(Interview with "The Guardian")


The simplicity of his wood-panelled offices on the 38th floor of the UN Headquarters in New York gave no hints of the importance of the man. Kofi Annan: the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, the second African, and the first black African to head this global institution, and the first man to be appointed into that office from the ranks of UN staff.
First appointed UN Secretary-General in January 1997, Kofi Annan, a twin and father of three, has had a most remarkable career as an international civil servant. He joined the UN in 1962, and for about 30 years, he held senior positions in various sections of the UN: the World Health Organisation, the UN High Commission for Refugees, and the UN Headquarters in New York where he handled assignments involving human resources management, budget and finance, and peacekeeping.
A Ghanaian of Akan extraction, Mr Annan is an international statesman and an icon for black professionals all over the world for whom he is both role model and source of inspiration. He has been described as "the best Secretary General of the UN ever". He has also been strongly criticised by those who are opposed to his management methods and reform agenda. But no one can doubt Kofi Annan's commitment.
He is a major apostle for peace and stability in the world. He carries a high banner for the ideals for which the United Nations was founded 61 years ago. He has brought the United Nations the centrality it deserves in world affairs at a time of momentous changes and challenges. He is famous for his forthrightness and outspokenness. In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with the United Nations "for their work for a better organised and more peaceful world". A year later, Annan was unanimously re-appointed by UN member states for a second five-year term which would end on December 31, 2006.
After a few moments in his waiting room, we were ushered into a conference room. There he was, already waiting. He stretched out his hands to welcome the team from The Guardian. His tone was friendly. There were no airs around him. He posed for photographs with us. "Gentlemen, how do we sit?" He answered this question himself: "Okay, I think we should sit around the table". With the same ease and practised charm and warmth with which Annan handles complex world affairs: Iraq, Iran, Darfur, etc, he signalled the beginning of an encounter that would last for close to an hour. He was calm, measured in his tone, and meditative. Here was a man who was sure of his subject. He could not be swayed to say what he did not want to say. He chose his words, and responded with great care.
Born on Friday, April 8, 1938, Mr Annan studied for a degree in Economics at the Kumasi College of Science and Technology, now the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology of Ghana. He later completed his undergraduate studies in 1961 at the Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, United States as a Ford Foundation scholar. Between 1961 and 1962, he studied for and obtained a postgraduate certificate in Economics at the Institut Universitaire des hautes etudes internationales (IUHEI) in Geneva, Switzerland. He later attended the MIT Sloan School of Management from 1971 -1972 as a Sloan Fellow receiving a Master of Science degree in Management. For two years, 1974 -76, he left the UN to take up appointment as Managing Director of the Ghana Tourist Development Company.
He returned to the United Nations in 1976 as an Assistant Secretary-General. Before becoming Secretary-General, Mr Annan was involved in some of the major events of the 90s including the repatriation of international staff and citizens of Western countries from Iraq after the Kuwaiti invasion, the oil for food programme in Baghdad, and the crisis in former Yugoslavia. His engagement with international affairs has been no less robust since his emergence as UN Secretary-General involving such challenges as the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria, the stalemate between Libya and the Security Council, violence in East Timor, Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, the "land for peace" negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, crises in Central Africa and Sudan, etc.

Mr Annan's biggest achievement so far perhaps has been his resolve "to bring the UN closer to the people". In 1999, he had remarked instructively: "More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that my friends, is why we have the United Nations". Through partnerships with civil society and the private sector and the deft use of diplomacy, Annan has given life to this declaration. Under his watch, the focus of the UN has been directed towards core people issues: the need to end poverty and inequality, protect the environment, reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, improve access to education and quality human life, promote humanitarian intervention to safeguard human rights, the rule of law and international peace and security. Annan has also been passionate about comprehensive reform within the UN to transform it into a stronger and more efficient organisation for the 21st Century.
These and other issues, with particular accent on African affairs, formed the substance of The Guardian interview with the UN Secretary-General. He had another appointment to keep in an adjoining room. But as his interviewers kept pushing for an extra question and minute, Annan did not betray any sign of irritation, even as his staff kept opening and shutting the door from outside, a signal obviously that other guests were waiting... The interview soon came to an end. The Secretary-General, who speaks French, English, Fante, and other African languages, stretched out his hands and spoke Yoruba: "E se. E seun". (Thanks. Thank you). The Guardian team in New York led by Eluem Emeka Izeze, Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, included Dr. Reuben Abati, Chairman, Editorial Board, Laolu Akande, North America Bureau Chief and Debo Adesina, Editor and Deputy Editor-in-Chief. Text of the interview follows:
We came this way because we think it's important that we talk with you and we are glad you gave us audience. Let me begin by asking that as the first Secretary-General from the UN system, would you say that it has served you well and served the organisation well, or are there some down sides ... you don't get to talk about such things too often?
Let me say that coming from the system, I knew it well and it was fortunate that I knew the system. When I was appointed, because I was appointed on the 13th of December, I had less than two weeks to take over. If I had come completely from the outside, it would have been extremely difficult and I hope this would not happen to my successor. And I think the knowledge that I had of the organisation was extremely helpful.
It also meant that I needed to reach out beyond the organisation to establish relations and contacts not just with the Heads of States and Governments, some of them I knew in my capacity as head of the (UN Department of) Peace Keeping Operations. But I took an early decision to also reach out to civil society, the private sector, universities and foundations and really made the UN what it ought to be: the UN of "We the peoples" and the peoples are out there in the world, not in this building.
So, really, we took steps to broaden the constituency. But my understanding of the knowledge and relationship with agency heads and some people who were already a major part of the UN were helpful and I also knew the nature of the programmes.
You didn't see any drawback in any aspectŠ?
Not really. Some believe that because you come from the system, it is sometimes difficult to handle personnel matters. You can not fire people that you have known for quite some time; you can't be as hard on them as you have been and there is no blood on the floor. There are people who believe that in management, if there is no blood on the floor, then you haven't done enough.
Yet when you look around, in most organisations, in most civil service, it doesn't work that way. Even in the private sector, where the Chief Executive has incredible autonomy compared to that of the Secretary General, with a small board and a very focused objective in maximising the profits for shareholders, even there, you don't always see it that way, where you abandon your 191 member-states, more or less your board, and each one of them has their ideas of what you should be doing or should not be doing.

Do you expect your successor to be an insider also?
Most of the candidates who have emerged are from outside the organisation and if the trend continues it is definitely going to be an outsider. And as your colleague indicated, I have been the exception to have come from inside.
How do you think that your tenure and that of Dr. Boutrous Boutrous Ghali enhanced the image of the African diplomat?
I think both of us were Africans and had Africa as our base, but we were also Secretary-Generals for the other regions and the entire world. I think it was important for the Africans to see one of their own running this global organisation and helping resolve issues not just in Africa but around the world. What I have also tried to do is to expand the traditional focus of the job which had tended to focus on political issues, conflict resolutions. I have pushed into poverty alleviation, the fight against HIV/AIDS, environmental degradation, and in fact what was exciting at the last World Summit in September, is that the world leaders walked away with a broadened definition of what constitutes threat.
Because until then when we talk about threats all of us think of war, civil war, or war between states. But they accepted that the conflicts we face in the world today include poverty, infectious diseases, environmental degradation, internationally organised crime, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and of course depending on where you live, your perception of threat is quite different. You live here in New York?
So, when you talk to most New Yorkers, because of what we hear on television and read in the news, they will tell you terrorism. But when you go over to East Africa they will tell you poverty and starvation. If I go to a small island state, I will be told environmental degradation; my island is being washed away. And all of these issues must be of concern to us. Each region has to be concerned about the problems of others, for them to be sensitive to their problems.
How do you see your role as the most powerful African on the world stage? Do you see it as a burden or advantage? What really does power mean to you?
I was going to say I'm not sure I would use the word power to describe my situation ...
(General laughter)
Because as you know, I have no armies, no police forces to stand by. Basically I have to use the power of reasoning, persuasion and diplomacy to get things done. But I do have the capacity to reach out to almost every leader in the world and on any continent, to discuss issues with them. And I am also dealing with issues which cut across... whether it is Avian Flu or HIV/AIDS; these issues cut across continents and regions.
What is important is that as a Secretary-General that is African, I am able to interact effectively and competently with all the other leaders around the world. We understand and respect each other, which is an important thing. And I think it is important for the continent also to know that one of their own is in this position and operating on the world stage.
How would you assess Africa in relation to the Millennium Development Goals and our peculiar circumstances? Do those circumstances pose a difficulty to you in terms of your assertiveness?
Africa has some unique problems, which we need to pay attention to. When you look at the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, there are some countries that will meet all of the goals by the target date 2015. In fact, to those who are accelerating and are able to meet it before that date, my advice to them is, 'don't sit on your laurels. If you achieve it, aim for Millennium Development plus; when you achieve primary education for all, aim too for secondary school education.'
The difficulty we have in Africa that is holding us back, is first of all we have these conflicts, which really have done a lot of damage to the continent. When you look at the Great Lakes region and the war that has been raging, I was in Congo recently; we are trying to organise the first elections ever, in forty-five years. Many in their forties would never have had the chance to vote. But, without infrastructure, there are many hazards, and of course a country of that size when it is in distress, it has impact on all the neighbouring countries.

Today we are looking at Darfur, in Sudan; we were all excited when we resolved the North/South conflict and they signed the Naivasha peace agreement (in Kenya). The Darfur conflict today is also extending beyond Sudan. It has affected Chad and Central African Republic and we are quite anxious to work with the leaders in the region to make sure that it does not become a regional crisis.
And here I have often had the chance to say that African leaders and Africans should back away from the position that we don't interfere in each other's affairs. Because some of these issues, such conflicts that we are talking about, hardly ever remain internal for long. They create problems for neighbours; they throw up refugees who cross borders; they bring guns to the region; criminality goes up, and this is why I have been encouraging all, whether it is ECOWAS or the SADC organisations, sometimes getting involved in these conflicts, trying to help their neighbours. And it is also in their own self-interest to help.
So, we need to resolve all these conflicts to be able to focus on the essential work of economic and social development. We need to improve governance and strengthen institutions to be able to really benefit from the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals and the Development Assistance that is being offered. As part of a build up to the last Summit in September, we managed to get pledges from the G8 and donor countries, indicating that they will increase the developmental assistance by $50 billion by 2015, with $25 billion reserved for Africa. We should be able to organise and structure ourselves in such a way that we take advantage effectively of this issue.
Not many African countries will meet the Millennium Development Goals in the target date, at the rate we are going now. Unless we accelerate and intensify our efforts not only on the continent but also with the support that we are going to get from the donor communities, we would not meet the Millennium Development Goals.
Do you feel embarrassed by the failure of leadership in Africa?
I am often saddened by the leadership situation I see in Africa and also pained for the situation that sometimes, the populations are placed in because of errors of leaders. I think I was the first to go to the OAU summit to say that they should not encourage people who come to power through the barrel of the gun and they should not welcome in their midst with open arms and smiles people who have taken up power through a coup d'etat.
At that time, quite a lot of people were surprised and shocked; you remember that incident?
But several years later, they took the decision that they would not welcome them into their midst. And that also implies that we need to play by the rules. We need to accept and respect the constitution, we need to accept electoral laws, we need to accept the results of elections and we should not tamper with the constitution to perpetuate our rule.
What worries me is that, if this trend continues where leaders are able to change the constitution... the constitution is never written for an individual, it is written for a nation and must stand the test of time... if you change (it) to suit individuals and they extend their mandate in office, we may face the situation where the soldiers who are now in barracks will come back and say, since we cannot go through change in the normal democratic way, this may be the only way to do it. We don't want that.
Latin America has been able to transform itself, all their generals are back in their barracks. We in Africa are doing it and we should do everything not to reverse this trend.
But what do you suggest should be done? I mean, if African leaders are carrying on with this same enterprise, it is becoming like a wild fire on the continent?
First of all, when I talked of the earlier change, the earlier change came about because the people were also aware. The civil society and everybody got involved and the soldiers realised that they were no longer welcome. And I suspect we will go through the same phenomenon on this issue of constitutional change; constitutional change not necessary for the interest of the state, but for the benefit of the man, or leader in power.

If we can make the issue a bit more specific. At this point, constitution amendment is a big issue in Nigeria, and President Obasanjo is right at the centre of it. Have you ever had cause to discuss this matter with him?
(Pause) This is an issue I have discussed with many, many leaders, within Africa and outside Africa, and my position on this is quite well known.
Okay, we take your comments as diplomatic as you have always been. Well, Secretary-General, do you think the UN response and the response of the world to crises in Africa, especially with regards to Rwanda and now Darfur, signifies a certain fatigue? Is this qualitative enough or merely tokenistic?
Let me put it this way, when you talk of the UN, you are not talking of the civil servants or this building. You are talking of countries, yours and mine, big and small, powerful and weak. And in all these crises and crisis situations, where there has been a political will on the part of the countries, a lot can be done.
Often, through the UN or sometimes, we have heard of 'coalitions of the willing' going on outside of the UN to take action. I think what happened in Rwanda was one of the tragic events in my own lifetime and in a way, Rwanda became a victim of Somalia. You would recall that we were pulling out of Somalia after the US troops were killed there. So, we were withdrawing from Somalia while Rwanda was going on and so the member states didn't have any appetite to intervene. Some said they did not know, and I asked them, what did they do when they found out? They sent planes to Kigali pick up their nationals and fly them out, while the killing was going on.
We have a situation in Darfur, where, for the moment, the African Union troops are in. They have done their best against the odds, with the limitations in terms of logistics and resources and they have taken a decision that in principle, they will want to hand over, transition to the UN. And if the UN were to go in, we are not going to start from scratch, we will build on the African Forces which are on ground. Some of them will stay with them; we may not be able to keep all of them. They will be reinforced with others and obviously we need to come in with much better logistical support.
I have indicated that if that were to happen, we will have to put in a Force that is not only robust but is highly mobile in the air and on the ground. Because it is such a huge territory that they are not going to be able to cover it and they are not going to have that many troops to spread throughout the territory. So, we have to make up with mobility and speed and be able to respond if there is an SOS, before the damage is done and not after the damage is done.
There are quite a bit of discussions going on. The Sudanese Government has not given its agreement yet and in these situations it is always easier when you work with the support and the co-operation of the government. I have also urged the Sudanese government to understand that if they had been able to protect their people and people were not starving or dying in Darfur, nobody would be talking about deploying troops there to help them. And it is not coming as an invasion force; it is coming to help the people, and they should facilitate this effort. Or, some people may be held to account now that we have an international criminal court.
That brings us to Charles Taylor: Do you think it was fair really, to browbeat Nigeria to hand over Charles Taylor, considering the circumstances in which he left Liberia in the first place?
I don't know if browbeat is the word ...
(General laughter)
But let me say that I know the history of it very well and I know the circumstances under which President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria took him in. And we were all very pleased, the entire world was pleased, they praised Nigeria, indicating that that action had paved the way for peace. President Obasanjo indicated that the only term and the only condition under which he will release Taylor is if an elected Liberian government were to ask for him. Whether we like it or not, the Liberian elected government, Ms Johnson Sirleaf did ask for him and the President kept his word. But I concede that there were pressures from different sources too.

Concerning Charles Taylor, do you think his arrest and trial will check the spread of impunity on the continent in the long run?
I think we have to look at it in a broader context. It is not just Charles Taylor. We have the arrest of Charles Taylor; we have the arrest of Lubanga (militia leader in Eritrea) who was causing a lot of problems in Eritrea. There have been sanctions slapped on three people in Ivory Coast. Recently, another set of sanctions was slapped on four others in the Sudan.
Really, it sends a message that those who commit these atrocities will be held to account. And the message it also sends is that regardless of your position in life and your station, you may be a President, you may be a General, you may be a Field Commander, you may be a youth leader, but if today, you commit some of these atrocities, a time may come when you will be held to account. Today the international system has a mechanism. There used to be a time when interestingly enough, if you killed one man you are much likely to be put on trial, but if you killed hundreds or thousands you walked away because they were often in power. But nowadays, we have a mechanism to deal with that ... and I think it sends a message.
Now we will like to go back to something that happened in the past. You were one of the last people to see Chief M.K.O. Abiola in Nigeria. We would like to know about your meeting with him. What did you say to him, what did he say to you? How do you think that your intervention actually played into the resolution of the whole crisis?
That was my objective when I came to Nigeria to encourage transition, the release of political prisoners, so that one can move on to a democratic change and have elections. And I left Nigeria; I was convinced that he was on his way out, that he was going to be released and that there were going to be elections. And General (Abdusalam) Abubakar gave me his word, he was not interested in staying in office. He was keen on organising democratic elections and he kept his word.
It was rather tragic that having spent that much time in the jail, he would die when he was on the verge of regaining his freedom and playing his political role in the political life of the nation.
Do you recall what he said to you?
I don't have the details ...
Okay sir. Coming to the UN, you have been working very hard on your reform programme, but we don't seem to see a consensus anymore and yet, there is need for reform. What is the way out?
I think we need to persevere. And let me say that we have achieved quite a bit since the September Summit, in the sense that since then, we have established a Peace Building Commission that will help countries coming out of conflicts or in distress to stabilise and reconstruct.
We have established a new Human Rights Council, which I hope will be much more dynamic and effective than the commission before it. We have established em .. actually let me back up. We have got the member states to agree to accept the principle of responsibility to protect, which is quite an achievement. I recall in 1999 when I first raised this issue there was palpable anger in the house that I was ... that it was an attack against sovereignty. But now we have it. We also established a fund to ensure that we are able to get humanitarian assistance to people in need as quickly as possible. We have a democracy fund to assist countries in transition.
But we have major tasks ahead. The management issue that you referred to, we are looking at the development agenda and reform of the Economic and Social Council. We are looking at strategies for combating terrorism; there was the Security Council reform, but we haven't made much progress. But I think we should persevere.
What happened last week or so, has brought to the fore the tensions between the member states and in fact we are talking management and reforms. Some see it as a power struggle, a power struggle between the North and the South. They feel that some of the big countries have insatiable appetite for power. And unfortunately, some of the developments that happened have firmed that impression.

For example, when we established the Peace Building Commission, the five permanent members of the Security Council said we want five seats reserved for us and they got it. The same suggestion was made initially when the Human Rights Council was named and of course the membership reacted and they backed away.
So, when you talk of changes or managing change, the question is, which group is going to gain, which group has an influence and may exploit this new change? Even if you say, give a Secretary General a bit more authority or power, some people will wonder if the big boys would go and lean on him or her to do things their way because they are paying quite a lot of the contributions.
So I think we need to work with them to build trust and to work on this reform in a spirit of give and take, because we do need to adapt the organisation and bring it in line with the challenges we face and it is not just a management issue, the same goes for the Security Council. The current composition and structure of the Security Council reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 and not of 2006. And, to have an organisation of a hundred and ninety-one member-states with a narrow power base of five member-states on critical issues... most people are seeing that the council's decisions are mandatory, they are legislative on member states and yet you have a very narrow base. I have described this as a democracy deficit. And it is something that we have to do something about sooner or later.
So you don't agree that this issue of a breakdown in the reform agenda is a battle for the soul of UN?
No, I wouldn't say ... I mean, the Americans have a very strong position and the G-77 are also defending their position. We have been through some of these situations before. Well, I don't know what you mean by battle for the soul of UN.
That is how some of the ambassadors of the developing countries here have described it ...
But we know your time is short and, let me draw your attention to the difficulties the UN has faced and you specifically, with regards to at least two of the scandals that have been reported, on sexual harassment and the oil for food programme. Do you think this has eroded the credibility of the UN?
Let me say that I hope not. It was a big blow and a painful experience for all of us. But one should not also forget that we were the ones who initiated the investigation. I set up the Volcker Commission because we wanted to get to the truth. And it was a very complex programme - the oil for food programme, a $64 billion programme. It was a very complex one for an organisation that is not used to running those kinds of things.
But if you look at the report of the Volcker Commission in its entirety, you will discover that while there may have been mismanagement, the question of fraud and scandal, and fraudulent behaviour, quite honestly if there were problems there, they belonged to the capitals. There was only one UN staff member that the investigation indicates may have taken $150,000 out of a $64 billion programme. The companies that made use of Saddam Hussein behind the back of the UN, it was 2,200 companies from sixty countries. As I indicated earlier, the Security Council mandates under Chapter 7 are mandatory, they become part of the national laws and the governments were meant to apply it and also monitor their own companies.
It is not a chapter the UN is very proud of, but what is often also forgotten is that the programme succeeded in its objective of feeding the Iraqi population. We fed the 26 million Iraqis and the system went to the extent that it was the distribution list which was used for elections.
On the sexual exploitation, where they refer to the peacekeeping operations, this is something we have taken very strict measures (on) and we indicated that we have a zero tolerance programme which we are determined to press on. It is unfortunate, but I think it will also be wrong to pretend that this sort of thing only happens with UN peacekeepers and it doesn't happen in any nation. In a way, the people in these operations also reflect the larger community, but we are taking very, very strict measures to make sure it is not repeated on our watch and in our operations.

What do you say in response to charges that the UN is now more top-heavy and that this has not necessarily translated into greater efficiency?
I don't know what they mean by the secretariat is top heavy. They should also know that the secretariat is doing much more than it used to do. They must understand that we have taken on lots of assignments, lots of new initiatives given to us by member-states, often without corresponding resources and we have been asked to absorb quite a lot of these within existing resources. And honestly, when you look at the activities and the areas that we are engaged in, I would argue that we are not top heavy.
What we need to do and this was part of the reform, is to restructure ourselves in such a way that we probably don't have