Kofi Annan has a diplomat’s way of being economical with what he reveals, and a politician’s knack of self-serving storytelling.
Interventions – A Life in War and Peace is his recently published memoir of his career in the UN, and after.
It was a journey that started 50 years ago as a recruit for the World Health Organisation in Geneva, from where he gradually rose to become the first career UN staffer to be named secretary-general in 1996.
The job put him at the centre of key global events of our time, from the crises in the Middle East and Bosnia, to East Timor, Darfur, Kosovo, Iraq, Somalia and, most tragically, Rwanda.
Though Annan had already left the UN when Kenya imploded in 2007, his successor Ban Ki-moon was only too ready to turn the problem over to him. Already, Mr Annan’s compatriot and AU chairman, Ghana’s president John Kufuor, had tagged him to lead the mediation.
Mr Annan describes his Kenyan assignment as “the hardest, most intensive and enduring of all my interventions in the affairs of another country.”
From the start, he makes it clear it was the PNU that was the intransigent side, because it was opposed to power-sharing. That drove him to call up some powerful friends, primarily then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who did the critical arm-twisting.
To close on the deal, Annan brought President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania to Nairobi to convince Mwai Kibaki that power could be shared with a prime minister, as in Tanzania, without eroding the authority of the president.
Mr Annan doesn’t dwell much on the single act that has since shaped Kenya’s politics irrevocably — the handing over of the names of the alleged perpetrators of the 2008 post-election violence to the International Criminal Court.
It was he who turned over the famous Waki envelope to the ICC. It was a first. Procedurally, cases are either referred to the court by state parties — as in the case of Cote d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo — or by the UN Security Council — as in Omar al-Bashir’s case.
Mr Annan’s continued engagement and pronouncements on Kenya have become a contentious issue. One side believes he still has a role to play.
But Annan is seemingly becoming an unwelcome visitor for President Kibaki’s group. During his latest visit to Nairobi, the president did not meet him.
Reading the memoir, it is clear that the one topic that will forever haunt his conscience is Rwanda. He was the head of UN peacekeeping operations at the time of the 1994 genocide and his actions, or rather his inaction, have since been the subject of savage criticism.
The criticism is not so much that he and the UN failed to intervene to prevent the genocide happening. The anger is more for the fact that they actually withdrew the UN military contingent from Rwanda once the genocide started.
Too little, too late
By the time the UN got around to voting in another peacekeeping mission for the country, it was too late. Over 800,000 people had been massacred.
The new UN mission had also become superfluous as Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front had taken control and put an end to the killings.
As early as four months before the actual genocide, the UN force commander in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, had cabled an emergency message to Mr Annan’s office saying he had impeccable intelligence from a “very high-level” government informant that a blueprint for Tutsi extermination had been prepared.
The informant also knew the location of a major arms cache in Kigali to be used by the Interahamwe, which Gen. Dallaire proposed to raid.
Not only did Mr Annan’s office order the general to lay off, there was also no follow-up to the subsequent and increasingly desperate warnings from the commander on the calamity that was approaching. The true hero of the whole shameful saga is Gen. Dallaire.
Even when the order to withdraw was given, he and a tiny contingent of courageous colleagues refused to leave as Rwanda descended into hell.
The Rwanda chapter as told by Mr Annan in his memoir is a long narrative of self-justification. He blames everybody but himself — the Security Council, the White House, the US Congress, UN member states for refusing to commit fresh peacekeepers — for the terrible failure.
Prior to the Rwanda tragedy, Annan had helped oversee the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Somalia in 1992. That mission eventually unravelled with the withdrawal of US forces after the botched attempt to capture warlord Farah Aideed.
Mr Annan blames the Somalia mission’s failure on US mistakes, and complains that America had brought in Special Forces that did not answer to the UN chain of command.
The Somali debacle, he says, had severely reduced the appetite for US foreign interventions by the time Rwanda exploded.
On a subsequent visit to Rwanda, then US president Bill Clinton offered an apology to the traumatised country. It was the right thing to do.
Annan, to the best of my knowledge, has never done so. This book should have given him the opportunity to belatedly make amends. He does not take the matter up.
A senior Rwandan official remarks: “We would prefer Annan take responsibility for one of the biggest failures of his career — the genocide that took place in Rwanda — rather than pushing it under the rug and hiding behind ‘collective’ inaction. He should be on the apology tour instead.”
Annan is reluctant to delve into the broader argument for UN reform that has become a big issue today.
He explains away the frequent paralysis in the UN by referring to the “lack of unity” of the veto-wielding Security Council members, which he correctly says hampers collective action.
However, he has very little to say about the contemporary campaign by emerging powers like Brazil, India, and South Africa to democratise the Council and empower the voices of the disadvantaged regions of Africa, Latin America and South Asia.
What, for instance, does he think of South Africa’s campaign for a permanent seat on the Security Council? Annan does not say.
Still, he is too much of a realist not to know the limited power of a UN secretary-general, and too deft a diplomat to admit it bluntly.
Yet that much was plain to him and to everybody else as the 2003 US invasion of Iraq unfolded. A bellicose George W Bush reduced the UN to an impotent bystander in launching a war the rest of the world opposed.
In other retellings of those tense times, principally in the New Yorker magazine, it has been reported how US secretary of state Colin Powell — Annan fondly refers to him as “my friend” — would phone to openly scold him whenever the US government felt the secretary-general was getting out of line.
In retirement, Annan lives in Geneva, through he travels constantly. It is evident, though, that he has spent so much of his life away from Africa that he fails to grasp certain nuances.
An example is his frustration when nudging African presidents to speak out uninhibitedly about sexuality and condoms in the battle against HIV/Aids. For him, the reluctance to do so by the likes of Yoweri Museveni and Daniel arap Moi was “irresponsible.”
Annan remains deeply committed to the ideals of the UN Charter. It is a commitment that won him the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, which was jointly shared with the UN.