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Kofi Atta Annan Biography

Early Activism, Led the UNHCR, Rose through the Ranks at the UN, Dealt with Famine


Secretary General of the United Nations

Annan, Kofi, photograph by Jeff Christensen. Reuters/Archive Photos. Reproduced by permission

On December 18, 1996, the clink of raised champagne glasses rang through the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City. The celebration was to honor incoming Secretary General Kofi Annan, the first black African ever to have held the difficult job. His election was greeted with genuine pleasure by UN insiders, who admire him for his unswerving integrity, his cool judgment in the toughest emergencies, and his ability to learn valuable lessons from every situation in which he finds himself. His colleagues had plenty of time to assess Annan's strengths. Other than a two-year period in the mid-1970s when he returned to his native Ghana to run the Tourism Control Board, Annan has devoted his entire career to the international organization.

During Annan's nearly half-century of life in UN service, the number of troubled areas all over the world has soared. Governments have toppled in Africa; blood has stained highly-coveted lands in Europe; Soviet Communism has collapsed, and with it, the grim wall separating East and West Berlin, and the Middle East has exploded in violence. Each change has left in its wake a flood of desperate refugees who depend on the UN for basic humanitarian aid such as food, shelter and medical services.

The huge challenges of assessing these urgent needs, working out suitable strategies for humanitarian aid, and helping to keep peace between warring factions everywhere have taken Annan all over the world. By turns he has visited Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Switzerland. Along the way he has gained a comfortable familiarity with English, French, and several African languages. Constant traveling has also taught him a great deal about the ancient traditions by which many people live, and the ways in which they buckle when changes overwhelm them. Well-versed in several ways of life besides his own, he can truly be considered a citizen of the world.

Early Activism

Kofi Annan spent his boyhood years in Africa's Gold Coast, which was then shedding its 70-year-old status as a British crown colony in favor of an up-to-the minute identity as an independent West African country named Ghana. The country's mood about the future was optimistic, and young Annan was right in step. A self-confident leader even as a teenager, he undertook his first successful human rights mission while at boarding school, participating in a hunger strike to protest the poor quality of the food there.

That first experience as an activist was so satisfying that Annan continued to take an interest in public service after he entered Ghana's University of Science and Technology, where he studied economics. In 1957, while serving as vice president of the Ghana Students' Union, he happened to visit Sierre Leone for a meeting of student leaders. There he caught the attention of a talent scout from the Ford Foundation's Foreign Students Leadership Project. A scholarship swiftly followed, and Annan was soon on his way to the United States to finish his economics degree at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Annan graduated in 1961, but did not return to his homeland. Instead he became a staff member at the United Nations, embarking upon a series of jobs that gave him valuable experience in the two vitally important areas of finance and human resources management. The first rung of the UN ladder took him to Geneva, Switzerland, where he became a budget administration officer for the World Health Organization. Next, after acquiring a master's degree in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during 1971-72, he spent four years in the UN's Office of Personnel Services in New York. In 1980, he went back to Switzerland, where he spent the following three years as head of personnel for the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR).

Led the UNHCR

The UNHCR is often the only place in which refugees in war-ravaged countries can turn for help with such basic necessities as food and medical care. During 1980 to 1983, the years Annan spent there, its staff members left the Geneva headquarters for Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong; they were also sent to Italy, Greece, and Iraq. All in all, UNHCR personnel were able to ease the suffering of more than three million terrified refugees.

While the daily catalog of international anguish was enough to spur Annan to work as hard as possible, even more incentive came from his friendship with Nane Cronstedt, a lawyer who became his second wife in 1984. The inspiration came from Cronstedt's family background. She was a niece of the revered Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who had snatched 5,000 Jews from Adolph Hitler's death camps during World War II. Though a 35-year span separated Wallenberg's mysterious 1945 disappearance in Russia and his niece's friendship with Annan, his wartime bravery was still a matter of breathless awe for Annan.

Annan felt a special message for humanity was present in Wallenberg's selfless heroism. It began, he felt, with the diplomat's pivotal role as a bystander who had been free to choose whether he would turn a blind eye to the Nazis or fight them. Unmoved by his personal danger, Wallenberg had chosen to sacrifice himself rather than turn his back on the agony of Hitler's trapped and helpless human targets. Annan believed the whole wartime saga provided an important example of immortal integrity. "His kind of intervention gives hope to the victims, encourages them to fight and resist, helps them to hang on and bear witness, and hopefully arouses our collective conscience," Annan remarked in 1997, while opening a monument to Wallenberg in London.

At a Glance …

Born April 8, 1938; married (1), divorced; married (2) Nane Cronstedt, 1984; children: one son, one daughter, one stepdaughter. Education: Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn, BEcon, 1961; Institut des Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationale, Switzerland, 1961-62; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sloan Fellow, MSc Mgmt, 1972.

Career: World Health Organization, administrative and budget officer, 1962; Ghana Tourism Control Board, managing director, 1974-76; United Nations Office of Personnel Services, New York, NY, deputy chief of staff services, 1976-80; United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), deputy director of administration and head of personnel, Geneva, Switzerland, 1980-83; United Nations Office of Finance, director of budget, 1984-87; United Nations Office of Human Resources Management, assistant secretary general, 1987-90; United Nations assistant secretary general for program planning, 1990-92; United Nations budget and finance controller, 1992-1993; United Nations undersecretary for peacekeeping, 1993-1996; United Nations secretary-general, 1996–.

Awards: Nobel Peace Prize, jointly awarded with United Nations, 2001.

Addresses: Office—United Nations Headquarters, United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.

Rose through the Ranks at the UN

In January of 1993, after a year as assistant secretary general for Peacekeeping Operations, Annan was promoted to the top post. Now, as under secretary, he held authority over 80,000 troops, dispatching them anywhere they were needed in order to spare lives and restore calm between warring factions. At that time, the UN had 13 peacekeeping missions in progress. Longest-standing was the Middle East operation, which had been monitoring the sporadic Arab-Israeli cease-fires since 1948. Thereafter, in chronological order, came UN observation on the tense India-Pakistan border, dating back to January of 1949; the same kind of operation in Cyprus, Greece (initiated in March of 1964); the Golan Heights (1974) and Lebanon (1978). In the scant two years since the beginning of the 1990s, the UN had also become a formidable presence on the Iraq-Kuwait border, as well as in Angola, El Salvador, Cambodia, and Mozambique. Other urgent missions were appearing on the horizons of Eastern Europe's former Yugoslavia and Somalia, the land that sits directly on the horn of the African continent.

Annan was well-acquainted with the problems of Somalia—a rudderless state that had existed since without a government since the toppling of President Siad Barre in 1991. Somalia had begun to writhe in the grip of power struggles by so many opposition parties that the entire infrastructure of the country had been completely destroyed. In a country with a literacy rate of only 20 percent, the lack of expertise in engineering made replacement impossible, so the loss of the public buildings, bridges, and roads was an inestimable loss. But a far greater tragedy was the smell of death that hung in the air. In just the six months between September of 1991 and March of 1992, the Mogadishu area alone had suffered the injury of 27,000 people and an estimated 14,000 more had been killed.

As if the civil war was not enough for Somalis to bear, their problems were further complicated by a persistent drought. News reports everywhere showed long lines of emaciated people streaming desperately out of the country in search of food. By September of 1992, an estimated 500,000 refugees had poured into neighboring Ethiopia, with an additional 300,000 flooding into Kenya; 65,000 heading for Yemen; and about 115,000 scattered elsewhere.

Dealt with Famine

During the month of August, the UN spearheaded a famine relief operation for the 1.5 million people who were teetering dangerously on the edge of starving to death. By early November, the UNHCR was ready to launch a large-scale rescue operation called UNOSOM, which consisted of setting up camps just outside the country to feed about 65,000 Somalian refugees. Yet even though the UN was quickly flying in the most capacious emergency food stores that could be supplied, the suffering Somalis could not rest easily.

In Mogadishu and other major cities, the unarmed victims were often chased away by looting bandits, who had dusted off the weapons the country had received in the early 1980s to give it greater power in a territorial struggle against Ethiopia. Now, as the coveted grain and flour steadily disappeared into the bandits' hands, the UN saw only one solution—to augment the 500 Pakistani soldiers previously authorized by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Before long another 3,500 troops were on their way to Africa.

Because the United States was seen by Somalis as the only country capable of staving off the inevitable national tragedy, on November 21, 1992, U.S. president George Bush also sent military units to Somalia. Arriving under the banner of "Operation Restore Hope," the first troops landed on December 9, to be joined for a New Year's Day visit by President Bush himself. By mid-January the number of foreign troops in the country was soaring towards the 18,000 troops from 21 nations, and phase two of the operation called United Nations Operations Somalia, or UNOSOM II, was under way, with the hope that the leaderless country would be turned over to United Nations control by May 4, 1993.

But under the influence of a faction leader named Mohammed Farah Aideed, the gratitude of the Somalis began to turn to resentment and a fear that the foreign troops were heralding a return to the British and Italian colonial influence that the country had experienced in the early years of the century. Seizing the opportunity to consolidate his power, in June of 1993, Aideed attacked and killed 25 UN soldiers. At this point, the United States decided to curtail its interest in Somalia.

UN Acted as Peacemaker

United Nations troops being bound by the United Nations Charter, they had traditionally gone on peacekeeping missions. By these terms, UN troops were usually kept in place by agreement of both conflicting parties and were armed only to an extent that would permit them to defend themselves or their equipment. The situation in Somalia, however, was different. Somalia boasted neither government nor rulers to consult, and no well-defined conflicting parties existed that could be mediated. Therefore, the UN troops had no outside authority to mediate their actions.

For the first time in history, the UN Security Council sent their auxiliary troops into a conflict situation buttressed by a UN Charter mandate. This meant they were allowed to act as peacemakers rather than as mere peacekeepers. By UN decree, they were authorized to force Somalia to accept peace, even if they had to fight to achieve it. The alteration in UN Charter mandate made this present peacekeeping force the most aggressive in the history of the United Nations. Furthermore, since 26 of the organization's 41 missions had been mounted since 1989, controlling the forces and their movements was becoming an ever-mounting challenge that the Peacekeeping Department was not equipped to handle. Annan set out to remedy this situation by instituting a streamlining effort.

First came a situation center to monitor the department's international operations around the clock. In 1993, when it was established, this office consisted of eight military officers and two telephones placed in a Manhattan office. By the end of 1995, however, with 17 peacekeeping missions in progress, it was staffed by 120 officers, serving as ultimate backup to 70,000 peacekeeping soldiers worldwide.

In a second innovation, Annan sought support from member nations who were prepared to contribute troops and equipment for standby duty, in case peacekeeping efforts should be needed for a sudden emergency. The high regard in which he is held was soon obvious, when, by the end of November, 1996, 62 of the 185 members had agreed to provide some 80,000 standby troops between them. Annan also created a "lessons learned" unit within the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to make sure that all phases of each operation are discussed, evaluated and broadened further by interaction with other UN departments. Annan hoped the new departmental wing would improve future operations and minimize avoidable mistakes.

Worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Supervising all these innovations made a tight work schedule for Annan. Nevertheless, his workload became greater still in November of 1995, when Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali appointed him special representative to the former Yugoslavia, a European territory soon to become familiar as Bosnia-Herzegovina. This mission posed a grave responsibility for Annan, who had been asked to coordinate a smooth transition of international peacekeepers from United Nations forces to NATO military units.

Like Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina was an international symbol of raw tragedy. Its two principal population groups, the Serbs and the Croats, had been at war over possession of this area ever since the breakup of the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991. In the course of a conflict that would eventually cost between 250,000 and 300,000 lives, they had brought such concepts as "ethnic cleansing," back into the limelight from the shadows of World War II, updating them for the 1990s by "rationalizing" the expulsion and wholesale murder of the Bosnian Muslims. The slow torment of Bosnia-Herzegovina led first to an arms embargo from the United Nations Security Council in September of 1991, then, in May of 1992, to the arrival of peacekeeping and humanitarian forces, who brought sanitation, water, and electricity to the city of Sarajevo's residents.

While this desperately-needed aid was offered without reservation, it came at a high cost to the UN itself. When accompanied by the humanitarian aid that is part of the United Nations service, peacekeeping is an exercise so expensive that by 1994 the annual budget had reached a whopping $3.3 billion. And, generous as it seemed, escalating crises all over the world were stretching this money so thin that the organization was sinking dangerously into debt.

A sinking monetary bottom line was one reason that the UN decided to pass the Bosnian peacekeeping burden on to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But this was only part of the story. Equally important was the fact that NATO forces are solely dedicated to defense by military means. This single focus was sorely needed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the fragile "peace" could be more accurately described as a sullen cease-fire. In November of 1995, UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali asked Annan to go to Bosnia to handle the details of withdrawing UN forces and settling NATO forces in their place. It was a difficult task to accomplish. Nevertheless, with his characteristic energy and efficiency, Annan managed to achieve it within four months and returned to his post at the UN by March of 1996.

Chosen to Lead the UN

Meanwhile, Secretary General Boutros-Ghali was nearing the end of his five-year term of office, and his re-election, though acceptable to many of the UN's 185 members, was far from a done deal with the United States. Though swimming against the tide of public opinion, U.S. ambassador Madeleine Albright quickly made her country's objections known to the UN Security Council, one of the most influential groups of policy-makers in the world.

The Council itself consists of five permanent members, plus ten who are voted onto the body periodically. Each of the permanent five—China, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and the United States—has the power of veto over all other votes, a power Albright was now exercising. Furthermore, she emphasized her feelings by encouraging the United States to withhold $1.4 billion in fees owed to the United Nations. The charges of the United States against Boutros-Ghali were twofold: that he tended to follow his own path rather than the policies laid down by the UN's members, and that he had ignored warnings that the UN and its soaring debt were to be streamlined immediately.

Finding an alternative candidate to fill the difficult post of secretary general became a necessity. As a UN insider with more than 30 years of service under his belt, Annan was a natural choice, easily hurdling France's objection, based incorrectly on the assumption that he was not French-speaking. On December 18, 1996, Annan was welcomed into office to serve, as he modestly put it, "185 masters" and to institute an immediate cost-cutting program at the UN. On his own initiative, Annan also established a public relations program to bring more rapport between the huge organization itself and the international public. As he remarked at his pre-celebration press conference, Annan well understood that he was undertaking a huge challenge. But nobody present doubted his ability to handle whatever the future might bring.

From his first days as Secretary General, Annan has pursued an ambitious plan to renew the UN, maintained an international commitment to Africa, sought to gain Iraqi compliance with security standards, promoted Nigerian civil rule, sought to improve the status of women in the Secretariat, and involved non-state organizations in partnership with the UN. Annan has particularly excelled at involving many different people in debates about world peace and how the UN might best fulfill its mandate. In 1999 Annan published some interesting perspectives on world peace when he served as a guest editor to Civilization magazine; he prepared an issue entitled "How to Save the World," with essays from contributors ranging from heads of nations to preeminent scholars. At the turn of the century, Annan published a report called "We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century," in which he detailed a plan for UN member states to end poverty and inequality, improve education, reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS, protect the environment and humanity from violence. The report led to the Millennium Declaration, a plan that has guided the United Nations into the new millennium. For his efforts, Annan was honored with the United Nations in 2001 with a Nobel Peace Prize. Since that time, Annan has continued to push for improvements to the UN's ability to function as a peacemaking body in the world.



Buffalo News (Buffalo, New York), November 22, 1998.

Chicago Tribune, June 27, 1993, p.10, November 29, 1994; December 18, 1996, p. 30; December 20, 1996, p. 31.

Civilization, June/July 1999.

Commentary, May 2004, p. 15.

Ebony, October 1998, p. 136.

London Times, December 19, 1996, p. 17.

New Republic, May 3, 2004, p. 38.

New York Times, October 6, 1993, p. A17; December 14, 1996, p. 5.

Newsweek, December 23, 1996, p. 30; April 26, 2004, p. 6.

Time, December 3, 1996, p. 51; November 30, 1998, p. 136.

West Africa, December 23, 1996, p. 5; February 3, 1997, p. 181; February 3, 1997, p. 178.


United Nations Secretary-General, www.un.org/News/ossg/sg/ (November 19, 2004).


Additional information for this profile was obtained from the United Nations Department of Public Information, "The UN in Brief," July 3, 1997; "Press Conference by Secretary-General Elect Kofi Annan," December 18, 1996, Transcript, GA/9212; "Secretary-General warmly congratulates Kofi Annan on Receiving Security Council Recommendation," December 13, 1996, SG/SM/6131; "Secretary-General Says Monument to Raoul Wallenberg Is Inspiration to Act," SG/SM/6169.

—Gillian Wolf and

Sara Pendergast

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