Does history have immutable laws such that it moves on its chosen trajectory irrespective of the will or actions of individuals? Or is it merely a record of the actions or inactions of individuals? Should proper historiography privilege structures or agencies? And what role, if any, do ideas play in this movement of history? In all these, where do we locate quiet, likeable people whose contributions may not have had immediate dramatic impact on the trajectory of history but who possess intangible assets that make us feel that they must be playing important roles in the way the wheels of history rotate? Take for instance the Queen of England whose job description was once given by one international magazine as 'waving hand to the crowd'. Her role in the movement of English history may be imperceptible yet for some people that role is quite important.
I have always been an admirer of Kofi Annan, the quiet, unassuming seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations (January 1 1997 - December 31 2006). Kofi Annan was once Nigeria's in-law - he was married to Titi Alakija of the famous Alakija family though the marriage unfortunately ended in divorce. Born in Kumasi, Ghana, on 8 April 1938, Kofi Annan and the United Nations were the co-recipients of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for establishing the Global AIDS and Health Fund to support developing countries in their struggle to meet the health challenges of their people. Since February 2012, Annan has been the UN-Arab League envoy to Syria to help find an enduring peace to the protracted conflict in that Arab country. I will return to this later.
Kofi Annan joined the UN system in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer with the World Health Organization in Geneva and later worked in various capacities within the UN system. Just before he was made the Secretary-General of the world body to replace the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he was the UN's Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping.
While serving as the Secretary-General of the UN - the first to be appointed from within the UN system - Kofi Annan tried his best to reform the world body. For instance in 2005, he established two new intergovernmental bodies - the Peace-building Commission and the Human Rights Council - to propagate the imperatives of peace and human rights in conflict-prone countries. He also played a key role in the establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the adoption of the UN's first-ever counter-terrorism strategy. In 1999 he launched the Global Compact, which has since become the world's largest effort to promote corporate social responsibility.
Kofi Annan's work with the UN was not without its challenges and imperfections. For instance the Rwandan genocide of 1994 took place while he directed the UN Peacekeeping Operations. In fact in 2003, a retired Canadian General Roméo Dallaire who was force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda claimed that Annan was overly passive in his response to the imminent genocide. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (2003), General Dallaire asserted that Annan held back UN troops from intervening to settle the conflict and from providing more logistical and material support. As Annan himself admitted about the Rwandan genocide, "I could and should have done more to sound the alarm and rally support."
Kofi Annan's tenure as Secretary-General of the UN was also not without its dark spot. For instance in December 2004 there were reports that his son Kojo received payments from the Swiss company Cotecna Inspection SA, which had won a lucrative contract under the UN Oil-for-Food Programme. Kofi Annan set up an Independent Inquiry Committee headed by former US Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. In his first interview with the Inquiry Committee, Kofi Annan denied having had a meeting with Cotecna but later 'remembered' that he had met with Cotecna's chief executive Elie-Georges Massey twice. In its report, the committee found insufficient evidence to indict him on any illegal actions but did find fault with Benan Sevan, a Cypriot national who had worked for the UN for about 40 years and who was appointed by Kofi Annan to the UN Oil-for-Food Programme. Many people, especially those from the developing countries, believed that Kofi Annan's travail was not unconnected with his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq.
Anyone who has not made serious mistakes in any organization or society he finds himself has probably not tried hard enough to impact on the wheel of history. As John Wooden, the late American basketball player and coach would tell us, "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes." Whatever are Kofi Annan's mistakes - and they ought to be far more than the known ones - I was always full of admiration for the way he carried himself, disagreeing with powerful personalities and entities without making himself disagreeable. More importantly as the Secretary-General of the UN, one got that sense of hurrah, seeing that one of our own could hold his own among the crème la crème of the world and doing so very effectively. In many ways, the success of Kofi Annan as the Secretary-General of the UN and before him Emeka Anyaoku as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth helped to pave the way for the emergence of Obama as the First Black President of the United States. It could be argued that the high global visibility of their positions helped to psychologically allay the fear of some Americans that a Black man ruling their country would bring down the Western civilization their progenitors erected over the years.
Since leaving the UN system, Kofi Annan has remained active. He strongly resisted pressure to run for the presidency of his country. Instead, he set up the Kofi Annan Foundation which promotes sustainable development projects, peace and security and human rights in Africa and the developing world. In 2007, Annan was named chairman of the prize committee for the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. He was also appointed a member of the Global Elders as well as President of the Global Humanitarian Forum in Geneva. As head of the Panel of Eminent African Personalities in 2008, Annan participated in the negotiations to end the civil unrest in Kenya. In fact on February 28 2008, he managed to have President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga sign a coalition government agreement, which was widely lauded by many Kenyans. His other appointments since leaving the UN include being appointed the Chancellor of the University of Ghana and the first Li Ka Shing Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Back to his work in Syria. As UN and Arab League's Special Envoy to end the crisis in the Arab country, Kofi Annan's diplomacy and vision of how to end the crisis without the sort of bloodshed we saw in Iraq and Libya is different from that favoured by the 'international community'. He has not asked for regime change as American is insisting but has advocated that Iran must be constructively engaged to help in ending the bloody 17-month standoff between Syrian rebels and the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Annan had earlier shepherded an approach that would have included a ceasefire in April but that approach unfortunately failed, with some people believing that those intent on going to war in Syria are surreptitiously undermining Annan's peace-building efforts. Recently Kofi Annan, following a lengthy meeting with President Assad of Syria declared that he had established an approach for stopping the violence in that country, which he said he would like to share with rebel leaders. Unfortunately, the rebels, goaded by some invisible hands, demurred, insisting that any peace plan must start with the stepping down of President Assad.
It is thought that Kofi Annan's new approach is about power sharing between the rebels and President Assad and the implementation of certain reforms to open up the democratic space in that country. Whether Annan's diplomacy succeeds or not, the world must do what it can to avoid the sort of carnage and bloodshed we witnessed in recent times with foreign interventions - from Iraq to Libya.
As I celebrate Kofi Annan I cannot help mourning the dearth of global statesmen of Nigerian extraction. While Obasanjo, with his Obasanjo Leadership Forum used to be a glory to the country when he effectively played that role before his Second Coming in 1999, his aura domestically and internationally has dimmed and age is also not on his side. Though I continue to respect Obasanjo's many leadership attributes (despite what one columnist called his 'lack of grace'), there is no doubt that his brand of do-or- die politics, including his failed bid at tenure elongation, has diminished him before many Nigerians and internationally too.
But where are our other retired Heads of States and top ranking public servants who should be out there in the global stage as statesmen and women? The dearth of global statesmen of Nigerian extraction is unfortunately taking place at a time young radicals and rascals have risen against their elders in virtually every corner of our society. And with this, finding individuals who enjoy acceptance and legitimacy across the major fault lines becomes more difficult, making it more herculean to find acceptable people to engineer national reconciliation among the fractious nationalities that make up the country.