Kofi Annan’s quest for a better Africa

September 13, 2018
Tributes to Kofi Annan on his extraordinary accomplishments as UN Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006 have poured in since he passed away on August 18. All these tributes are well deserved and true. Kofi Annan’s achievements are towering. I am honored to have called him a friend, but I am even more honored to have worked alongside him, learned from him, and been inspired by him.

Kofi Annan became my boss in 1997, having replaced Boutros Boutros Ghali at the helm of the UN. Two years prior, Boutros had appointed me as a UN Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). I held that post until 2005, so Kofi’s tenure at the UN and mine overlapped for almost a decade. We worked together closely during that time, and we stayed in regular contact after we both retired from the UN.

Throughout my association with Kofi, I was convinced that in his quest for a better and more peaceful world he was driven by the desire to see the end of poverty and a prosperous Africa, the continent of his birth, in the shortest possible time. That desire drove his emphasis on reducing poverty by half by 2015, the ultimate objective of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set aggressive and unprecedented benchmarks for progress and are roundly viewed as a real success.

The MDGs, over which Kofi Annan presided, are not the only concerted global effort to sit at the heart of Kofi’s enduring legacy on Africa. He pushed to double the level of development financing from the rich world to the poorer countries, a key outcome of the 2002 Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development. Determined to improve health conditions in the developing world, he established the Global Fund in 2002 to mobilize billions of dollars to combat AIDS and slow the HIV pandemic, as well as treat other infectious diseases. Equally important were his recognition that gender equality was both a moral imperative and the key to a more prosperous future for Africa, his passion to reform agriculture to help Africa feed itself through his leadership role in establishing the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and his efforts to bring greater transparency to Africa’s relations with the developed world through the Africa Progress Panel, which he chaired for a decade.

As head of the ECA, I had the good fortune to work with Kofi on many of the initiatives that helped shape African development at the turn of the century. He was my inspiration for the influential initiatives and programs—including the African Peer Review Mechanism and the New Partnership for African Development—that the ECA spearheaded in close collaboration with African leaders during this critical period. As a result of our collaboration, I came to observe first hand the abundant charisma, style, and sincerity that accorded Kofi so much respect and admiration worldwide.

For example, in 1998 Kofi and a few African leaders joined more than 1,000 participants at a conference that the ECA convened in Addis Ababa to commemorate the institution’s fortieth anniversary. The theme of the conference focused on the role of African women in economic development. During a panel with the African leaders, the discussion eventually turned to the issue of quotas for women in ministerial appointments. One of the leaders responded that when selecting his own ministers or other political appointments, he believed foremost “in competence” and looked only for the best people—“not necessarily women.” Kofi quickly whipped around to the speaker, responding before anyone else had a chance.

“I am sure some of the men in your Cabinet turn out to be incompetent,” he said. “Why don’t you give women a chance? They have a right to be incompetent too.”

The audience exploded in applause.

I last visited with Kofi four months ago in Geneva. I presented him with the manuscript of a book I will soon be publishing. The book recounts the lessons of African development over the last five decades from my perspective, and I asked Kofi if he would kindly provide a foreword. He readily agreed, sending his two-page contribution a few weeks later. He used the occasion to articulate two factors that will shape the future of Africa, about which he has often spoken so eloquently.

First, he wrote that Africa’s transformation will “require many things, especially sound leadership”. But he warned against the “litany of selfish, dangerous, or destructive leaders that have greatly exacerbated the many challenges that independent Africa faced.” Instead, “Strong and capable states that manage their resources well, provide visionary leadership, and reject authoritarianism and corruption are the ones best placed to make lasting gains,” he wrote.

Secondly, he reiterated his belief that the drivers of these gains will be Africa’s growing youth population. “Throughout my career I have always been struck by the energy, talent and appetite for knowledge of the continent’s youth,” he wrote. “They want to create a better and more just world, and I am convinced they have the ambition and tools, especially through new forms of technology, to do so.”

As the Financial Times noted after his death, Kofi Annan often said that he was never going to stop being an optimist because if he did, it meant he had given up. And he was never going to give up. Yet, as Kofi once said: “Optimism should not be mistaken for romanticism; rather it is tempered by realism even as we strive continuously for improvements in the human condition”.

As we mourn his passing, we should celebrate his life and remember him as he lived: as a kind and remarkable man, and a visionary leader and humanitarian, and a proud and inspiring African who strove continuously for an end to poverty and a prosperous Africa.

Dr. K.Y. Amoako is former Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and Founder and President of the African Center for Economic Transformation.


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