In Defence of Kofi Annan

Volume 17, Issue 2  | 
Published 07/10/2020
Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book ‘Empire’s Child’ has just been published.


Dear Editors

I found Karim Hirji`s critique (in Issue 3 of 2019) of Kofi Annan`s obituary (`FootSTEPS`, Volume 15, Issue 2, 2018) to be rather unfair and overly stated.  He was reacting to what he saw as a superficial and one-sided portrayal of Annan`s record in your piece.  That is a matter of judgment, but has to be based on sound evidence. Traditionally, obituaries do not focus on the misdeeds and foibles of their subjects, though of course it is perfectly legitimate to mention or raise questions about them if the context so warrants. In this case, however, the several assertions made by Hirji about Annan`s conduct and character needed to be discussed in a more nuanced light.

After a long introduction about the Rwandan genocide, Hirji concludes that ‘Madeline Albright and Kofi Annan were implicated as key players in [that] inhumane saga’ and ‘(b)oth were rewarded for having well served the interests of US imperialism’.  He regards Annan as having generally ‘toed the US line’ and not having ‘accomplish[ed] anything of lasting value to Africa’. Actually, Albright`s promotion as US Secretary of State was a purely internal affair for the Americans and Annan`s appointment as UN Secretary General was the result of a multinational consensus. Next, he accuses Annan of having been involved in ‘the second major genocide of the 1990s’, referring to the continuous bombardment of Iraq in pursuance of the draconian sanctions imposed on that country after the Gulf War, and further of a ‘tepid’ opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

These are serious charges, but fortunately the answers to them are to be found in a comprehensive biography, `Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War`, by Stanley Meisler (USA, 2007) and for present purposes I can do no better than to ask the reader to read my review of the book that originally appeared in the (British) Immigration Asylum and Nationality Law Journal (Vol 21, No 2, 2007). 

The subtitle, ‘A Man of Peace in a World of War’, neatly sums up Annan`s character. The book charts Annan`s personal life and professional career, and his progress through the hierarchy of the UN from lowly beginnings in the early 1960s to the top of the organisation as its Secretary General.  He served in that office for two terms from 1997 to 2006, at a crucial turning point in the world`s history.  But where Hirji has gone wrong in his strictures about Annan is to attribute to him personal responsibility for certain actions, when these could not be laid at his door. 

As I wrote in the review: ‘The popular image of the UN as a supra-national body that is somehow capable of imposing its will on the world community at large is of course fundamentally flawed; its activities are shaped by its structure and controlled by a complex decision- making process both at the policy and executive levels.’  To quote from the book: ‘[Annan] understood the limitations of a job that (gave him an air) of a world statesman but no political or military power of his own’.  Far from being in the position of a CEO, he was in terms of the UN Charter, its chief `administrative` officer – a functionary accountable to higher authority.

At the time of the Rwandan genocide, it was  Boutros-Ghali who was Secretary General, while Annan was his under-secretary in charge of UN peacekeeping operations, in which capacity he, as Meisler put it, ‘presided over the most spectacular rise in peacekeeping in UN history and over its most spectacular fall’, namely Rwanda. While that was something that weighed heavily on him, it has to be remembered that an early warning cable about what was about to happen there had passed through several hands in the UN chain of command, for the consequences of which he could not be wholly or largely responsible.  And let us not forget that it was post-Rwanda that he was appointed Secretary General by a substantial majority of the member states.

The book deals at length with how Annan sought to mitigate the effects of the relentless bombardment and sanctions on Iraq following the Gulf War (`genocide` is too strong a term to use, as Hirji does, for that).  And further, in direct contradiction to Hirji`s description of Annan`s `tepid` opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he in fact openly voiced his view that the legitimacy of any such military action without an explicit `second` resolution of the Security Council was open to question, and not be in conformity with the Charter. 

So, to conclude, all the misgivings expressed by Hirji about Annan`s character and conduct are, I respectfully submit, dispelled in Meisler`s biography and my review of it may provide some useful pointers in that direction.

Ramnik Shah

16 May 2020

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.