The world was saddened last week with the news of the death of Kofi Annan, the first black African to lead the United Nations. He died at age 80. He served as Secretary-General at a time when worries about the Cold War were replaced by threats of global terrorism, and his efforts to combat those threats and secure a more peaceful world brought him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Annan, who was born in Ghana in 1938, served as the seventh UN Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006 and was the first to rise from within the ranks of the United Nations staff.
He had also been a member, since 2007, of The Elders, a humanitarian group of a dozen leaders and activists of worldwide stature formed by Nelson Mandela. In 2013, Annan became its chairman.
He started working with the United Nations in 1962, beginning with the World Health Organisation and then moving on to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. From 1992 to 1996, he was Under Secretary-General for peacekeeping operations and he oversaw the deployment of over 70 000 troops and other personnel to conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. He was also heavily involved in peace processes between Israel and Lebanon and East Timor and Indonesia in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
He was an effective diplomat, a shrewd negotiator and an intelligent strategist. He was such a successful bureaucratic operator that he was the first UN employee to rise to the position of Secretary General.
When he took over the organisation it was facing numerous challenges. They included a tense and often hostile relationship with its most powerful member state, the US, a difficult budgetary situation and what appeared to be an inability to fulfill its core peacekeeping, human rights and development functions.
By the end of his term, things looked very different. Relations with key member countries had been restored, the UN had a sound fiscal position and both he and the organisation had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition, the organisation had launched some important new initiatives. It had adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which contributed to significant gains in health, education and human welfare in many countries around the world. The initiative was so successful that it was succeeded by the even more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In addition, the international community had established the International Criminal Court and had begun prosecuting war criminals for their deeds in the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
He had also initiated the process of getting corporations to recognise and accept their responsibility for the environmental, social and human rights consequences of their activities. This process moved slowly. But his efforts ultimately led to the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsing the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. These have now been incorporated into the human rights policies of many companies and have led to a number of countries adopting national action plans on the human rights responsibilities of business.
Kofi Annan had a significant impact by being very active for peace worldwide, the respect for human rights, development in many parts of the world and the global fight against terrorism. Throughout his career, he tirelessly worked for peace and security everywhere. In 2000, he was able to assure the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and in 2004, he attempted to resolve the conflict in Cyprus by proposing a reunification plan that was brought to a referendum vote.
After his second term ended in 2007, Annan continued to work for peace, security, human rights and sustainable development worldwide with the Kofi Annan Foundation. Its goals are said to be to promote global governance and achieve a fairer and more secure world. He served for six months as United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria in 2012 and resigned after offering a six-point peace plan for Syria and criticising the UN Security Council for “finger-pointing and name-calling”.
Kofi Annan used his foundation to mobilise leaders of all sectors to provide leadership where it is needed.
He firmly believed in the power of the next generation and was dedicated to passing on his wisdom to young leaders. He worked with groups like the One Young World to address issues close to his heart like world peace and climate change. He and Kate Robertson and David Jones led the campaign for Climate Action ahead of COP15. This was where Annan emphasized that Climate change is an all encompassing threat: a threat to health, a threat to water, a threat to our food supplies in which we cannot just sit back and wish it away without acting. He wanted the whole world, including the skeptics, to be involved in addressing the challenges posed by Climate Change.
Annan revealed that his commitment to humanitarianism was sparked by witnessing Ghana’s Independence Movement as he grew up. He noted at One Young World in 2012: “No one starts tackling the big issues – I started with a hunger strike at the age of sixteen, I tried to make a difference. We all start at some level and we move on – what we do today will be part of us tomorrow. When I was a teenager and the struggle for independence was beginning, all of us in school were excited about independence and freedom and we achieved it. For me as a young man, who could feel electricity in the air, having heard all this talk about change, change arrived and inspired other African nations. So I grew up thinking change was possible and I’ve lived my life believing that change is possible.”
He wanted to share this belief with the next generation and so collaborated with One Young World on the Kofi Annan Dialogues: an unprecedented series of conversations on critical global issues, held between Kofi Annan and young people around the world. These were to serve as a repository of his knowledge to inspire and inform the next generation.
Kofi Annan served humanity well. He left the world better than he met it. In the process of changing the world, he inspired mankind, young and old, to make this world a better place for all who lives in it. He cared about humanity and the environment that sustains man and makes this world a livable place. In his honour let us work for peace in our country, Nigeria and the world. Let us care about our environment and do all we can to address the remote causes of Climate Change and come up with robust mitigation measures against Climate Change impact. Let us work for world peace and environmental sustainability, like Kofi Annan did. This will ensure that we left a better world for the next generation!