LAST FRIDAY I spoke at a symposium held by the Institute of International Relations (IIR) in honour of the late former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. A commemoration of his life and work was taking place simultaneously at the UN in New York.
Friday was an appropriate day for the two events, if only for two reasons. First, September 21 is the International Day of Peace, and Kofi laboured all his professional life for international peace. Second, among the Akan people of Ghana, to whom he belonged, the name given a boy born on Friday is “Kofi.”
Kofi and I had known each other for nearly 60 years, a lifetime, since we first briefly met in 1961 in Geneva at what was then called the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales, or Graduate Institute of International Studies (which, by the way, set up our IIR and provided its first three or four directors).
A few years later, in 1965, we met up again, this time in Addis Ababa. He was a very junior official at the UN Economic Commission for Africa; I was at the Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago, now closed. We became firm friends (not only, as zodiac and other sign enthusiasts might say, because we were both born in early April, and because his father’s name was also Reginald). Our wives at the time also hit it off. He later remarried; I haven’t yet been able to reach that level of courage, and I fear it’s too late now.
Ethiopia then was a country still to emerge adequately from its centuries of isolation. In the 1780s, the British historian Edward Gibbon had written: “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion (Coptic Christianity), the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten.”
Almost two centuries later, Ethiopia’s immaturity regarding foreigners was still very evident, and one of its manifestations was especially offensive: the ruling Amhara and their votaries looked down on people from other parts of Africa, especially black Africa. Ethiopia, they argued, was in Africa, not of Africa.
One Sunday afternoon I went to see an Ethiopian couple, old friends I had known for more than a decade. I found them in the middle of a heated row. About what? They were planning a dinner party, and the wife wanted to invite two “Africans,” with one of whom she worked. The husband would have none of it: he would not have any “Africans” in his house.
They appealed to me; I came down at once on the wife’s side, and chided the husband. The “Africans” were invited, and so well did they and the husband get along with one another that they were automatic picks for every subsequent dinner. Only those two “Africans,” however. Who were they? Mr and Mrs Kofi Annan.
Kofi spent all his professional life in the UN, with the exception of two years when he was, if I recall correctly, director of the Ghana Tourist Office. He was happy to get back to the UN, where he rose and rose, eventually becoming the first, and so far only, UN bureaucrat to achieve the secretary-generalship. But for a massive stroke of good luck, he might not have made it.
What happened was that his immediate predecessor, the Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was implacably opposed for a second term by the USA (UN secretaries-general normally serve two successive five-year terms). But, on the UN’s geographic rotational formula, that second term was still Africa’s, and an African had to be found. Kofi was not the early favourite – Amara Essy of Ivory Coast was – but he had Washington’s support, and that support prevailed.
What sort of person was Kofi? Very even-tempered and soft-spoken, courtly, dignified, extremely shrewd – his ascent from Addis Ababa to New York tells you a great deal. An excellent listener, and, especially given his family and cultural background, someone who did not rush to judgment. Many Americans, Trump-like in their urge always to seem quickly decisive, saw this as weakness. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
We kept in touch over the years, and at my invitation he and his family spent a vacation in Tobago in 2003/4. I was glad he did; when I met him and his wife on their arrival at Crown Point Airport, I was horrified at how gaunt he had become under the unrelenting pressures he was experiencing.
My daughter represented me at his funeral; she knew him as Uncle Kofi. His mortal body is gone, but his legacy of the international peace he unremittingly sought lives. I shall look at some of that legacy in my next two articles.