There are a few things as defining of a great man as a sense of calmness and grace. Kofi Annan was the very epitome of greatness, the kind we imagine when we think of our great Kings during the time when our traditions and culture flourished.
With his regal bearing, a sense of purpose and an unpretentious mien, Kofi Annan exuded a natural authority that was to serve him well as probably the most successful and most influential Secretary-General of all time.
Until Kofi Annan, Dag Hammarskjold was recognised as the most consequential Secretary-General; Kofi Annan did even more to assert the primacy of the United Nations (UN), making the charter the standard for states’ behaviour at a time when the big powers had come to expect that they were above the rules. Kofi Annan became the moral arbiter. Indeed, he appeared to symbolise the UN itself.
It is perhaps a manifestation of his success that an ingenious ad person came up with the ubiquitous coffee advert “Kofi time?”. By making the UN visible and relevant, his brand had become interchangeable with that of the UN.
It is unsurprising that with his demise, the world is focused on his achievements, which are many. His seminal report, “In Larger Freedom,” which brought to the fore the interlinkages between human rights, peace and security and development; the Declaration on the right and responsibility of individuals, groups and organs of society to promote and protect universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms; the Millennium Development Goals; the burgeoning of peacekeeping operations and the sense of purpose that infused the work of the UN - these are the stuff of which legends are born. His legacy rightfully deserves celebration.
I prefer to remember now the smile on his face, a certain playfulness, a hint of impishness and the characteristic humour and wit that betrays a deep understanding of life. Once, as Nitin Desai, a former Under Secretary-General, was in the process of introducing me to Secretary-General Annan at a reception the latter was hosting in honour of 15 diplomats responsible for shepherding the Monterrey Consensus, he hesitated because he was not sure if I knew my Ghanaian compatriot. Instead of enlightening him, I spoke Twi. Mr Annan found that so funny and laughed.
Annan and Ghana
Just as the UN was associated with him, Kofi Annan became the face of his country, Ghana. His positive qualities were seen as the defining qualities of the Ghanaian. This was the constant source of comment, wherever one went in the world. He made us proud of our heritage; he showed us what we could be if we upheld our traditional values. It is instructive that some Ghanaians in the international system faulted him for not packing the international body with his nationals - the very antithesis to the character that brought him respect and glory to Ghana.
Kofi Annan brought to his job a certain panache and style as if he was made for the job. He cared about people and treated all with respect. He aspired to high ideals. In a sense, he embodied the values of a world citizen, values sorely in need today.
At a time when multilateralism is under siege and the values of the UN are questioned daily, either by deliberate attack or a conscious policy of marginalisation, many turned to Kofi Annan for his leadership and the nobility of his spirit to shore up the global system that offers the best hope for “We the People”.
Alas, the great man has gone home. We grieve with his family and we grieve for our world. He has left too soon.
The life he lived and the example of commitment and achievement, however, live on and the world will be the better for it.
May his soul rest in perfect peace.