Book Review: Kofi Annan: Guiding the United Nations


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Book: Kofi Annan: Guiding the United Nations

Author: Rachel A. Koestler-Grack

Publisher: Chelsea House Publications (2007)

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi A. Annan was secretary general for the UN for 9 years (1997-2006). The seventh secretary general of the UN is well known for his work “for a better organized and more peaceful world.” Kofi Annan was born in 1938 in Kumasi, an inland city, into an aristocratic family of the British colony of the erstwhile Gold Coast (Present Ghana). He was son of tribal chief of the ‘Fante’ people. The Ford Foundation Scholar completed his studies first in economics at Macalester College in Minnesota, followed by international relations at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He started his career in the UN in 1962, the decade of the outset of African-American civil rights movement and the start of Martin Luther King’s Birmingham campaign.

As Assistant Secretary-General in charge of human resources management and staff safety and security (1987-90) Kofi Annan was able to negotiate with Saddam Hussein as to the release 900 UN employees. He was then put in charge of the budget  1990 and in 1993 peacekeeping operations under New Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1993-96) with a brief interlude as a special envoy for Yugoslavia. All these achievements and experiences in this life have made him an exceptional professional personnel in the orb of UN. After the tenure of  Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghal his highly decorated career paved his path to be the 7th Secretary General of the UN.

The second chapter of the book spends a significant portion to present the history of the continent which is called the ‘Cradle of Humanity’ i.e. the Africa, a region of more than half a century states with variegated diversity.

The author begins the history of Africa about 500 years before Kofi was born when Africans were introduced to a new challenge that changed their homeland forever— the arrival of European sailors.

There was so much gold in the region that Europeans began calling it the “Gold Coast.” Little did the natives know, however, that it was only a matter of time before Europeans would establish permanent settlements on the continent and claim the land as their own. Europeans’ commercial interest in trading gold, spices, and ivory was later extended to new tragic business- African slaves. At this time, most Europeans believed whites were superior to Africans. Europeans were terribly wrong, however. Author justifies her statement, ‘Perhaps Africans lacked the technology of Europeans, but they were far from simple-minded. Over thousands of years, Africans had sustained powerful empires and built mind-boggling temples and cities.’

In the following chapter (i.e. chapter 3) the author tries to sketch the life of Kofi Annan as a young leader. The learning from his day to day academic helped him to shun as a good observer. Author cites (p.19),

‘One day, the headmaster walked into one of Kofi’s classrooms. He set up a wide piece of white paper. In the center of the sheet was a black dot. “Boys, what do you see?” the headmaster asked. “A black dot!” the students shouted in unison. The headmaster narrowed his eyes in disappointment. “So not a single one of you saw the broad white sheet of paper? Don’t go through life with that attitude.”8 This lesson was one Kofi would never forget. In fact, he would soon get to put this skill of “seeing the big picture” to the test.’

Kofi Annan attended a summer program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Later, begin his U.S. college experience at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. There, Kofi Annan learned about the importance of world peace and international relationships. He was successful in his academic life. He was a state champion orator, a member of the debate team, and he served as president of the Cosmopolitan Club—a group that encouraged friendship between American and international students. As his college years passed by, it became more and more apparent that Annan had a gift for public relations. In 1960, Harry Morgan, head of Macalester’s International Center, picked Annan and three other students to travel across the country as part of a program to take foreign students on the road to see America.

Chapter 4 mainly focuses on his workings in UNHCR and his negotiating skill during Iraq war. When Annan began working with the UNHCR, the people of Afghanistan were already tangled in crisis. Throughout the preceding decades after the scourge of WWII, Afghanistan had experienced political turbulence, military coups, and violence. In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded the country and took over the government.

Wave upon wave of people fled their homeland, seeking refuge in surrounding countries and throughout the world. These refugees suffered hunger, droughts, and diseases.  The UNHCR helped establish refugee camps in the neighboring country of Pakistan. As the war dragged on, many of these camps became permanent settlements for Afghanistan refugees.

At the same time, in another corner of the world, people were in the same kind of trouble. Ethiopia, in eastern Africa, is primarily a rural society. Throughout history, they have faced political repression, as well as countless natural disasters and military conflicts.  In 1969, a drought hit the Sahel (the small, eastern portion of Africa that juts out into the Arabian Sea) and spread east through the horn of Africa (the zone around the southern border of the Sahara Desert). Emergency food supplies quickly ran out, and by 1973, famine threatened the lives of thousands of Ethiopian nomads, who had left their homeland and traveled to Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Sudan in search of food. By the end of the year, about 300,000 peasants had died of starvation, and thousands more sought refuge in Ethiopian towns and villages.

In 1974, a military regime took over Ethiopia. The new government tried to improve the lives of peasants, but famine and hunger continued to ravage the country. To make matters worse, insurgents in Eritrea, Tigray, and the Ogaden rose up against the military regime, forcing thousands of Ethiopians to flee to neighboring countries for safety. In 1977, a war broke out in the Ogaden, followed by a drought in eastern Ethiopia. Large numbers of refugees traveled across the southeastern frontier into Somalia. When the Somali forces were defeated in the war, several thousand Ethiopians again fled to Sudan.  Across the area, more than 700,000 refugees were scattered in crude camps, living in squalor with poor sanitation and diminishing food supplies, and without medical assistance. Annan’s agency began a repatriation program—a plan to send refugees safely back to their homeland. This program continued well into the 1980s.

The early years of Annan’s involvement with the UNHCR were successful ones. In 1978, the agency facilitated the repatriation and rehabilitation of 200,000 people from Burma who had taken refuge in Bangladesh after ethnic and religious conflicts forced them to leave their homeland. The same year, UNHCR helped 150,000 Zairian refugees living in Angola return home.

The UNHCR also extended repatriation for Ethiopian refugees and the return movement to Ethiopia began. It was a huge success for Annan and his associates—one of many that earned the UNHCR a Nobel Peace Prize in 1981. From 1987 to 1990, Annan served as the assistant secretary-general for human resources management and as the security coordinator for the UN system. During his service, Annan faced his greatest challenge yet, one that would place him in the international spotlight.

The United Nations could not easily forget about the thousands of foreigners, including hundreds of UN workers, who were stalled in Kuwait and Iraq. Someone needed to get those hostages released and Annan was appointed to head negotiations with Hussein for releasing of the hostages. In the end, all hostages were released, including the 900 UN workers. The negotiations were an extraordinary victory for the United Nations. In fact, Annan’s success earned him a new position.

At the tenure of Boutros-Ghali, predecessor of Kofi Annan, a new type of crisis began to appear within international politics. Instead of major wars between powerful nations, regional conflicts among ethnic and religious groups erupted all over the world. These sects did not follow international laws and had little respect for the United Nations. Feuding cultures would put the United Nations to the test.Hence when Kofi Annan took the helm of Secretary General of the UN, many regions of the world had already been marred with tussles and mayhem. Despite Annan had the belief that if the UN Security Council can be consistent in action, states bent on criminal behavior will be forced to stop. At the time of his succession to the pinnacle post of the UN, sentiment around the world was resented as to the UN’s role in preceding four years in the ordeal of Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia. Nevertheless, Annan was determined to win back the world’s trust and support. He believed that service in the United Nations was more than just a job, in his words, “The member states have made it clear that they want changes and they have given us unanimous support.”

His speech during receiving the Nobel Peace Prize mirrored his optimistic view again,

‘Scientists tell us that the world of nature is so small and interdependent that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest can generate a violent storm on the other side of earth. This principle is known as the “Butterfly Effect.” Today, we realize, perhaps more than ever, that the world of human activity also has its own “Butterfly Effect”—for better or for worse.’


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