Skip to content

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan dies at 80

Kofi Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning, charismatic statesman who rose to become the first Black African U.N. secretary-general, has died. He was 80.

BERN, Switzerland (AN) — Kofi Annan, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat and charismatic global statesman who rose to become the first Black African secretary-general of the United Nations, embodying many of its biggest successes, failures and challenges, has died. He was 80.

Born in Ghana, Annan served as the U.N.'s seventh secretary-general from January 1997 to December 2006. Afterwards he made his home in Geneva, where he set up his eponymous foundation.

He passed away peacefully in his sleep on August 18 in a hospital in the Swiss capital Bern from a short, undisclosed illness, according to Annan's family and the Kofi Annan Foundation, which jointly announced his death.

Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo ordered the national flag flown at half-staff across the country and in all of Ghana’s diplomatic missions across the world for one week starting on August 20.

As the first African to become U.N. chief, Annan "brought considerable renown to our country by this position and through his conduct and comportment in the global arena,"Akufo-Addo said. "He was an ardent believer in the capacity of the Ghanaian to chart his or her own course onto the path of progress and prosperity."

The U.N. flag flew at half-staff at U.N. headquarters in New York and a bouquet of flowers was put under Annan’s portrait. Leaders in France, India, Israel, Russia and other nations praised Annan, part of a global outpouring of sadness and accolades for a man that South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa called "a diplomat extraordinaire" and role model for many Africans.

The news of Annan's death, Ramaphosa said, came as "a great shock to us as we were with him only a few weeks ago when he visited South Africa. It is indeed a great loss to us and to the global community."

Switzerland's President Alain Berset called Annan "a visionary and a great friend of Switzerland who dedicated his life to upholding the ideals of the United Nations through his tireless efforts towards peace, human rights and development. Today, international Geneva has lost one of its most ardent advocates."

Annan worked his way up through the ranks as an administrator within the U.N. system to become its first chief hired from within, and came to personify the ideals of multicultural globalism of the late 20th century, becoming a mentor to others pursuing international diplomacy, economic and social equality, justice and diversity.

"A guiding force for good"

During his tenure, Annan and the United Nations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for having revitalized the world body and making human rights a top priority.

"The idea that there is one people in possession of the truth, one answer to the world’s ills, or one solution to humanity’s needs, has done untold harm throughout history — especially in the last century," Annan said in his 2001 Nobel acceptance speech.

"Today, however, even amidst continuing ethnic conflict around the world, there is a growing understanding that human diversity is both the reality that makes dialogue necessary, and the very basis for that dialogue," he said.

Despite his political acumen, charisma and elegant style, Annan's leadership included some of the biggest scandals and setbacks in the world body's 73-year history. From the start he had to devote much energy and time towards propping up and restoring the United Nations' image. He succeeded in deepening the international organization's dedication to poverty reduction and peacekeeping.

"Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good. It is with profound sadness that I learned of his passing.  In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organization into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who took on the job in January 2017, said in a statement posted online.

Guterres, who replaced Annan's successor, Ban Ki-moon, said Annan was a "proud son of Africa who became a global champion for peace and all humanity" and that he had "never stopped working to give life to the values of the United Nations Charter."

A privileged son of Ghana

His time at the helm of the world body began little more than a half-decade after the Soviet Union's collapse and continued through the challenges of global counterterrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Afterward, Annan became the U.N.-Arab League’s special envoy to Syria in 2012 and devoted himself to causes through his self-named foundation.

He considered the world's divisions over the United States-led war against Iraq and his inability to stop it from happening to be his "darkest moment," according to a 2013 interview with TIME magazine that coincided with the release of his memoir, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace.”

In a videotaped interview posted on the Kofi Annan Foundation’s website, he said the U.N. Security Council "was right in not sanctioning the war," which would have further damaged the U.N.'s reputation. Although at that point, President (George W.) Bush said the U.N. was headed toward irrelevance, because we had not supported the war. But now we know better," Annan said.

Annan was born on April 8, 1938, in Kumasi, Ghana. He was the son of a provincial governor and the grandson of two tribal chiefs.

His middle name Atta, which means “twin” in Ghana’s Akan language, referred to a sister, Efua. He learned English, French and several African languages while studying in Ghana and the United States, where he studied economics at Minnesota's Macalester College. He did graduate work in Geneva and then began working for the United Nations.

Annan married a Nigerian woman, Titi Alakija, and had a daughter, Ama, and a son, Kojo, before returning to the United States to earn a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

After the couple separated, Annan met his second wife, Swedish lawyer Nane Lagergren, while working in Geneva, where they made their home.

On his watch: Genocide and massacre

Annan worked for the United Nations in Ethiopia, Egypt and Geneva, then at U.N. headquarters in New York. He was involved in getting staff out of Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and led negotiations to sell Iraq oil in exchange for humanitarian relief, in what became known as the oil-for-food program — later embroiled in the U.N.'s biggest scandal.

Annan served as U.N. peacekeeping chief and special envoy to the former Yugoslavia. Under his command, U.N. peacekeeping troops experienced their greatest failures — the 1994 Rwanda genocide and 1995 Bosnian massacre in Srebrenica. He oversaw peacekeeping troops during the 1993 battle of Mogadishu that killed hundreds of Somalis and 18 Americans and led to the subsequent collapse of the peacekeeping mission. The battle was portrayed in the movie "Black Hawk Down."

Annan apologized for the troops' failures to save civilian lives and later called for U.N. reports that wound up criticizing him, though he would not accept any deeply personal or institutional responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost collectively.

In cables between him and his force commander, however, they discussed the possibility of a Rwandan genocide before it happened. One of them, sent by a Canadian general in January 1994, asked for authorization to prevent the "extermination" of Tutsis in Kigali and the killing of "up to a thousand Tutsis.” Annan instructed the general to follow diplomatic protocol, which accomplished nothing.

Because of his experiences, and perhaps an unexpressed sense of inwardly nagging guilt, he championed a new “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine that is still debated today: the notion that countries should intervene ahead of time to prevent the world from experiencing more genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes.

The challenge was passed on to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, or ICISS, set up by Canada's government. That commission issued a report entitled "The Responsibility to Protect" at the end of 2001 that sought to reconcile the notions of intervention and sovereignty.

He also played a key role in fashioning what became known as the Millennium Development Goals for reducing poverty worldwide by 2015 and in the creation of the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, now the world's biggest disease-fighting financing tool.

In 2005, the U.N. was subjected to withering criticism over allegations of corruption in the U.N.'s oil-for-food program in Iraq and widespread sex abuse by U.N. peacekeepers. His son, Kojo, also did not disclose payments he received from his employer, which had an oil-for-food program contract. Annan was investigated and interviewed, but no wrongdoing or link between him and his son's contract was found. An internal U.N. Ethics Office ultimately was created.

A diplomatic "rock star"

Annan said upon his departure as U.N. chief that his top achievements revolved around his campaigns for human rights and efforts to alleviate poverty and diseases.

Former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke once memorialized Annan in the minds of many as “an international rock star of diplomacy.” Annan also became a founding member and chair of The Elders, an international organization of former leaders that Nelson Mandela began.

The group mourned the loss of "a voice of great authority and wisdom in public and private," most recently on visits to South Africa and Zimbabwe, and noted Annan's commitment to peace and staunch opposition to military aggression, notably the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“We are devastated at the loss of our dear friend and fellow Elder," said Gro Harlem Brundtland, the group's deputy chair, in a statement posted online.

"Kofi was a strong and inspiring presence to us all, and The Elders would not be where it is today without his leadership," he said. "Throughout his life, Kofi worked unceasingly to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. While we mourn his passing today, we resolve as Elders to continue to uphold his values and legacy into the future."

Sought-after adviser

Annan's work in Geneva with The Elders and the Kofi Annan Foundation contributed to his "hectic international schedule," according to The Elders' statement. "His quiet advice on how best to defuse impending crises was in constant demand from all corners of the globe, in particular from Africa."

Funeral arrangements had not yet been made publicly available, but his family, which requested privacy for now, promised to announce them later.

"Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy," his family and foundation said in their statement posted on Twitter.

"He selflessly placed others first, radiating genuine kindness, warmth and brilliance in all he did," they said. "He will be greatly missed by so many around the world, as well as his staff at the Foundation and his many former colleagues in the United Nations system. He will remain in our hearts forever."