was outmaneuvered and
had to leave before the meeting started.
The book, Interventions, would leave one with the
obvious: Mr. Annan believed in the UN’s purpose and did his
best to uphold and improve on it. He used critical failings of
the UN and member states as teaching moments in his book.
However, there were achievements. The negotiations in Kenya
and the settlements at East Timor, Bosnia, the Bakassi
Peninsula and Mr. Annan’s support for HIV/AIDS cure must be
crowning achievements. He was a force for good and a champion
Hopefully, the reader would understand the good in Mr. Annan’s
doctrine of "Responsibility to Protect" and in his pursuit of
“developing international norm in favor of intervention in
cases of a wholesale slaughter of a people.” And that
intervention “is testimony to a humanity that cares more, not
less, about the sufferings in its midst, and a humanity that
will do more, and not less, to end it.”
There could not be a better and nobler doctrine in the drive
for peace. Mr. Annan’s explanation should be etched in the
hearts and minds of statesmen.
E. Ablorh-Odjidja,Publisher www.ghanadot.com, Washington,
DC, November 19, 2012.
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