Ghana-born Kofi Annan, who died Saturday aged 80, was the first UN chief from sub-Saharan Africa, and it was on this continent that he experienced both the most difficult moment of his career, as well as some of his biggest diplomatic successes.
Like a whole generation of officials, diplomats and foreign ministers, Annan was forever scarred by the failure of the international community to foresee and prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where, according to UN figures, 800,000 people died, largely Tutsi. Kofi Annan was 56 and just one year into his term as deputy secretary general in charge of peacekeeping operations when the deadly machetes rained down on Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutus.
Under the military command of Canadian general Romeo Daillaire, the UN’s MINUAR peacekeeping mission was deployed in Rwanda when the genocide began. But it failed to prevent the massacre, as a result of a lack of reinforcements, the deployment of which needed a Security Council vote.
As the killing spread, the number of MINUAR peacekeepers was even reduced. On several occasions after the genocide, Kofi Annan acknowledged that his actions had not been sufficient to prevent the massacres. “The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret,” Annan said on the 10th anniversary of the genocide. At the end of 2006, one month before stepping down as UN Secretary General after 10 years in office, Annan promised never to forget Africa.
He told the press that he “was not tired” and would want to “devote some time” to work on Africa, and “offer advisory services if my advice is needed“. Just over a year later, that wish was fulfilled and the African Union called on his diplomatic skills to act as mediator in the political crisis in Kenya and to help stamp out the fires of electoral violence. Kofi Annan arrived in Nairobi at the end of January 2008.