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Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Remembered


World leaders are paying tribute to Kofi Annan, the first black African to serve as secretary-general of the United Nations. Annan died today in Switzerland following a brief illness. He was 80 years old. Annan's home country of Ghana is observing a national week of mourning. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us from the Ghanaian capital, Accra. Ofeibea, what is the mood like in Ghana after the news of Kofi Annan's death?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Well, whilst mourning the passing of Kofi Annan, Ghanaians are also celebrating his grace, his humor, his courtesy, his dignity, his pride at being a Ghanaian and an African and a global personality and, of course, a global citizen. Many Ghanaians are saying he was such a gentleman. He promoted peace and justice and dignity. He made us, the Ghanaians, proud.

And, as you've said, Ghana's president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, has called him a consummate international diplomat and son of the soil who made Ghana proud, and he has declared a week of mourning and that all flags will fly at half-staff here in Ghana for the seven days and that he lived a life that was well and honorably fulfilled.

SINGH: And what has the reaction been like outside of Ghana?

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, my goodness. The current U.N. chief, Antonio Guterres, called Kofi Annan a guiding force for good, and the praise for Kofi Annan has been almost universal. Listen to Cyril Ramaphosa. He is the president of South Africa, and I think what he has said really encapsulates how Africans feel about Kofi Annan's contribution.


PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: For us, it's a great loss. He was an outstanding diplomat, outstanding leader. And he was a role model for many people on the continent. We were filled with pride to see an African leader dealing with world problems and finding solutions for them.

SINGH: You know, Ofeibea, one of the most notable moments, as you know, was when Annan received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Tell us a little more about that.

QUIST-ARCTON: Oh, there was great pride all over Africa. Although Kofi Annan didn't have an easy time all the time as secretary-general of the U.N., he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to revitalize the U.N. that he led for two terms, although it wasn't always plain sailing.

SINGH: Indeed - because he clashed, for example, with the U.S. and Britain about their decision to invade Iraq in 2003. That's just one example of some turbulent moments that he faced as the head of the U.N.

QUIST-ARCTON: Kofi Annan always said that, under the U.N. charter, that decision was not legal. And I think he really felt regret that the U.S. and Britain had decided to go ahead with their allies. And he said, perhaps a little more negotiation, a little more talking. And that was very much the Kofi Annan style. Have a listen.


KOFI ANNAN: Perhaps, if we had persevered a little longer, Iraq could yet have been disarmed peacefully. Or, if not, the world could have taken action to solve this problem by a collective decision, endowing it with greater legitimacy and therefore commanding wider support than is the case now.

SINGH: Some people might recall that Kofi Annan faced criticism also before he was elected secretary-general - when he was head of U.N. peacekeeping.

QUIST-ARCTON: Yeah. In his memoir, Kofi Annan recognized the costs of taking on the world's top diplomatic role. And he jokingly said that, you know, SG - the initials for secretary-general - also signified scapegoat. But, you know, just before he became U.N. secretary-general, as head of U.N. peacekeeping, of course, he was also special envoy to the former Yugoslavia. And these U.N. peacekeeping operations - two of the greatest that the U.N. has faced - were also many consider two of the U.N.'s greatest failures during his tenure - the Rwanda genocide in '94 and the massacres in Srebrenica.

And that's when he brought in responsibility to protect a doctrine that countries have accepted, at least in principle - to head off anything that sniffs of genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing or war crimes. I think that is the legacy of those failures.

SINGH: And, as we see worldwide, it seems most people are praising Kofi Annan for his tenure as the U.N. chief overall despite these very deep challenges that he faced.

QUIST-ARCTON: I think that's because, as he described himself in the past year, he was an obstinate optimist - that he was determined to find a way to get all sides together. And that's what he has been doing since he left office as U.N. secretary-general for Africa, for the world. So I think Kofi Annan's legacy is globally a positive one, and people regret the passing of this international statesmen - especially Ghanaians who are saying, Kofi Annan, (foreign language spoken) - Kofi Annan, job well done. Rest well, as you truly deserve.

SINGH: NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton speaking to us from Ghana's capital, Accra.

Thank you very much, Ofeibea, for joining us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
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