The Secular Pope Ends His Papal Voyage On Earth


On Thursday September 13, world leaders gathered in the Ghanaian city of Accra to bid farewell to a man affectionately described as the Secular Pope of the world. Kofi Atta Annan who died on August 18 has become a model for African youths in general and Ghanaian youths in particular, being an epitome of peace and a believer in the non-violent struggle to effectuate change. Most Ghanaians have described him as one of the most illustrious sons of the West African state compared to the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s founding President.

Family Life

Despite his prominent public lifestyle, Annan also had a family side and while eulogizing his father, his son Kojo Annan said even though the world knew him as the diplomat he remembered him as “daddy.” He was married twice, first to Titi Alakija from a prominent and wealthy Nigerian Yoruba family in 1965. The marriage crumbled in the late 70s not before it had produced two children, Ama and Kojo. Annan later on courted his colleague and in 1984, the two married. Nane Lagergren was six years Annan’s junior and was a Swedish Lawyer working with the UN who was also coming from a failed marriage. She brought into the union with Annan a daughter from her previous relationship. Until his death after a brief illness, Annan would be remembered as being one of the finest diplomats and peace crusaders of his time which won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

Born Kofi Atta Annan on April 8, 1938 in Kofandros, in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi into a family of four, Kofi had a twin sister, Effua Annan who died in the 1990s. He studied in Ghana and later on in Switzerland and the United States. At age 26, he joined the United Nations’ World Health Organization as Budget Officer which became his baptismal of fire into the global institution. But for a brief period of absence, Annan went ahead to spend the next 45 years within the UN systems climbing to the top most position.

Kofi Annan’s Fame

In an unprecedented move, Kofi Annan took over the reign of the United Nations on January 1, 1997, as the first sub-Saharan African to occupy such a prestigious position. Annan took over from Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali who was forced to step down by the powerful and influential United States machinery just after a single mandate. Kofi Annan until then was the Head of Peacekeeping missions, a position he occupied following his appointment by Ghali and with decisive insight into the Dayton Peace Accord in Bosnia, the United States and allied powers quickly found favour in the young Annan who until then was the first civil servant in the house to grow through the ranks and head the institution

Kofi Annan’s rise to the top position was celebrated as the comeback of Dag Harmmarskjold who mysteriously died in a plane crash in Africa as he forged a peace deal in the Congo crisis in 1961. Both men being passionate believers in diplomacy over force with Annan going as far as speaking, dining, wining, and sharing cigars with all including Saddam Hussein.

He harnessed his charisma, soft speech, and physical aura to touch even the untouchable, convinced the hardliners to see the other side of life where his life was enshrined in his belief in a diplomacy that transcended the comfort zones of friends. This explains why when the US entente was building up against Saddam’s alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Annan interrupted diplomatic rules by personally visiting Saddam just one year after he took office and shared cigars with him, portraying the human face of Saddam. Annan challenged the myth and defied the US’s advice to not step foot in Baghdad. In 2003, in front of world cameras, Annan was bold enough to describe the US invasion of Iraq as an “illegal act.”

Even in the face of tension Annan maintained his soft and friendly persona as he described some world leaders the US and its Western allies had described as “tyrants.” In one of his memoirs, Annan described Sudanese President, Omar Hassan El-Bashir as, “a man who seemed cool, polite, and friendly.”

Annan was seen as the “Secular Pope” of the world as he prioritized equity, good conscience, and morality over the interests of great power nations which is why in many instances his decisions were at variance with those of the United States which had supported his accession to the throne of nations. Annan believed negotiations can fathom a better peace deal than sanctions which is why he defied the Security Council resolution on Libya over the Lockerbie bombing by negotiating for a diplomatic settlement. In 2003, he pursued this same theology and pressed for an out of battle field settlement and settled on negotiation tables rather than militaristic solutions. He abated diplomatic protocol in many instances and expressed his heartfelt disappointment when force was prioritized over persuasion.

Annan in African conflicts

Being one of the greatest diplomats the African continent has ever produced, Annan who spent almost his entire career in the corridors of the UN and in top diplomatic circles declared that he still felt more African. Being the illustrious son of Africa of an exceptional class, Annan took special interest in Africa and in an April 1998 report, while citing conflicts in Rwanda, Somalia and Liberia, he said “African leaders have failed the peoples of Africa; the international community has failed them; the United Nations has failed them. In this report, he also criticized international arms dealers as “those who benefit from the conflicts in Africa.”

The UN under Annan became very involved in African conflicts such as the Sierra Leone civil war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Annan appointed a Special Representative, Francis Okelo and created the United Nations Mission for Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). In most of these conflicts Annan was personally committed to see the end, which is why he visited the war-torn and devastated country, Sierra Leone to seek for a peace settlement. One of his greatest success stories was the UN’s intervention in the Liberian war which ran from 1989 to 2003 when a ceasefire was signed under the auspices of the UN. It was followed by the creation of the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL) in September 2003 with a mandate to monitor the ceasefire agreement in Liberia after Charles Taylor’s resignation which ended the war. The mission continued even after Annan and only ended on March 30, 2018.  The mission helped to organize and secure elections including that which brought Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to power in 2006. It also demilitarized more than 100,000 combatants and helped trained Liberian forces and police.

The Cameroon-Nigeria conflict over the Bakassi peninsular won a special place in Annan’s heart. With his mastery of both French and English Annan was able to personally invite Nigerian President Obasanjo and Cameroon President Biya, before handing the disputed territory to Cameroon on October 10, 2002. He took a preventive diplomatic approach by having the two leaders accept and understand  the rulings of the UN’s top judicial body, the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Annan personally watched the progress of the implementation of the decision and on June 12, 2006 where he persuaded the two leaders, Biya and Obasanjo to sign the Greentree Agreement, named after the New York estate. According to this agreement, a transitional mechanism was set up to monitor the process so that both countries would avoid any conflicting situation.

His commitment to global peace and sustainable development made the current UN Scribe, Antonio Guiterres describe him as the “guiding force for good.” Annan championed the Millennium Development Goals which became a basis for development in the world.

However, glorious his story may sound Annan’s stay at the UN is also punctuated by some gross monumental errors like the Rwandan genocide, when he was the Under Secretary General in charge of Peacekeeping operations, yet the UN failed to intervene. The Bosnian-Serb debacle also brought grief to Annan as well as the killing of 18 American service personnel. This invited huge criticisms from many corners of the world including the United States, which criticized the UN’s lackluster attitude in intervention. This pushed the US to cut its finances from the UN. Annan saw himself as a man with good intentions but whose hands were tied before human suffering. In 2004, while serving his last term of office, Annan was caught in a corruption scandal involving his son Kojo Annan who worked for Cotecna Inspection Services, a Swiss company which had just won a very lucrative humanitarian contract in Iraq. However, a commission of inquiry later on found that Annan did not influence the contract but failed to act enough to forestall any dirty deals.

Even leaving his office in the UN he still continued to make a difference. In 2008, using his charm and personality, he persuaded Kenya leaders to sign a peace deal ending the post-election violence which resulted in more than 1300 lives lost. On February 29, 2012 Annan was appointed the mediator to the Syrian conflict but his passion for morality over interest and persuasion over force caused him to resign just six months into the job, blaming world leaders for protecting their own interests over the lives of Syrians.

As the one who was affectionately called the Secular Pope of the world leaves the stage, one thing his admirers have in common is the image on him. The man who was always smartly dressed with an imposing beard that gave him a refined and regal persona wherever he went.