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The Kofi Annan interview in This Day

Kofi Annan - Former UN Boss
Kofi Annan - Former UN Boss

In between sessions at the THISDAY Festival of Ideas, I got a short and interesting interview with Secretary- General Kofi Atta Annan, in his hotel room. Diplomacy at its best: Kofi Annan, who was for eight years the world’s number one diplomat, was warm, accommodating and very polished and graceful in his body language and his choice of words. Below are excerpts of the interview.

During the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you called on the United States and the United Kingdom not to invade without the support of the United Nations. In a September 2004 interview on the BBC, you were asked about the legal authority for the invasion, and you responded, “ from our point of view, from the charter point of view it was illegal”. Looking back now, how do you feel about the whole thing?

I wish the war in Iraq had not occurred. I was really concerned as you could recall in those days. I knew it was going to be a real disaster and did whatever I could to try and dissuade the attacks but it was not to be.  I was not the only one. A lot of us tried without success but of course today, we all know the outcome.

We know the result; we know the feelings of the Iraqis; we know how Americans and those who made sacrifices feel. I would hope that there are lessons that have been learnt for future crisis and future events. It’s too late to undo what has been done in Iraq but the main thing is to learn the lessons for the future.

You’ll say the same thing about Gaza?

I’ve been hoping to focus on poverty but in 2006 we had a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel and this year, we have the conflict with Gaza. I think the event in Gaza is one more reason why we should do whatever we can to have a viable and long-term solution to the problem. We cannot have situations where there are periodic explosions and innocent civilians on both sides get caught in the middle. The only real answer is a viable solution.

Israel is going to have a new government in the next couple of months and the US will have a new government under the presidency of Barrack Obama and I think they will really focus on solving these issues once and for all.

In 2007 you were named chairman of the prize committee for the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. A friend called me from the US last week to say she has told Dr. Ibrahim that if he is not careful he will soon run out of candidates for his award because of the problem of leadership in Africa. I have dedicated a novel to Dr. Ibrahim and I know this issue very well. I agree with my friend in the US. From your experience, what is the problem with leadership in Africa?

I think we have problems; we have the challenge of leadership. We have leaders who are reluctant to cede power; who believe that they are the only ones who can run this or that country.

But this is not a position that can be defended. Indeed it is the height of arrogance for anyone to think that only he or she can lead a nation and without him, nothing works. I think we should be prepared to cede power.

We should be prepared to encourage other politicians to come to the fore, particularly the bright and young ones. We have plenty of them in Africa and I really want to see them encouraged and they would do well.

I think we also have the tendency of the politics of the winner takes all and because the winner takes all, and sometimes it’s not seen as looking at the overall interest of the nation, we tend to have a situation where those in opposition see their only duty as to how to bring down the government, which should not be the work of the opposition.

The opposition’s duty is to find a way of working with the government in the interest of the nation.

Of course they should play their role as opposition; they should keep the government on its toes but it should not be a negative force, whose only responsibility is to bring down the government. And I also believe that we need to find a way of strengthening institutions like the civil service. Institutions are more important than individuals.

When you have strong institutions, you are likely to succeed and stand the test of time. We tend to rely too much on personalities and that is also wrong – let’s strengthen the institutions; let’s have the right regulatory environment and allow people to use their creative and ingenuity to serve the nation and try to build the nation.

What about the followership? In many African countries people appear to have given up on good leadership.

People are beginning to be aware of their rights. They are beginning to insist on accountable government. They know they have a say; they should have a say in the government that governs them and I have a feeling that we would see more of it. It’s going to make an active and robust civil society.

We are going to be seeing government and institutions held to account. There has been too much complacency and the people have been too patient- they accept all sorts of things they should not accept. I think we are going to see greater vigilance on behalf of these civil society groups. I’m seeing it around in some countries and I think it is very encouraging.

Are you happy with the change of government in Ghana?

Yes, I was happy with the election results. The way it turned out, it was a close election. And wherever you have close elections, you have problems. I mean we saw it in Florida between President Bush and Al-Gore. So it does happen and I was pleased to see the way it was resolved in Ghana which also indicates the level of political maturity of the population. This time, the problem was not with the people; they voted peacefully and calmly. We had problems with some of the leaders not the people. And I hope the lessons will not be lost on other countries around the continent.

How do you feel about the election of Obama in the US?

I think it’s an exciting change. It’s a change that I did not think I’ll see in my life time. It shows what the US is capable of. This is an election that has had an impact way beyond the borders of the US. Normally the US election is about impact but this is a unique one because of who he is. There’s lot of expectations, he has a tremendous challenge ahead of him.

But he did run a very competent and efficient campaign and deserved to win. He’s now putting together a team, which is perhaps one of the most important tasks he would have to undertake as a president and so far, he’s been given high marks for the team he’s put together. I hope that he moves them as quickly as possible into a productive institute that serves the nation and the world. I know many of them will do extremely well.

You are still busy. What do you do now, and do you have time to relax?

I relax. I welcome peace, green revolution and  governance issues and the rule of law. I’m based in Ghana and Geneva.

Credit: Bisi Ojediran,

Source: This Day

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