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Late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, A Model Leader of our Times

04/10/2023| Adam Mooney

The Africa Scholars Forum at the John W. McCormack School of Policy and Global Studies hosted its third annual Black History in Africa Series event honoring the “internationalist icon” Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan served as the seventh secretary-general of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006 and was the second African secretary-general of the United Nations. As Interim Dean Rita Kiki Edozie commented in her opening remarks to the event, hosting the Black History in Africa series is an act of restorative justice that reminds everyone that Black history starts in Africa and is universal and global. “To include the critical issues of African history and African affairs in our purview of Black history representation,” Dean Edozie said, “is the reason why we are bringing you today’s important speaker event.”

Abiodun Williams

Titled “Kofi Annan and Global Leadership,” the Black History in Africa Speaker Series event hosted by the Africa Scholars Forum featured Dr. Abiodun Williams—Professor of the Practice in international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University—as a “griot,” a storyteller of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s work and legacy. Williams drew from his personal experience working with Annan as the Director of Strategic Planning to the UN secretaries-general from 2001 to 2007.

Dr. Williams provided a narrative of Annan’s life, career, and accomplishments through the lens of his leadership, beginning by acknowledging that “The fundamental challenge of creating a more peaceful and just world can often seem an abstract one. Although the mission is a shared one, there is no substitute for leadership.” In Kofi Annan, Williams recognizes “the conviction of a leader we trust,” and his rise to the top of the United Nations as secretary-general, with only four of its original members being from the African continent, was remarkable. “If someone had suggested in 1945 when the United Nations was founded in San Francisco that an international civil servant from sub-Saharan Africa would one day hold the top job,” Williams suggested, “this would have been considered fanciful.” Yet Annan climbed to the top after three decades of service in the UN, cementing him as a leader of conviction dedicated to creating a peaceful and just world.

In his talk, Dr. Williams situated Kofi Annan’s accomplishments throughout his career within his primary conviction of “the importance of placing people’s rights and needs at the center of the UN’s action. Annan saw the UN’s cardinal purposes—security, development, and human rights—as interconnected and inseparable.” As Williams suggested, Annan believed that progress in one of these three areas is meaningless without progress in the others. Among Annan’s many achievements was his committed effort against the proliferation of HIV/AIDS in the African continent during a time when its denial was prevalent among world leaders. “Many thousands of people would not be alive today without Annan’s leadership on this issue,” Williams noted. By urging leaders to break their silence and counter their shame around responding to the disease, “Annan elevated HIV/AIDS on the global agenda,” Williams continued. “He articulated a vision, mobilized resources, and forged a global consensus to combat the epidemic.”

Time and again, Annan centered human rights, the most controversial issues in international diplomacy, as Williams argued. Annan drew from his own moral and spiritual upbringing in his belief that “suffering anywhere concerns people everywhere.” Unlike his predecessors, Annan provided local leadership to promote and protect universal human rights even when geopolitical circumstances such as the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, or the United Nations itself, were wont to ignore them. Indeed, Annan embodied a realistic humility about the UN’s purposes, “maximizing the organization’s potential where it had a special role to play,” Williams demonstrated. Annan’s tenure as secretary-general “should remind us that realism about the UN’s deficiencies does not entail fatalism about the opportunities it presents.”

The story of Kofi Annan, as Williams reminded audience members, is one of deep achievement throughout a lifelong career dedicated to the pursuit of justice and peace. In the international context of our current moment, Williams looks to Annan’s core ideas and leadership as a legacy for future generations. After all, “Even where complex and uncertain processes are at work,” said Williams, “the vision, competence, and empathy of an inspirational individual can make an enormous difference.”

As the Africa Scholars Forum and the McCormack School more broadly celebrated Black History Month in February, Annan’s legacy resonates with the present moment, which is riddled with problems facing the world. Dr. Williams ultimately returned, in his story of Kofi Annan, to his opening preamble on the importance of leadership in the mission for peace. “One of the challenges we’re facing at the international community is a dearth of leadership which is principal, which is visionary, in the way that Annan was,” Williams commented. “But Annan had undying faith in young people all over the world and certainly young people in Africa and of African descent.” Addressing the McCormack community and the members of the Africa Scholars Forum, Williams suggested that Annan would see the future here: “He would have great faith in what you will do in your careers in international affairs [to] be the agents of change that he was.”