Kofi Annan: tribute to a rare gentleman

He could give you his full attention for a few seconds and leave you with the feeling you mattered. This is a quality you will recognize in very few individuals. It is emotional and profound. That’s because people occupying powerful positions more commonly portray arrogance and impatience. It could be true such people are usually quite busy, which explains their limited time for kindness or small talk. That is the normal behaviour you sort of expect. And, then, there was the Kofi Annan way.

From a secular pope to a rock star of diplomacy, from a Nobel Prize laureate to traditional chieftainship, Kofi Annan was used to titles, glamour and recognitions of all sorts. Yet such attention would not make his voice louder. Here was a sophisticated player capable of enhancing his stature by doing the opposite: restricting his appearances, demonstrating humbleness, and lowering the tone of his voice when talking to the powerful or the vulnerable. Almost everyone that came across this rare combination of charm and poise was conquered. A rare gentleman that transmitted noble upbringing and natural politeness.

This personality archetype being so singular it is no surprise everybody that crossed him would pretend they knew him. In fact, in an odd way, they did. They could, even if they just saw him for a few seconds, connect the man with his public persona; so detectable and discernible.

For the UN actors—diplomats, staff, envoys, media—the connection was even stronger. He was their Secretary-General, someone approachable, sincere and capable of acknowledging his and the organization’s mistakes. He was almost predictable in his demeanour.

I, like many others, got to know Mr. Annan in the course of time, throughout the various echelons of his UN career. When reflecting on the past more than once, he and I remembered three moments that marked our connection.

As the UN Resident Coordinator (RC) in Zimbabwe, I had the chance of welcoming the Secretary-General to an historic AU Summit in 1997. When the plane stopped next to the red carpet in the VIP area of Harare Airport, in-between other flights of important dignitaries, one could excuse a protocol confusion, even more so with a Head of State sharing the same flight and descending the same stairs. Mr. Annan was so popular that many minders rushed to shake his hand in the middle of folkloric dancers, military parade, and a cacophonic muddle. Visibly protocol-lost and looking for a reference, his eyes finally spotted me. In a typical discreet diplomatic touch, he greeted me while asking with visible annoyance who was the RC. I responded: “It’s me!” It was my way of, also diplomatically, reminding him of our connection. He had known me since he was the Head of Human Resources at the UN. At the time we both lived at Roosevelt Island in New York. At the Airport tarmac he could, nevertheless, be excused for realizing that a 37-year-old was actually the RC, apart from being his acquaintance. We used to laugh about this encounter.

The second moment was no laughing matter. One of Mr. Annan’s best friends and respected UN high-flyer Sérgio Vieira de Mello had died, a victim of the bomb attack on the UN compound in Baghdad on 19 August 2003. After numerous changes to the funeral plans by relatives and the Brazilian government, the decision was finally made that a state ceremony would be organized in Rio de Janeiro. I was then RC in Brazil, this time nominated by Mr. Annan, who who used to ask me informally about my views on a range of issues.

Mr. Annan arrived in Rio almost an entire day before the funeral ceremonies. I felt the need to organize some sort of programme, but he was not interested. I insisted on at least a short helicopter flight to see Rio’s peaceful beauty from the sky, which he finally accepted. The Government was happy to do this for him. I joined the flight and while in the air pointed to the Rocinha favela that he had heard so much about. I told him that my friend, the Minister of Culture and famous singer Gilberto Gil, had a project there. It was the beginning of a conversation that ended up with Mr. Gil and Mr. Annan playing together in the UN General Assembly Hall in commemoration of Sérgio’s exceptional life.

The third moment we often recalled was the modest beginnings of the Kofi Annan Foundation in Geneva, with me helping with some minor things to get it established. This modest man would be telling me about his student times in that city where we shared the same alma matter, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, and unusual routines we learned there. I was myself back to Geneva to lead the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAIR), after having served in the UN’s 38th floor—a floor usually for top management. I never knew if my landing at UNITAR had his fingers. Like many people he helped or protected, his number one rule was discretion. But certainly, we were both happy to be able to continue to work together on the same causes. Although this is a personal tribute, I am convinced many people have similar stories from this towering character. He touched deeply those who had a chance to cross his path.

Carlos Lopes, currently a professor at Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town, South Africa, is a former Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

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First published by United Nations Africa Renewal