Former foreign correspondent for Britain’s ITN network, who later represented the United Nations secretary-general in Argentina.
“He was a friend to all of us,” wrote Mark Malloch
Brown, once his deputy secretary-general, “and like
me I’m sure you, David, consider working for Kofi to
have been the privilege of a lifetime.”
Indeed yes. Indeed it was a privilege to have worked
with Kofi Annan. Not because he was some kind of
saint. Not because he was flawless, indeed he himself
owned up to his mistakes in a way that now seems
rare. Certainly not because he was somehow ‘the
Diplomat’s diplomat’, as one obituary writer concluded,
leaving me mystified as to what that really meant.
No. Kofi Annan was a humanitarian, in the best
sense of the word. Kofi made it his business to speak
for humanity. Kofi assumed good intent, always, of
those he dealt with. He never had a bad word for anyone.
As UN secretary-general he had instant access
to almost anyone in our world, but he always thanked
you for taking his call. Kofi remained true to his humble
self, despite the trappings of power and influence.
I will never forget the day he asked me to work for
him. He had known me for years. I’d met him back
in the early 1980s, when I reported on heart-breaking
famines in Uganda and Ethiopia, and he was working
on refugee issues. In the early 1990s, when he led UN
Peacekeeping Operations, I made a fly-on-the-wall
film with him at UN Headquarters as peace missions
to the likes of Somalia and Rwanda imploded.
A decade later, as the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq
became a quagmire, he stepped away from the microphone
one day in New York, asked me to walk
with him, and said he’d like me on his team. I remember
telling my wife Sonia: “You can’t say No to the
The job was in Washington DC, where he had a
problem named George W. Bush. President Bush
concluded, rightly, that Secretary-General Annan
was deeply opposed to the occupation of Iraq, and
represented the most important naysayer on the
world stage, indeed the only one of stature. Annan
didn’t hide it, calling the Iraq war “illegal.”
Within a few weeks of taking charge of the UN’s
small liaison office in Washington, representing the
organisation before the US Congress, the State Department
and the White House, the secretary-general
was embroiled in a scandal involving a byzantine
programme called Oil-for-Food in Iraq. Forget about
the detail, which was mind-boggling, or that the
United States had monitored the programme’s every
move. The Bush administration made it an issue, and
columnists briefed by the White House accused
Annan’s son of making money out of it.
As a result, the secretary-general had a crisis on his
hands, and our relationship quickly became that of
boss and adviser. There were difficult conversations.
There were moments of agreement, and disagreement,
on how best to confront the threat. There were
awkward silences in meetings in the Oval Office,
certainly on Capitol Hill where looks coming from
certain Republicans could kill, and then press
stakeouts that became interrogation sessions.
At one point Republicans in the House of Republicans
tabled a motion for a vote of no-confidence in
him. It was my job to spell it out for him, knowing
that he would almost certainly be forced from office
if the US Congress, the UN’s largest financial contributor,
said they had no confidence in him.
Curiously, I didn’t dare tell him that I was about to
go ‘lobby’ the big guns in the Republican Party – Senator
John McCain the chief one – to head off the
vote. Kofi, I knew, would say that the UN didn’t ‘lobby’
in Washington or any capital for that matter, as a
matter of principle. My old friend McCain came
through. That vote never reached the floor.
The longer it went, the more I grew to admire my
boss. He would go see President Bush, and keep the
conversation about humanity. He would greet his
enemies on Capitol Hill with such disarming courtesy,
and honesty, stressing common cause. He would sit
down for exhaustive TV interviews about his leadership
with such patience.
As for the scandal, I knew he hadn’t taken a cent,
as an independent enquiry led by a senior US official
(one Paul Volcker, ex-chairman of the Federal Reserve)
concluded. His son had behaved badly. “You’re
guilty only of loving a son too much, Sir,” I said to him
one morning as we waited for a meeting in the US
Senate. “Join the rest of us.” He smiled, but it was the
smile of a man who felt condemned. Sometimes, riding
to and from the airport, he would wonder aloud
beside me about whether his legacy would be couched,
always, with a headline suggesting scandal.
I failed to reassure him otherwise back then. But
in the days since he died, sad as it has been, I was
relieved to see the headlines, and the first take
highlighting Kofi Annan’s work, his leadership, his
grace, his deep sense of humanity. At a time of such
dubious leadership in our world, and that’s putting it
mildly, Kofi’s legacy shines bright, despite his own
admission of his own failings.
We spoke down the years. It remained a privilege
to have his ear. A while ago, about to go to Havana to
sit down with the FARC rebels behind a 40-year civil
war in Colombia and help peace negotiations, he
recalled a conversation I had with him about visiting
the rebels in my journalism years. I encouraged him
to think of them as single-track negotiators who felt
that negotiation was all about them taking, and the
Colombian Government giving. The following week,
I saw my old boss emerge from a session with rebel
leaders in Havana, go to the microphone, and declare
that some could face war crimes, and face justice
accordingly. The rebels signed on to a deal shortly
afterwards, digesting his warning.
That was Kofi Annan at his best, using the only
weapon in his armoury. The microphone. And using
it on behalf of humanity.
RIP boss. My friend. At such a moment in our world,
you will be missed.