A Retrospective on Kofi Annan, Dead at 80

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan died on Saturday. The following is a look back on his tumultuous ten years in office by Consortium News Editor-in-Chief Joe Lauria, writing for The Boston Globe on Dec. 29, 2006. 

By Joe Lauria, for The Boston Globe |  December 29, 2006

UNITED NATIONS — Kofi Annan, the first United Nations secretary general from sub-Saharan Africa, ends his 10-year term on Sunday, leaving behind a complex legacy during an era of genocide, terrorism, and US dominance.

The 2001 Nobel Peace Prize recipient charted a treacherous course between pleasing and antagonizing Washington while resisting persistent calls for his resignation over the worst corruption scandal in UN history.

Annan was a secretary general of many contradictions: the first UN staff member to rise to the top, he was later reviled by much of the staff. A champion of developing world causes against entrenched First World power, he was lambasted as a toady of the West. And while critics say his inactions contributed to genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, he later became a leading advocate for military intervention to curb mass killings.

His career as the world’s top diplomat has evoked strong views from both supporters and detractors.

“It has been a decade of unmitigated failure,” said Nile Gardiner, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “He is probably the worst UN secretary general in history.”

“He will rank historically with Dag Hammarskjöld as one of the two most important secretaries general in the evolution of the organization,” said William Luers, president of the UN Association of the USA.

Annan’s relationship with Washington most pointedly shaped his tenure as secretary general. If he drew too close to the United States, such as on UN reform, developing nations blasted him; when he opposed the United States, such as on Iraq, trade, and development assistance, he was pilloried, especially in Congress.

Obsessed With Washington

Annan: Obsessed, April 2005 (UN Photo)

Ed Luck, a UN specialist at Columbia University, thinks Annan was too focused on Washington for his own and the United Nations’s good. “The UN should stop obsessing about the US. It is not going to give up on the UN,” he said. “It seems much of the time he was trying to cater to Washington, bend over backwards if some senator complains.”

“By doing so,” Luck said, “he lost credibility with many of the other member states, feeding into this sense that the US is trying to dominate everything and the secretary general is just a puppet.”

A resentful Annan in turn criticized Washington, Luck said. Just before the 2004 US presidential election, Annan angered the Bush administration by branding the invasion of Iraq as “illegal.”

In his farewell address at the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., on Dec. 11, Annan aroused anger in America by saying, “No nation can make itself secure by seeking supremacy over all others.” He added that world institutions could not accomplish much “when the US remains aloof.”

Washington defenders were incensed. Gardiner blasted Annan as “a very antagonistic secretary general who has gone out of his way to be very unhelpful.”

But Luers said: “His problem has been principally the US attitude of perceiving the UN as a threat to US power, as a counter to the US approach to the world. It was a US, not Kofi, problem.”

When Annan and his son Kojo got caught up in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal two years ago, UN officials saw the Washington attacks as purely partisan payback for Annan’s opposition to the Iraq war.

“When there were rumors of his son’s involvement, instead of ordering a serious investigation he simply dismissed it as part of a political agenda against the UN,” Luck said. “Most people in the Secretariat to this day view oil – for – food that way.”

Annan met three times with the president of Cotecna, a Swiss firm that employed Kojo and was bidding for a UN contract. Cotecna wanted to inspect shipments to Iraq in the oil-for-food program, designed to help ordinary Iraqis overcome sanctions imposed after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

At first Annan denied to investigators ever meeting with the Cotecna president. When presented with evidence of the meetings, he said they had nothing to do with his son or the contract. Three months after the final meeting Cotenca got the $10 million deal.

Some Annan supporters concede that there was at least an appearance of conflict of interest.

Annan defenders such as Dumisani Kumalo, South Africa’s UN ambassador, blame the Security Council. “They created the program, they ran the program,” he said. “It failed and they blamed Kofi Annan. The oil – for – food program is an unfair blemish on him.”

Annan said at his final press conference: “The scandal, if any, was in the capitals and with the 2,200 companies that made a deal with Saddam behind our backs.”

The Rwanda Cable

Annan in Rwanda, 1998, where he faced hecklers for failing to act. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

With the scandal behind him, Annan enters retirement, part of which he will spend in his native Ghana, where he born in 1938 in Kumasi. He received an economics degree from Macalester College in St. Paul and a master’s in management as a Sloan Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Annan joined the United Nations as a budget officer in Geneva in 1962 and eventually would be head of budget, personnel director, and undersecretary general for peacekeeping.

In that last post, he received a cable on Jan. 11, 1994, from the UN force commander in Rwanda asking for reinforcements to prevent an impending genocide in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis would be massacred.

A later UN investigation found that Annan failed to act urgently on the request. A similar thing occurred at Srebrenica, where a UN inquiry found that he did too little to help stop the massacre of 8,000 Bosnians in July 1995.

Adam Lebor, author of a new book about the United Nations and genocide, says Annan was bound by the United Nations’ principle of strict neutrality and the charter’s prohibition against the United Nations interfering in a nation’s internal affairs. But “guilt” over Srebrenica and Rwanda has led Annan to now back military intervention to stop genocide, Lebor said.

After a Human Rights Day speech this month, Annan told the Globe that Security Council powers knew more and earlier about what was to happen in Rwanda.

“Let’s assume they didn’t know,” he said. “But what did they do when they found out? They sent planes to repatriate their nationals and allowed the killing to go on.”

Annan’s harshest critics, like Gardiner, say Rwanda and Srebrenica were his “darkest hours.”

“The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Kofi Annan was an absolute travesty,” Gardiner said. “He could have done more to save lives and he chose not to.”

In his defense, Annan said at his final press conference that he was made the scapegoat for all the world’s problems.

“There is a tendency in certain places to blame the secretary general for everything, for Rwanda, for Srebrenica, for Darfur, but should we not also blame the secretary general for Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the tsunami, earthquakes?” he said. “Perhaps the secretary general should be blamed for all of those things, too.” 

Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston GlobeSunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .


32 comments for “A Retrospective on Kofi Annan, Dead at 80

  1. Roberto Molina
    August 28, 2018 at 17:16

    Hello, amigo Lauria!! Thanks for remembering us the real face of Kofi Annan. The article has a great value, because was written 12 years ago, when the former UN secretary general was still alive and in capacity (or incapacity) to reply you. Thank you ¡, again. Roberto Molina, former Prensa Latina´s correspondent at the UN.

  2. wb763
    August 22, 2018 at 15:53

    Perry Anderson dissected the career of this “House Negro” as Malcolm X accurately described his psychological type:



    • ashanti
      August 24, 2018 at 00:17

      You are spot on. I posted a comment including Malcom’s apt description of the House Negro with reference to Kofi. The comment was not published. Kofi was a calculating figure and put career and ambition ahead of principles unlike UN officials Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck. The fact that his impressionable years were spent at Macalester College in St. Paul and later MIT meant that he had special affection and partiality towards Americans. Career and ambition played a crucial role in Kofi’s life. Kofi stated that the Iraq War was illegal AFTER that fact when it was convenient to do so. If he had done so during the invasion perhaps many lives would have been saved from the millions slaughtered, maimed and displaced. Kofi was an opportunist.

      • conrad
        August 25, 2018 at 14:43

        The great George Carlin did a nice skit about another beloved “House Negro”:



        Incidentally, Malcolm X in his autobiography distinguished between Black Americans and those he called “West Indians” like Colin Powell. Some of the latter are proud of their lighter skin tone (Malcolm X’s mother was one of those, but she was ashamed of the rapist’s blood in her veins). Malcolm Gladwell, like Colin Powell is one of those West Indians, proud of his right-wing worldview and contempt toward the darker-skinned “Field Negroes”. Just searching for a random video of him I came across this one in which he’s praising the white nationalist/misogynist/fascist mystic, Jordan Peterson:


        If you want to get a better idea of why things are so messed up in places like Haiti and Jamaica, a good place to start would be to see the effect these lighter-skinned “comprador bourgeoisie” have had on these unfortunate islands, although there is always the rare honorable exception:


  3. Edward
    August 22, 2018 at 08:06

    Madeline Albright arranged for Anan to replace Boutros Gali because Gali had criticized Israel over the Qana massacre in Lebanon. Anan, on the other hand, who was stationed in Lebanon at the time, had written a UN report on the massacre that whitewashed Israel’s crime, endearing him to the White House. During the 1990’s, Anan showed little interest in opposing the sanctions on Iraq, unlike Denis Halliday, Hans Von Sponek, or other less prominant UN officials. Once in a while circumstances would compel him to blandly oppose the U.S., but his heart didn’t seem in it. I remember him once publicly saying an illegal U.S. attack on Iraq was a useful form of coercion. My impression of him was of an amoral bureaucrat and I have no troubled his son, like many others, was trying to loot the food for oil program, although the publicity around this scandal may have been U.S. retaliation against Anan.

  4. Obit-1-Kenobi
    August 20, 2018 at 16:03

    Having passed away, Kofi Annan will now be promoting US interests in the Afterlife.

    • August 21, 2018 at 04:08

      Such activity by him will cease there, if he’s there. If he’s not, then he’s nowhere.

    • Joe Lauria
      August 21, 2018 at 15:12

      Yes Annan was Washington’s man. But he also was aware of his other constituency, developing nations particularly Africa as the first sub-Saharan African, so he was conflicted between the two, as my Boston Globe piece makes clear. If you want a real US Yes Man at the UN check out my assessment of Ban Ki-Moon that I wrote for Consortium News last year when he left office.


  5. August 20, 2018 at 14:07

    Ahem. Regarding Rwanda:

    From an interview of Edward Herman by Ann Garrison (real leftists), the following:

    == =
    AG: OK, let’s move on to Chapter Four: “Rwandan genocide by the numbers.” When Professor Allan Stam wrote to a U.N. official to ask how he estimated that the dead in Rwanda were 500,000, the U.N. official responded that he couldn’t quite remember, but they knew they needed a really big number.

    The numbers that eventually came to be most widely accepted were that 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsi and a few Hutu moderates who tried to protect them died at the hands of Hutu extremists. Why is this impossible?

    EH: It’s impossible because the number of Tutsi in Rwanda, back in 1994, was way under 800,000. In fact, the best figure one could come up with in those early years was based on the census, the Rwandan census of 1991, which gave the Tutsi numbers at about 590,000.

    So if all of them were wiped out, it wouldn’t come anywhere near 800,000. But all of them weren’t wiped out. After the war, the best estimate, which was by a Tutsi survivors’ group, was that there were 400,000 Tutsi still there.

    So let’s say there were 600,000 beforehand and afterwards there were 400,000, that means 200,000 dead Tutsi. If there were 800,000 killed and 200,000 of them were Tutsi, 600,000 of them must have been Hutu.

    If it was a million, 800,000 of them must have been Hutu. And it’s completely logical that the Hutu were the greatest victims by number, because this was an invasion by a Tutsi army.

    If a million Rwandans were killed in 1994, 800,000 of them must have been Hutu. And it’s completely logical that the Hutu were the greatest victims by number, because this was an invasion by a Tutsi army.

    I conclude, as do Christian Davenport and Allan Stam, who did a very careful study of the killings in 1994, that many more Hutu were killed than Tutsi. And my estimate would be that it was between a 2 to 1 and 5 to 1 ratio, probably more like 4 to 1. That’s my best point estimate.
    = ==


  6. DRG
    August 20, 2018 at 12:36

    Kofi Annan never did much to stop the ethnic cleansing of Occupied Palestine to my knowledge.

  7. August 20, 2018 at 02:48

    Kofi Annan was the last UN Secretary-General with what I view as integrity.

    We just do not hear the US being questioned or criticized anymore by the heads of the world’s peace organization about its rampaging wars through the Middle East and other aggression.

    The US always punishes UN officials who do speak out.

    The American Neocon Madeleine Albright won her State Department spurs in part by helping rid the UN of an even more forthright critic, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

    And of course, its recent actions of quitting some important UN agencies and cutting its financial support is quite intimidating.

  8. Antiwar7
    August 20, 2018 at 02:13

    Annan was more of a US toady than this article portrays. In fact, it was why he got the job of UN Sec Gen, replacing Boutros Ghali unusually after a single term. Annan was head of UN Peacekeeping, and as stated in the English Wikipedia article on Annan, “On 29 August 1995, while Boutros-Ghali was unreachable on an airplane, Annan instructed United Nations officials to “relinquish for a limited period of time their authority to veto air strikes in Bosnia.” This move allowed NATO forces to conduct Operation Deliberate Force and made him a favorite of the United States.”

    • August 20, 2018 at 02:54

      I agree he was far from ideal, vis-a-vis American aggression and imperialism.

      But he did speak to truth now and then.

      We don’t even have that limited effort now.

      The US has smothered the UN as a voice for the other 95% of humanity.

      • Antiwar7
        August 20, 2018 at 11:36

        I get what you’re saying, John, and it’s good that he said such things after he got his promotion. But as to going to war, which is like deploying a thousand serial killers, I’m not very forgiving.

    • rosemerry
      August 20, 2018 at 14:54

      Of course the USA got rid of Boutros-Ghali, who was not obedient enough to the USA. Many other UN officials have suffered this fate,as recounted in William Blum’s book “Rogue State”, like the first head of the OPCW.
      As for the “responsibility to protect”-if there is one thing bully states do not need, it is more excuse to interfere. To pretend they had not already interfered in Rwanda is ludicrous.

  9. Johan Meyer
    August 20, 2018 at 01:35

    The alleged fax by Dallaire is a fake several times over, as was shown during the Military II trial at Arusha. Kudos to counsel for Augustin Ndindiliyimana, namely Christopher Black, for shredding that fraud. To wit:
    1. The informant, “Jean Pierre” (aka Abu Bakar Turatsinze) was not forthcoming with the names of the allegedly 200 intended victims (his version to UN peacekeeper/investigator Amadou Deme; Dallaire never met him; no mention of thousands let alone hundreds of thousands). The one name that he mentioned (the “very very important person”—sic), namely Faustin Twagiramungu, for whom Dallaire sought protection, was later converted, through the magic of Rwanda Genocide Ideology, into a genocidaire, and denied entry to Canada. Twagiramungu had fallen out with Kagame.

    2. The numbers of the paragraphs are not in sequence, and one paragraph is missing.

    3. The version published by Gourevitch (apologetist for genocide against Hutus, and who called the Rwandan governmental soldiers and officers who were protecting Hutu refugees in DRC, “Hutu Genocidaires,” despite the facts that they had both tried to stop the ethnic massacres and were disproportionately baTuutsi), was redacted. To wit, the fact that the document that Gourevitch published was not an original, but had been faxed to the UN from a British military base during 1995, was hidden both by Gourevitch and by the prosecutor at Arusha, but Black caught them. Oops.

    4. Even the doctored fax published by Gourevitch does not suggest a plan of mass killing.

    5. Abu Bakar Turatsinze was a black market weapon dealer who had ties to Kagame.

    • Antiwar7
      August 20, 2018 at 02:33

      Yes, the whole Rwanda affair was the opposite of what most people think occurred there. It was the Tutsi-dominated RPF that killed the two presidents (of Rwanda and Burundi) and invaded, and they were responsible for the majority of victims, not the Rwandan govt forces. The US and British govts were backing the RPF, and that’s the real reason UN peacekeeping forces were prevented from increasing their presence. They were kept away to allow the RPF to do their dirty work unhindered. See the book by Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide.

  10. Eddie
    August 19, 2018 at 22:48

    I for one support the UN, even with all its problems. As bad as the world is now, I strongly believe that it would be worse by a degree or two if we didn’t have an international forum like it where nations had to at least present a posture that they cared about peaceful relations —- it presents a standard of international behavior that countries are measured against. Does it prevent all the horrors that can happen in the world? Hardly. But what’s the next best alternative.. having countries rampantly interfering in each other’s business even MORE than they do now, with no norms to say otherwise? It sounds too much like 1913 to me.
    And the concept of neutrality/non-intervention that the UN has to try to have is easily criticized AFTER the fact, but it’s a much tougher call EARLY in any developing crisis —- someone is always going to end-up taking offense when you intervene. Also, how would the US populace react IF UN troops were sent to some region of the US because of, say… police shootings or city riots?

  11. August 19, 2018 at 17:51

    Move the UN headquarters off US territory. The US has entirely too much influence on the UN. I suggest moving it to Lichtenstein, a nation with little skin in the game.

  12. August 19, 2018 at 17:16

    Taxpayers fund the U.N. I believe it is an organization that is a home for bureaucrats and needs to be dismantled. It is poking its nose into countless countries in the name of “helping.” Instead, I believe it is hypocritical and dangerous. More info at link below.
    September 21, 2016
    Did “War Criminals,” Arms Dealers, Dictators, Despots and “Useful Idiots” Attend the United Nations (UN) Meeting in New York?

  13. August 18, 2018 at 23:50

    He earned his peace prize the same way Obama did.

    The entire system is a parody.

  14. Tom Kath
    August 18, 2018 at 22:06

    The ultimate “worth” of any mortal is not measured in the scale or number of his failings or successful achievements, but by the relationship between the two.

  15. MrTea
    August 18, 2018 at 22:01

    I used to listen to tales of the oil-for-food abuses on John Batchelor’s radio program. Other than that I did not read anything about it on the corporate news sources (conspicuously PBS stepped around it too). This site will be one of the few places that will make any note of it. MSM circles the drain by the day, one can only wonder what proportion of the literate electorate (itself shrinking alarmingly) remains entranced by what spews forth from the Alleged News Networks. I note recent reports of Sen Mark Warner cheerleading the Tech Titans censoring of views he doesn’t approve of–though the same tech cos suck up to the grotesquely abusive Chinese regime with the apparent approval of Warner and his corporatist minions.

    • backwardsevolution
      August 19, 2018 at 14:38

      “Okay, so we have Warner very much in the thick of the DOJ negotiations with Assange. Fast forward to late June 2018, when his name pops up again in a list of 10 Democratic Senators who asked Vice President Mike Pence to, on a visit to Ecuador, ask new president Lenin Moreno to revoke Assange’s asylum on the London embassy. […]

      Just like someone should investigate Mark Warner’s role in all of this. Warner was pivotal in killing off the Assange legal teams’ talks with the DOJ, he asked Ecuador to stop Assange’s asylum (which is so illegal you don’t even want to go there), and now he requests for Assange to appear before the US Senate.

      Someone investigate that guy.”


      And now Warner is cheerleading censorship. Yes, someone really should investigate that guy!

  16. jsinton
    August 18, 2018 at 20:22

    Mr. Annan would have never been SecGen without Washington approval. All these guys are “owned”, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the position they attain.

    • Joe Lauria
      August 18, 2018 at 20:34

      They also need the approval of Russia, China, Britain and France, all of whom can veto the appointment of a secretary-general.

      • Joe Lauria
        August 19, 2018 at 00:11

        What browser are you using? It’s working perfectly well with Chrome and Safari.

  17. David G
    August 18, 2018 at 18:51

    A Nobel Peace Prize must look nice on the study wall, but the highest plaudit a U.N. secretary general can receive is having the U.S. veto his second term, as Annan’s predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali did.

    • LarcoMarco
      August 18, 2018 at 20:52

      From Wiki: “Boutros-Ghali ran unopposed for the customary second term in 1996, despite efforts by the United States to unseat him. U.S. ambassador Madeleine Albright asked Boutros-Ghali to resign and offered to establish a foundation for him to run, an offer that other Western diplomats called “ludicrous.” American diplomatic pressure also had no effect, as other members of the Security Council remained unwavering in their support for Boutros-Ghali. He won 14 of the 15 votes in the Security Council, but the sole negative vote was a U.S. veto. Boutros-Ghali became the only Secretary-General ever to be denied a second term by a veto.”

      • Johan Meyer
        August 20, 2018 at 01:08

        Annan was used to deflect attention from the US intervention in Rwanda (sic, started on 1 October, 1990). Boutros-Ghali was unambiguous that the (largely bUgandan-perpetrated, with constant western diplomatic cover and weapon supply), was “100% the fault of the Americans.” (Boutros-Ghali, to Robin Philpot).

        FWIW, I think he underestimated the Canadian, British and Belgian roles.

        Needless to say, there were neither genocides nor mass rapes beyond the norms of war in Bosnia, and the Bosnian Serbs suffered as rape victims disproportionately. The single biggest ethnic cleansing of the war was with US blessings, namely Operation Storm (Croatian forces cleansing the Serb Krajina, i.e. where the Serb inventor Nikola Tesla was from).

  18. Realist
    August 18, 2018 at 18:09

    “There is a tendency in certain places to blame the secretary general for everything, for Rwanda, for Srebrenica, for Darfur, but should we not also blame the secretary general for Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the tsunami, earthquakes?” he said. “Perhaps the secretary general should be blamed for all of those things, too.”

    The entire UN including its secretary general has pretty much become irrelevant and totally ignored by Washington and its media poodles in the interim since Annan spoke those words. There is a new scapegoat in town, blamed for anything and everything: Russia under Vladimir Putin. Nothing has ever been more obvious.

    • MrTea
      August 18, 2018 at 21:45

      I recall a C-Span guest years ago who opined, ‘the only useful thing about the UN is you can spy on these despots when they are in New York”.

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