The Saturday Profile: The forceful peacemaker; Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General

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WHEN THE first cruise missiles slammed into their targets in Baghdad on Wednesday evening, Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, did something unusual. He retired to his expansive 38-floor office at UN headquarters in New York, sat at his mahogany desk and slowly smoked a cigar. "I have never seen him do that before," one of his aides remarked later, "but I think he needed it for solace."

Annan, a descendant of Ghanaian tribal chiefs, who is now upon his second anniversary as the world's diplomat-in-chief, is not a man who sulks or dwells on his setbacks. The following evening, even as the second wave of bombing was under way in Iraq, he was the host at a Christmas party for senior UN staff at his official residence. He behaved as he always does at such functions - he smiled, joked with colleagues and gave the impression that, whatever was going on outside, he was enjoying himself.

But when Annan, who is 60, told the world's press on Wednesday that the start of the aerial campaign over Iraq marked a "sad day" for the UN and for him personally, he surely meant it. His brief statement had been revised three times by his speechwriters upstairs. The Secretary General knew he had to be careful to express hisdismay without giving the impression of criticising either Washington or London, or that he was siding with Saddam Hussein in the crisis. But whatever else he said, he wanted to convey his sense of loss.

As the first Secretary General to have risen through the UN ranks to attain the post, with a career of more than 30 years in the organisation, Annan had a huge investment in preventing renewed violence in the Gulf. He was mostly invisible to the world until February this year, when he made his dramatic journey to Baghdad to attempt to talk down Saddam from his position that his presidential palaces were out of bounds for the UN weapons inspectors of Unscom. Against mighty odds, he succeeded. Saddam agreed to reopen the palaces in a memorandum of understanding and for that period, at least, military action was forestalled.

The Baghdad dash was mightily risky for Annan. Even his personal safety may have been in peril. When the hour came for his meeting with the Iraqi leader he was whisked away in government limousines to an undisclosed location, with only three of his aides allowed to travel with him. He undertook the mission knowing that he might fail, and aware that neither Washington nor London was enthusiastic about it. Indeed, when he returned home he got no thanks from the US administration and scorn from some members of Congress, who accused him of appeasement. But Annan, we now know, is not frightened of taking risks.

He demonstrated similar courage just two weeks ago when he diverted from a visit to Tunisia to meet Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyan leader was, and still is, dickering over whether to surrender two suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie tragedy to stand trial in the Netherlands. By agreeing to the meeting, Annan raised hopes of a breakthrough even though he himself knew that immediate results were unlikely. He reasoned, however, that refusing to meet Gaddafi, when he was so close in the next-door country, could have caused harm to the efforts to secure the two suspects for trial. In Libya, too, there was reason to worry about Annan's security. After being diverted from Tripoli to the coastal port of Sirte, he was invited first to board a limousine for the overland journey. Along the way, he was bundled from the car to a four-wheel-drive vehicle for a bumpy ride across the desert. Separated from his security detail and from all of his aides, he was , late in the evening, delivered to Gaddafi in his traditional, vaulted tent.

In two years, in fact, Annan has managed to defy all predictions of how he would turn out as Secretary General. His candidacy for the post was championed by the United States and its then Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, really for only one reason - he was not Boutros Boutros Ghali, his Egyptian predecessor who had been expecting to serve a second five- year term. With his sometimes haughty and lecturing manner, Boutros Ghali had over time fallen far out of favour with Washington, never more so than when he chastised Western capitals for investing too much energy in the "rich man's" war in Bosnia while ignoring conflicts in more remote corners, notably in Africa.

Against fierce opposition from France, Albright fought for Annan because he appeared suited to effecting a low-profile stewardship of the UN organisation; someone, above all, who would work better as a manager of the institution and not a maker of diplomatic waves. The United States wanted an efficient chief executive whose first task would be to instil some order into the morass of UN bodies and agencies and bring about the reforms that Boutros Ghali had been so reluctant to carry through. As some observers put it at the time, Annan promised to be more secretary than general. He would be competent but not inspiring.

Certainly, that was the promise of Annan's career up to that point. The son of a district manager for a chemicals company in Ghana, who was in line to become chief of the Fante tribe, Annan was sent to boarding school in Ghana.

He first travelled first to America in 1959, to attend summer school in Harvard. Thereafter, he won a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend Macalaster College in St Paul, Minnesota, where he graduated with a degree in economics. Soon afterwards, he joined the UN family for the first time, working for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Apart from a break in 1972 to take a master's degree in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has remained with the UN ever since, mostly in New York where he has held such senior posts as head of budget affairs and personnel.

Married twice, Annan has two children by his first marriage to a Nigerian, which ended in divorce. In 1981 he married a Swedish ex-judge and painter, Nane Lagergren. By some almost cosmic confluence of destinies, she is the niece of the vanished Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved 100,000 Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps.

Annan's first splash into the headlines came in 1990, when he persuaded Saddam to allow the repatriation of 500,000 foreign workers in Kuwait who had become trapped there after the Iraqi invasion. Then, under Boutros Ghali, he assumed the pivotal post of Under Secretary General for peacekeeping. It was a position that could have ruined his reputation. Under his watch, the UN suffered the double humiliation of the fiasco in Somalia, including the incident that left 18 US servicemen dead, and the ultimately dismal attempt to set up the so-called "safe havens" in Bosnia. Almost worse, however, was the outbreak of genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Half a million Rwandans died in the slaughter, while the West and the UN essentially watched from the sidelines. It transpired later that Annan's office had received intelligence before the massacres clearly warning that an immense tragedy was at hand.

While the UN caught the blame for the failure of the safe havens, Annan refrained from saying what he and the whole institution were feeling. They were certain that the responsibility lay principally with the governments who had failed to supply the UN with anything like the manpower necessary to defend them. "Screaming and getting bitter and being angry is negative energy," he once said about his reluctance to speak out. "It takes a lot of energy out of you and doesn't help."

On reform, Annan has not disappointed the Americans. He has stripped a thousand posts from the organisation, and has chosen strong new voices for some of its bodies, including the former Irish Prime Minister Mary Robinson to watch over human rights. And he has replaced a system whereby agencies were led by independent heads reporting individually to the Secretary General, with a cabinet system of leadership. Slowly the UN is turning from a bureaucracy of scattershot chaos to one of co-ordinated action.

Otherwise, however, he has surprised everybody. It is common nowadays to hear him likened to the only other UN leader who inspired common awe, Sweden's Dag Hammarskjold, who served as Secretary General for eight years from 1953. "He has been a revelation even to his admirers," commented Shashi Tharoor, a trusted senior aide. "He has shown that he has diplomatic skills that had never really been tested before. We thought we knew the man and his qualities, but really we did not". France, which was so opposed to Annan's appointment, reveres him today almost as a national hero.

Annan, almost improbably, has also become something of a star in Manhattan, where and his wife have become much-courted fixtures on the frenzied society circuit of dinners, galas and fundraisers. Annan has even sought out friends in Hollywood and has recruited the likes of Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone and even Luciano Pavarotti as UN "Ambassadors for Peace". When the UN this summer published a book called The Quotable Kofi Annan, some suggested it was trying to forge a cult status for the Secretary General.

Importantly , Annan has restored morale in an institution that has every reason to feel low. His staff worship him. One official said this week: "If Kofi asked me to scrub floors for him, I'd do it."

Certainly, he is more than Washington bargained for. Relations with the Clinton administration are, at best, strained. When Annan wrote a letter to Saddam Hussein on 13 November urging him to fall back into line with weapons inspections, he once more elicited a climbdown that forestalled air strikes. Likewise, he is disappointed with Washington. While recognising that much fault lies with Iraq for today's crisis, he believes that the Clinton administration erred this summer by failing to show flexibility towards Iraq. Annan, meanwhile, has got nowhere in persuading the US to deliver the roughly pounds 1bn it owes the UN in arrears, in spite of his achievements on reform.

His sadness today stems not just from the bombardment itself, but from the setback it represents to his vision of multilateralism.

"Kofi is under strain right now because he believes rather passionately in peaceful resolution. It is bred into his bones," says Tharoor. By unleashing their missiles, London and Washington have resorted to unilateralism and, for now, have brutally short-circuited the UN and its role.

Kofi Annan, with his soft, lilting intonation and greying goatee, above all emanates humanity. It is a quality that is at the core of his personality. He is determined that that same quality should be reflected from him on to the UN organisation as a whole. Humanity, after all, is what the UN is about.

The kindest tribute in this troubled week came from the security guard who dressed up, as he does every December, as Santa Claus at Thursday's Christmas party. Kofi and Nane, he said, "had transformed this house and made it feel like home".

He was referring to the Secretary General's residence. But he could equally well have been speaking of the whole United Nations family.

David Usborne

Life Story

Born: 3 April 1938

Origins: A twin, son a Ghanaian Fante tribal chief

Education: Boarding school run by Methodist missionaries; university, Kumasi; Macalister College, US; Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales, Geneva

Marriages: Two, with two children by his first wife. Present wife, Nane Lagergren (pictured),

a Swedish lawyer/ painter

Career at the UN: World Health Organisation, 1962-1971, Personnel Services UNHCR, 1976-80; UN New York, admin and management, 1983-6; Asssistant Secretary General of Office of Human Resources 1986-90;

Under-Secretary General, Peacekeeping Operations 1993-5; UN Special Envoy to former Yugoslavia 1995-6; UN Secretary General, 1997-

On himself: "I am by nature a conciliator, but I can be firm when it is necessary. I'm not one of those people who believe that you have to pound the tableto be tough"

Others on him: "I had my staff here look into your background and couldn't find anyone who didn't like you." (Jesse Helms)

On subduing Iraq: "You cannot do it from the air. The Gulf war proved that"