Kofi Annan: UN Secretary General and World’s Secular Pope

By | August 23, 2018

NEW YORK, August 24 (C-Fam) Kofi Annan died last week at the age of 80. He was a charismatic but tragic figure. Considered by some a secular pope of sorts, he embodied his era’s hope and disappointment in universal values.

Annan was said to balance his roles as “secretary” of the UN bureaucracy and “general” of world moral leadership. On return trip from the quagmire in Darfur, he lamented he “had no troops” to stop the atrocities, harkening to Stalin’s famous quip about the Pope’s powerlessness.

Annan’s UN career was marked by the tension between the UN’s realist structure and idealist aims. He was UN Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006, a time when the hopes of the long-awaited peace following the Cold War were dashed by bloody civil wars, genocide, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, and a rise of divisive social debates.

He was the first black African Secretary-General but could not prevent genocide on his continent. Prior to leading the UN bureaucracy, he was head of the UN peacekeeping office which remained inert during the Rwanda genocide. He later admitted that it left him “always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow.”

Despite his reputation as a moral leader he kept his religious beliefs to himself.  “Atribal in a tribal world,” was his own characterization of his viewpoint.

Raised in Ghana by a mother who was Fante and a father who was half-Fante and half-Ashanti, Annan became a Christian in a Methodist school, identified as an Anglican, and was educated in the United States where the civil rights movement informed his perspective on human rights and discrimination.

Annan presided during the 2000 World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders and addressed that meeting as heads of state convened for the Millennium Summit at UN headquarters.

“The United Nations stands outside—necessarily outside—all confessions. But it is, nevertheless, an instrument of faith. As such, it is inspired by what unites and not by what divides the great religions of the world,” he said, quoting Dag Hammarskjöld.

Despite the backing of US media billionaire Ted Turner, the  effort failed to establish a permanent UN religious advisory council, largely because it marginalized Christians and Muslims. The Vatican dismissed it as religious syncretism.

Two occasions were said to shake him. The Iraq war, which he insisted on calling “illegal,” and the Oil-for-Food scandal, where Saddam Hussein siphoned off $11 billion in UN funds and in which Annan’s son Kojo was found complicit.

One of Annan’s top bureaucratic priorities was UN reform, but this too was fraught with contradiction.

His greatest legacy was the Millennium Development Goals, based on Annan’s own Millennium Development Report. They are credited with increasing international aid fourfold in just a decade and shifting the international aid paradigm away from emergency assistance toward development. The project originated unilaterally and secretively with a select group of advisors that included population control advocate Jeffrey Sachs.

Annan’s opus set a precedent for unilateral UN bureaucratic initiatives that have followed, as well as a pattern of deference to, and reliance upon, UN bureaucrats by UN member states.

He may not have foreseen the way the empowered bureaucracies have promoted policies, in particular social policies, that have led to more division rather than cooperation on the humanitarian issues that Annan cared about so deeply.