The reception committee had been assembling for hours. To the right of the hangar were three performing troupes, the first of which wore long white shorts like Edwardian tennis players. In pride of place on the mud airstrip stood a squad of boy scouts. Impassively overseeing it all was the mayor of the Tanzanian hill town of Mbeya, in scarlet robes and black cocked hat.
In a continent where politicians have a habit of staying on beyond their sell-by date, public gatherings for visiting grandees can have a lacklustre feel. But this was a very different affair. When our single-propeller plane rolled shakily to a halt, disgorging a silver-haired African in a safari suit, the crowd’s exuberance knew no bounds.
Moments earlier Kofi Annan had been looking wearied. It had been a deafening flight from the capital Dar es Salaam. After an hour-long conversation on Africa’s prospects we agreed to a break. I dozed off and assumed the former United Nations secretary-general had too, although whenever I opened my eyes I saw him either looking out at the bush or tapping at his BlackBerry. (I later discovered he was being e-mailed from Tripoli where Muammer Gaddafi was frantically seeking his advice.)
But this veteran of visits to distant satrapies knows the importance of putting on a good show. As soon as he was down the ladder he was in full sec-gen mode. He strode to meet the dignitaries and inspected the scouts as the bands blared out. Exactly on schedule his motorcade roared off through the fading light in a cloud of red dust.
I was reminded of following a whistle-stop tour of Africa by the then sec-gen, Boutros Boutros Ghali, 16 years ago. It was as if Annan had never stepped down. Only he was not on official business. He had come as “Farmer Kofi”.
Twenty-four hours later, after a long, hot day tramping through cornfields and examining seeds as part of his post-UN mission to transform Africa’s agriculture, Annan brought conversation to a halt around our dinner table. There were a dozen of us, mainly from his foundation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra). Enough of world affairs, he said. We had to tell a joke.
Annan led the way with one about three Caribbean junta leaders on death row. When two of us faltered, he volunteered two more including the classic about an ousted Soviet leader handing three letters of advice to his successor to be opened at his first three crises. (The first two contain the advice: blame your predecessor. The third says: write three envelopes.) He laughed at our lamest offerings.
After a lecture on autocracies – “they are built on sand” – he gently teased a colleague, who was arguing that Africa deserved a special dispensation. “In my youth when someone was making bold claims we used to say, ‘That’s Johnny Walker talking,’” he said. “And that is Johnny Walker talking.” Then after a homily on Bosnia, he headed for bed. We rose to our feet, reeling from the Annan charm, an old-world, even otherworldly, routine that still leads heads of state to beat a path to his door – and helped impel him into one of the more exclusive clubs in the world.
Given the sweep of recent decades it is somehow astonishing to think that Annan was only the fifth secretary-general after that grim day nearly 50 years ago when Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash en route to mediate in the Congo’s civil war. The swashbuckling Swede personified the UN at a time of its most vaulting ambitions. He has been the benchmark against which his successors have been judged – and most found wanting.
There was a time, of course, when Annan’s record was in deep trouble. His second term from 2002 to 2006 lurched from crisis to crisis. First there was the wrenching dispute between the UN and Washington over Iraq which led to a near breakdown of relations between the secretariat and its principal paymaster. Then there was the scandal of “Oil-for-Food”, the UN programme to aid Iraqis suffering from sanctions, which was enveloped in colossal fraud and exposed deep managerial weaknesses in the UN. Correspondents who had once saluted his soft-spoken diplomacy called him indecisive and weak. Some aides feared he might resign.
But as the dust settled from the dispute over Iraq, so the lustre of his first term returned. Annan may not have the Hammarskjöld panache, nor the Swede’s record in shaping events, but it is hard to see how anyone as secretary-general could have worked harmoniously with the Bush administration in its post-9/11 mood. Given the low profile of his South Korean successor, Ban Ki-moon, some supporters have airbrushed the bad memories and like to hark back to his era in charge. “He was all general and no secretary,” they say. “The trouble with Ban is that he is all secretary and no general.”
The 73-year-old Annan certainly still conducts his life at an extraordinary pace. As Nelson Mandela heads into his dotage, he has positioned himself as Africa’s silver-haired conciliator if not sage. Three years ago he spent 41 consecutive days in Kenya to negotiate a peace deal to the conflict threatening to tear the east African state apart. A week ago he visited Ivory Coast heading a delegation of The Elders, a panel of former statesmen. Then there are the covert requests for his time.
In March, Britain’s Royal African Society hosted a dinner for him at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. George Soros was among the small group in a wood-panelled chamber overlooked by the portraits of mutton-chop-whiskered Victorians. I was next to Annan’s wife, Nane, a Swedish lawyer. They met in Geneva in 1981, after the collapse of their first marriages, from which she had one daughter and he a daughter and son. We were discussing the dilemmas for parents over Facebook, when she broke off to pass Annan his phone.
Fighting was raging between supporters of Ivory Coast’s elected president, Alassane Ouattara, and his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo, who was refusing to step down. Annan had in recent months refused repeated requests by Gbagbo to intercede. “The rebels are moving on Abidjan,” he mouthed with a grave look on his face as he gave the phone back. He is clearly flattered to be courted. (A few days later he handed me his BlackBerry to show me a story on the Guardian’s website that quoted Libyan officials saying they had tried to contact him.) But he also made clear he had no interest in mediating in Ivory Coast until the fighting had died down. He is wary too of involvement in Libya, although he does not rule it out and says he has been in touch with western and Middle Eastern governments. “You have to be careful not to accept every invitation,” he says, “not to overreach…”
Overreaching, of course, is not an obvious pitfall for Annan. He is a UN lifer after all. Caution is in his DNA. And yet he has now made a bold call. His dream is to transform the lot of Africa’s smallholders so the world’s poorest continent can feed itself. It is tempting to see this as an attempt to redeem his reputation, or at least honour a pledge made half a century ago when he left Ghana. He knows as well as anyone that the UN’s record in the continent of his birth is not what it should have been.
Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese telecommunications billionaire, describes Annan as a “good African man” for helping the continent when many in his position would have “retired to Barbados”. There was a time when Annan would have had to demur. He regularly bemoans that few Africans who prosper abroad return to their homeland. Yet he has spent most of his career in the west. Born in 1938 of aristocratic stock, and educated at a boarding school, he left in 1961 on a Ford Foundation grant to finish his studies in St Paul, Minnesota.
Ghana had just won independence from Britain amid a blaze of optimism, under the firebrand Kwame Nkrumah. Annan was confident he would soon return. “There was a constant tension between working outside Africa and being in Africa,” he recalled on our flight to Mbeya. “I would come back to make a contribution.” Yet after graduate studies in Geneva, he joined the UN and while he did go home in 1974 to head Ghana’s tourism body, he soon returned to the UN, disillusioned by the shambolic legacy of Nkrumah’s populism.
As our little plane hums its way into the heart of Africa, Annan insists he never lost hope about Africa’s chances, but he does admit to having been “desperate” at times over the missed opportunities. Having recently returned from Zimbabwe I ask him about its despotic leader, Robert Mugabe, whom he has met many times. He recalls his early “contribution” to his country, his expansion of health and education, and describes him as “a smart man.”
This is classic Annan diplomatese: so mild that in his UN days it could sound timid or indulgent. When I suggest that was a “gentle” appraisal, Annan slips into the third person. “The skills you need to fight the colonial power and the skills you need to gain independence are not necessarily the same you need to run a country. Sometimes leaders slide from the role of freedom fighter into the presidency which they may be unsuited for, but everyone accepts it until they hit the bump in the road … But by then they are so entrenched.”
So that is Mugabe’s path, I ask? “To some extent … but he did well at the beginning. One has to give him that and, after all, he is not a young man. However capable he is, we all get tired.”
Yet he makes clear he is not an apologist for misrule. He has sharp words for Kenya’s elite and is scathing of autocracy. “Often we mistake stability, in terms of security and economic activity, to mean a country is doing well. We forget the third and important pillar: rule of law and respect for human rights.”
When I switch tack and suggest colonialism’s yoke may have been particularly hard in Africa, he shoots me a reproachful look.
“I know lots of leaders blamed it [colonialism] for many years, which was a bit frustrating for some of us younger ones who said: how long are you going to blame it? It’s the same argument that you hear in some quarters now. It’s not credible.”
UN colleagues laughed politely when he announced that on stepping down he would become “Farmer Kofi”. He is, after all, the quintessential member of the global elite, dividing his time between Sweden, Geneva and Accra. Yet he has thrown himself into his campaign to revolutionise agriculture. No farmer went unquizzed as we toured smallholdings on the rust-red earth at a blistering pace. Every official we met was cajoled to open up the supply of seeds to the private sector.
Agra, an association of farmers, scientists and businesses, draws its inspiration from the Green Revolution that transformed agriculture in Asia decades ago primarily via hybrid seeds and fertilisers, and access to markets. Yields rose in parts of Asia threefold. Now that much of Africa is at peace, more leaders are focusing on good governance, and suspicion of the free market is waning, Annan says Africa is ripe for a similar revolution. While much of the continent is amazingly fertile, agriculture has long been hobbled by poor infrastructure and transport, meaning that many countries cannot feed their populations, let alone export.
Agra’s goal is to double the income of 20 million African smallholders by 2020. Turning to his formidable network of contacts, Annan persuaded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to pledge $330m and the Rockefeller Foundation, which backed the Green Revolution in Asia, $85m. He fastened on the idea when promoting the Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to reduce hunger by 50 per cent. The only way Africa could reduce hunger, he concluded, was by increasing food production. But there is another even more compelling – and even personal – factor in his thinking.
Scarce resources are behind many civil wars, he says quietly. As he knows well, nowhere has that proved more chillingly acute than in Rwanda, scene of the greatest blemish on the UN’s and his record.
Annan was head of UN peacekeeping in that terrible April of 1994 when a little-known civil war spiralled into the most clinical genocide since the Holocaust. It was a time when policymakers were exercised by Bosnia’s agonies and when, with a few brave exceptions, the world’s media were transfixed by the fairy tale of the end of apartheid. In Rwanda all that was standing in the way of the génocidaires was a small force of UN peacekeepers led by an impassioned Canadian, Brigadier General Roméo Dallaire. And yet, even as members of the majority Hutu tribe massacred the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians, the mandate was unbending: they were not to intervene.
Annan has in the past been accused of being too passive in the face of the crisis. In particular, he has been lambasted over a memo sent out in his name in January 1994. Dallaire had sent an urgent cable to UN headquarters saying an informer had told him Hutu hardliners were stockpiling arms to massacre Tutsis. He sought permission to raid a cache. The memo ordered him to avoid at all costs a situation that might lead to the use of force.
When I cite the memo, Annan reminds me it was convention for memos to go out in his name even if he had not written them. It is perhaps the first time in several hours of conversation that he has sounded a defensive note. He also stresses the need to understand the context in which the memo was written. It was drafted as America was pulling the last of its peacekeepers out of Somalia following the killing of 18 US Rangers (and hundreds of Somalis) in what has become known as “Black Hawk Down”. America, which even today funds over a quarter of the UN peacekeeping budget, was by then suffering from peacekeeper fatigue. Its departure from Somalia doomed the UN mission.
“Rwanda was a victim of Somalia,” Annan says. “Rwanda exploded when we were withdrawing from Somalia, and why were we withdrawing? Because Americans had been killed and their bodies dragged through the street.” If they had given the go-ahead to Dallaire, Annan argues, there might have been an eruption of violence that would have led to the Security Council closing that mission too. It is a lawyerly answer, and not one that will appease survivors, but he is on safer ground when he accuses the western powers of behaving disgracefully and doing all they could not to intervene.
They knew what was going on and turned a blind eye, he says. “It was an issue of policy, not of lack of knowledge.” When I spoke to Dallaire in Kigali just after the genocide he too was scathing about the world powers, but while critical of the UN he did not accuse Annan of failing to prevent the genocide – nor has he subsequently. Nonetheless, I say, if Dallaire had been allowed to act, might that not have saved thousands of lives? Is that the one thing you might have done differently?
A politician would have seized on this as a chance to emote, but breast-beating is not Annan’s way. His reticence reminds me of Mandela’s stiffness when asked about his feelings. Annan stretches his elegant fingers in front of him and speaks so softly I can barely hear him. Yet he has clearly long prepared his answer, which includes a deft passing of responsibility up the bureaucratic chain.
“Yes, I think Rwanda was painful. I’d say both Rwanda and Srebrenica. What could I have done differently? I often wonder. If one had shouted from the rooftops to say that the situation is so desperate thousands may be killed, would it have made a difference? Probably it was worth a try … but at that time such statements were for the secretary-general to deliver to the council, not his underlings.”
Former aides suggest Srebrenica more than Rwanda preys on his mind. The massacre of 8,000 men and boys by the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 after they overran the UN safe haven exposed once and for all the haplessness of the UN mission. Annan resolutely defends his old fief, the secretariat, and pins the blame squarely on the member states in the Security Council. “The most courageous governments were the ones who had no troops on the ground; those who had troops on the ground didn’t want to take any risks.”
When I recall observing chummy encounters between western officers and the Serbs and suggest the UN ended up being pro-Serb, he demurs, but he accepts that being neutral in a conflict “where one side is patently being mistreated” can lead people to conclude “you are siding with this wrong”. (After our trip he debated this point with Samantha Power, the liberal interventionist academic on Barack Obama’s National Security Council. “She said, ‘How can one say [Libya is] a civil war? One side is so weak. One side is so powerful.’ I just listened. I kept saying, ‘But who told you in a civil war the sides have to be evenly matched? It never starts like that.’”)
Srebrenica had a seismic impact on Annan’s career. It was then that he took the momentous step of sanctioning Nato forces to take action without first consulting the UN. This implicit support for the hawkish US position encouraged US officials to back him as their candidate for the secretary-generalship, at a time when they were opposing a second term for Boutros Ghali. Srebrenica was also the moment when a formal policy of humanitarian interventionism became inevitable, leading ultimately to the UN’s adoption of the “Right to Protect” in Annan’s last year as sec-gen, and thence to the intervention in Libya earlier this year.
I suspect that he may be a “realist” sceptic of the mission in Libya. He talks at length of the difficulties facing the coalition. While he believes Gaddafi will ultimately have to step aside, and may fall from within, he criticises David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy for saying Gaddafi must go. “Putting it up front like that is not helpful.” He thinks a total victory, as over Saddam Hussein, is unlikely. “You have to seek a political way out because you are working towards a stalemate that could last for a long time and be messy.” He also thinks Gaddafi will “unless really backed into a corner, be extremely difficult to negotiate with”.
So should policymakers have hardened their hearts as they did in 1991 when the west opted not to intervene to stop Saddam crushing the Shia uprising?” To my surprise Annan is utterly clear-cut.
“The world has moved on,” he says. “You need to look at Srebrenica and Rwanda and the repetition of the phrase ‘never again’. Gaddafi brought it on himself with the statements he made about being merciless. When a leader makes that sort of statement and you see him approaching populated areas with tanks, an international community that had been talking tough would have had a lot to answer for if it had not intervened.
“The question is, where do you draw the line [in the intervention]? Was every action taken by the coalition designed to protect helpless civilians or in some cases to support the weak rebel army? And how far do you go?”
On our flight back to Dar es Salaam, we encounter a violent storm. Lightning flashes, our plane is buffeted and visibility is zero. Ever the S-G, at one stage Annan turns round and asks if we are all OK. When 10 minutes later we land in bright sunlight, he looks at the pilot. “You did not tell us a word. You could have informed us that the weather would clear.” It was a rare flash of irritation, even if the pilot did not appear aware he had received what, by Annan’s standards, was a serious dressing-down. In his first term Annan’s dignity earned him the sobriquet “the secular Pope”. When I ask about his temperament he says his boarding school headmaster told him he was “constantly challenging those in authority”. It seems hard to believe, but he insists his self-control was acquired – a view shared by some colleagues who believe that in his UN career, he consciously studied to be the perfect manager. “First of all you develop self-insight and awareness,” he says. “You know what gets to you and what doesn’t. You learn you can’t allow your temper to flare up because you’re displeased with something. Sometimes I walk into a situation and know someone is going to provoke me, and I just simply refuse to be provoked.”
The US drive for war in Iraq posed the toughest test of his equilibrium. “The divisions in the Security Council were tough because they were breaking a hope that we had all had. At the end of the cold war everyone thought, ‘Finally the UN may be able to do what it was originally set up to do without big-power divisions.’” This year he attended the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait. “All the players were there, Jim [James] Baker, Colin Powell … Jim reminded me that that was a war we fought right, based on UN resolutions. We built a solid coalition that stayed with us throughout.”
“I don’t know what drove them [the Bush administration] to assert American authority, power, the way they did … Those of us who were not for the war became the enemies.” One of his principal regrets is that “as an institution we could not stop the war. Every fibre in my body felt it was wrong. I spoke to leaders, we tried, but we couldn’t stop it and we see the results.”
Washington’s conservatives were infuriated by his stance on Iraq, in particular his remark to a BBC journalist that the war was “illegal”. US hawks are traditionally dismissive of the UN’s civil servants, whom they see as beholden to the developing world and innocents in the world of global power politics. Some openly campaigned to unseat him. Yet Annan shows no bitterness. He would happily talk to Donald Rumsfeld if he met him. “He made mistakes, some serious mistakes, but we all make mistakes. That doesn’t make him worthless as a human being.”
As for George W. Bush, “One on one, I consider him a friend. I can separate the ideas of a man from the intrinsic worth of the individual. He and Laura are wonderful human beings.” Bush’s great ally, Tony Blair, also gains a generous tribute, although Annan is critical of his attempt to secure a second UN resolution on Iraq.
“He’s perhaps one of the best [politicians] of his generation. He’s made a major contribution in many areas, but in Iraq he got it wrong.” He stops there. When I ask why Blair “got it wrong” he says: “It seemed as if he operated on a set of facts that were not available to some of us, or that some of us had rejected.” (Later Annan approached me looking worried. He was concerned he had been harsh about Blair. I reassured him he had not.)
Only John Bolton, the veteran US scourge of the UN, who was US ambassador to the UN in Annan’s last two years, receives a tart appraisal. “It was remarkable that for someone who has spent that much time at the state department, and as smart as he was, he wasn’t a very effective diplomat or even negotiator.”
Annan smiles as he recalls one moment when the “quiet man” finally spoke out. “At one lunch, UN ambassadors were discussing something and he [Bolton] said, ‘Uncle Sam is not going to like this.’ So I said, ‘Look, stop going around trying to intimidate people. Let them speak their mind, and you can put your views across, but don’t try to intimidate them with Washington and Uncle Sam.’ And of course, the Council members were all relieved to hear that.”
When I later told Mo Ibrahim that Annan still picks his words as if he was the world’s chief diplomat, he laughed. “It’s not his style to badmouth people. It’s not his cup of tea, and maybe he has been successful because of that. You could not survive at the UN without such an approach.”
In the last week of April, two weeks after our Tanzanian mission, I visit Annan in Geneva. From his seventh-floor window you can see the UNHCR, the ICRC and a host of other multilateral headquarters. It is here that he allocates his time between an array of bodies, including the Africa Progress Panel, the International Crisis Group, Agra and his Kofi Annan Foundation.
In a grey suit, he seems in his natural habitat, but he insists he does not hanker after the old days. He says he speaks to Ban Ki-moon often, as one of the few people who knows what it’s like “to go to bed hoping that you will not wake up to yet another crisis”. Surveying his record, he cites the MDGs as his finest achievement, rather than the Nobel Peace Prize he won on behalf of the UN in 2001. But for his opponents, of course, it is the Oil-for-Food scandal which defines his tenure. He and his officials could have managed it better, he concedes, but he insists the fault lay as much in western capitals as at the UN. The vitriolic calls in Washington for his resignation were “hurtful” but he never considered satisfying the “lynch mob” by stepping down.
“It would have been easy to say, ‘Who needs this? I’m walking off.’ But that would not have been a solution.” So what of Kojo, his son, who caused him acute embarrassment by using his family name to secure business opportunities and preferential perks? Is he the archetypal playboy son of a successful man?
“It was painful,” he says. “Some were trying to attack my integrity and also at the same time my son. They were throwing up so much smoke people did not know what to believe. Having gone through my career without a whiff or hint of this sort of thing, suddenly people throw this at me.”
Despite his carefully crafted image as a man of duty, an ambitious heart clearly beats behind his monastic mien. He was the ultimate careerist who rose through the ranks after endless unglamorous roles. And yet there is, as one of his aides once suggested, something genuinely “yogic” about him.
It is tempting to interpret these two sides as reflecting the tension between the African who wants to help his continent, and the polished globe-trotter, Farmer Kofi and Mr Sec-Gen. Some say he was too trusting, too nice, to have made a great secretary-general. His trademark optimism does sometimes seem misplaced in our turbulent world. But with the UN’s de facto five “prime ministers” in the Security Council, it is almost impossible to see how a sec-gen can be the transformative leader that the UN’s idealists would like to see. Annan may not have been one, but he did better than most – and Farmer Kofi’s career is not finished yet.
Alec Russell is the FT’s comment and analysis editor
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Read the full transcript of five hours of interviews here