Kofi Atta Annan was born in Kumasi, in central Ghana, Africa, on April 8, 1938. Since 1960 Ghana has been a republic within the British Commonwealth, a group of nations dependent on Great Britain. Named for an African empire along the Niger River, Ghana was ruled by Great Britain for 113 years as the Gold Coast. Annan is descended from tribal chiefs on both sides of his family. His father was an educated man, and Annan became accustomed to both traditional and modern ways of life. He has described himself as being “atribal in a tribal world.”
After receiving his early education at a leading boarding school in Ghana, Annan attended the College of Science and Technology in the capital of Kumasi. At the age of twenty, he won a Ford Foundation scholarship for undergraduate studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he studied economics. Even then he was showing signs of becoming a diplomat, or someone skilled in international relations. Annan received his bachelor’s degree in economics in 1961. Shortly after completing his studies at Macalester College, Annan headed for Geneva, Switzerland, where he attended graduate classes in economics at the Institut Universitaire des Hautes Etudes Internationales.
Annan began his career with the UN as a budget officer for the World Health Organization in Geneva in 1962. With the exception of a brief stint as the director of tourism in Ghana (1974–76), he spent his entire career with the UN, serving in several administrative posts. On March 1, 1993, he was elevated to undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations. In that position he distinguished himself during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly in his skillful handling of the transition of peacekeeping operations from UN forces to NATO forces.
Because Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Annan’s predecessor as secretary-general, had alienated some member nations—most notably the United States—with his independent and aloof style, Annan entered office with the tasks of repairing relations with the United States and reforming the UN bureaucracy. Soon after becoming secretary-general, he introduced a reform plan that sought to reduce the organization’s budget and streamline its operations, moves that were welcomed by the United States.
In 2001 Annan was appointed to a second term. Later that year the September 11 attacks occurred in the United States, and global security and terrorism became major issues for Annan. In 2003 the United States launched a war against Iraq without receiving approval from the UN Security Council, and Annan’s subsequent criticism of the war strained relations with the United States (see Iraq War). Later in 2003 Annan appointed a panel to explore the UN’s response to global threats, and he included many of its recommendations in a major reform package presented to the UN General Assembly in 2005. A number of measures were later adopted; the proposal to expand the Security Council from 15 to 24 members was among those rejected. In 2005 Annan was at the centre of controversy following an investigation into the oil-for-food program, which had allowed Iraq—under UN supervision—to sell a set amount of oil in order to purchase food, medicine, and other necessities. A report described major corruption within the program and revealed that Annan’s son was part of a Swiss business that had won an oil-for-food contract. Although Annan was cleared of wrongdoing, he was criticized for his failure to properly oversee the program. In 2006 Annan’s term ended, and he was succeeded by Ban Ki-Moon.
Annan in a new world
Annan’s code of soft-spoken diplomacy was given a boost by the outcome of his talks with Saddam Hussein in 1998. UN observers wait to see how additional crises will be handled by the gentle but determined man from Ghana.
In 2007 Kofi Annan was named chairperson of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization aiding small-scale farmers; AGRA was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. He later played a crucial role in resolving the Kenyan election crisis that began in late December 2007, eventually brokering a power-sharing agreement between the government and the opposition on February 28, 2008. In the same year, he received the Peace of Westphalia Prize, awarded biannually for contributions to unity and peace in Europe, and became chancellor of the University of Ghana. In 2007 he founded the Kofi Annan Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that promotes peace, sustainable development, human rights, and the rule of law.
In February 2012 Annan was appointed Joint Special Envoy for Syria by the United Nations and the League of Arab States. His core diplomatic effort consisted in delivering to the Syrian government a six-point proposal for ending the country’s civil war, a plan endorsed by the Security Council. The proposal enjoined Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s government to take significant steps, including ending all fighting operations. The Syrian government formally accepted the plan in March but continued its attacks on rebel forces and on popular demonstrations. In August Annan announced his demission as Joint Special Envoy, citing a lack of unity and political will among world powers to resolve the conflict
On October 12, 2001, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to the United Nations and Kofi Annan. The Nobel citation pointed out that Annan had brought new life to the peacekeeping organization, highlighted the United Nations’s fight for civil rights, and boldly taken on the new challenges of terrorism and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS; a disease of the immune system).