When the death of the former United Nations Secretary General and Nobel Peace Laureate Kofi Annan was announced last Saturday, tributes poured out in torrents. But amidst these glamorous tributes, another aspect, another side of this career UN man went untold.
A side that somewhat blights an eventful career in the world’s biggest humanitarian organisation. Part of this alternate image of the man widely credited with having brought Kenya from the brink in the 2007- 2008 post-election violence was his curious ability to self-efface and fence sit when it suited him most, particularly during the various global crises that happened during his tenure as the UN’s Secretary General.
“Annan’s ability to project this unflappable persona—the honest broker between conflicting interests—was generally cited as his great strength. In other, much more profound ways, however, this aloofness was his defining weakness,” Philip Gourevitch writes in an Annan profile for The New Yorker.
It is this apparent aloofness that has the bloody history of an entire country entangled with the memory and achievements of the man. For 100 days the Hutu government in Rwanda and its extremist allies butchered almost a million people in what has been called the most efficient killing spree ever.
The systematic slaughter of men, women and children which took place between April and July of 1994 will forever be remembered as one of the most abhorrent events of the 20th century. Rwandans killed Rwandans, brutally decimating the Tutsi population of the country but also targeting moderated Hutus.
Appalling atrocities were committed, by militia and the armed forces, but also by civilians against other civilians. The international community did not prevent the genocide, nor did it stop it. This failure left deep wounds within Rwandan society, and in the relationship between Rwanda and the international community, in particular the United Nations.
“These are wounds which need to be healed, for the sake of the People of Rwanda and for this sake of the United Nations. Establishing the truth is necessary for Rwanda, for the United Nations and also for all those, wherever they may live, who are at risk of becoming victims of genocide in the future,” the report of the Independent Inquiry into the actions of the United Nations during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
For some, this truth was the fact that the United Nations failed the people of Rwanda when they needed it most. In a 2002, interview with the BBC current affairs programme Hard Talk, Romeo Dallaire, UN Force Commander in Rwanda at the time talked of the failure of the UN and those at the top of the organisation to act on credible intelligence from his team that might have prevented the history altering event.
“My failure in the mission was that I did not convince people that there was an impending genocide,” Dallaire says. “I feel that perhaps there was ill will towards the mission by those that were in a position to make decisions.”
In spite of this perceived letting down of the Rwandese by the UN community, Annan came off as unapologetic to these failures. “There is no mistaking the prickly personal pique, for instance, in a cable he sent in 1995, on the eve of the first anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, to another UN official.
The tone of defensive derision is established in the first sentence: “Every now and then some journalist or human rights advocate remarks, usually on the media, that either they themselves or someone else had warned the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda of the impending genocide,” Gourevitch writes.
These aspersions of his tenure as Secretary General were not limited to Rwanda alone. The body is fingered for similar inaction in other parts of the world too from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan and several other countries in between. In a recent inter view, some 17 years after he won a Nobel Peace Prize, Annan still insisted that he did the best he could as the different crises were unfolding the world over.
“In Rwanda it was extremely difficult to get the member states to move so soon after Somalia, and when Rwanda fell apart, no one wanted to get involved.” Annan said in the April 2018 Hardtalk interview. Sixteen years earlier, while on the same show Dallaire said he could have helped prevent the genocide if he just had additional men.
Defend the system
“But he didn’t have 5,000 men. He had 2,500 of them. They did not have the resources to make the differences,” Annan said.
“The trouble with the UN is that sometimes it is too big to hide, but too small to make a difference,” he said adding that the easiest thing to do following the crisis was to blame the UN Secretary General. “It is always easy to find a scapegoat. I always say the ‘SG’ now stands for scapegoat,” he quips.
A transcript of his final press conference from the UN headquarters in New York, on December 19th 2016 further pointed to a man who stood by the system and would defend the system through it all. After he gave his farewell speech to the UN press corps, Annan was asked what his greatest personal regret while serving as the UN head was. “I think I’ll pass on that one,” he replied curtly. He then delivered his coup de grace.
“There is a tendency in certain places to blame the Secretary-General for everything, for Rwanda, for Srebrenica, for Darfur, but should we not also blame the Secretary-General for Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the tsunami, earthquakes? Perhaps the Secretary-General should be blamed for all of those things. We can have fun with that, if you want,” he said.
Gourevitch wrote that Annan was the last UN Secretary-General to figure, in news headlines and public consciousness, as a central figure in the major international conflicts of his time. That he was weak was a function, chiefly, of his office, but it was also a function of his curious mixture of grandiosity and unaccountability.
“He fancied himself a great leader, but he was constitutionally incapable of accepting the burdens that great leadership entails,” The New Yorker says. In the memories of Kenyans though, his lasting impression would not be that of the deserved 2001 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to revitalise The UN during the Iraq war and HIV pandemic, but rather that of a mender who patched back together a country that was tearing itself apart.