Unfamiliar civil servant finds himself the No 1 diplomat

UN leadership vote: Stalemate is broken by choice of the Ghanaian Kofi Annan as Secretary General

When on a visit to New York this autumn Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister, was asked by a reporter for his thoughts on Kofi Annan his face went blank. He turned to his aides and asked the embarrassing question: "Who is this Kofi Annan?", he whispered.

It was a moment that revealed one of the possible shortcomings of Mr Annan as he prepares to ascend to the position as the world's number one diplomat: he is not a well-known figure beyond the United Nations community. This could matter. His face is not familiar either to the heads of government with whom he will have to deal in mediating global crises or to the public, in the United States and beyond, to whom he must sell an institution whose standing is dangerously low.

Mr de Charette's befuddlement did, however, equally expose remarkable ignorance on his part. Mr Annan, 58, has been a civil servant of the UN for no less than 30 years. In the past few years, especially since his appointment in 1993 to the critical position of Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping, he has been a pivotal figure in the UN's business, not least in Africa and the Balkans.

But then this is perhaps because Mr Annan, above all, was the choice of the English-speaking contingent in New York, that is Britain and United States. From Ghana, he speaks English as his first language - although his French his flawless. More than that, however, he is considered by London and Washington to be the one senior UN official who is entirely on their diplomatic wavelength.

The Americans first signalled their appreciation of Mr Annan in 1993 during the planning for the ultimately disastrous UN mission in Somalia. Washington more or less forced through his elevation to the top peace- keeping post. And it was Mr Annan to whom the Americans turned at the end of 1995 when, finally, it was agreed that the UN mission in Bosnia should be replaced by a Nato-led force. Under US and British pressure, Boutros Boutros Ghali agreed to relieve Mr Annan temporarily from his peacekeeping role to oversee the transition in the Balkans from the UN blue helmets to the Nato mission.

Mr Annan clearly has a hard shell. His tenure as peacekeeping chief was not a happy one. The Somalia intervention was shrouded in disaster when 18 US soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and killed. The US pulled out and set about assigning the blame for the debacle to the UN. Likewise, the UN's refusal to agree to firm military action against the Serbs in Bosnia further diminished the organisation's reputation in Washington especially.

But Mr Annan inspires fierce loyalty among his staff. He is credited with building the most efficient and competent department in all of the UN hierarchy - one that is remarkably free of the usual dead wood of UN incompetents. He is articulate, unfailingly kindly in his demeanour - even when he is chastising someone for poor performance - and speaks in forthright and uncomplicated terms that is unusual for a diplomat in an organisation as politically fraught as the UN.

He has also not been shy in defending the blue helmets and making the case that the errors of missions such as those in Somalia and Bosnia were ultimately down to the Security Council members who authorised them.

"Peacekeepers are usually the first on the ground, the last to leave, and the first to be criticised," he said at a 1994 press conference. "Quite frankly, the decisions have to be made by the capitals and the Security Council and not by the peacekeepers on the ground ... I think where we are presumed to have failed is when we are judged by unrealistic expectations. If we are expected to play the role as enforcers when we don't have the mandate and the resources, then we have failed".

Mr Annan is the first truly black African Secretary General. Many Africans, however, may feel that they know him no better than Mr de Charette does. In his adult life he has barely set foot on the continent, except for a two-year stint in 1972-74 to run Ghana's tourism ministry. Even his college education was mostly in the US, first at Macalester College in Minnesota and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. His wife, with whom he has three children, is Swedish.

His appointment yesterday will not surprise many, however, especially those who have watched him nurture his relations with Washington and London. It was Mr Annan, for instance, who appeared as the lone senior UN staff member at a recent party in Madeleine Albright's private apartment and it was he who borrowed the ear of Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, for 15 minutes at a September reception in New York at the British mission for Commonwealth ministers.

Even officials loyal to Boutros Boutros Ghali have in recent days begun to say nice things about Mr Annan to reporters. They, like everyone in the UN, have jobs to keep.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
News
Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
peopleBut who comes top of the wish list?
News
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, right, with Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds in Newtown, Powys, as part of her tour in support of the party’s female candidates
general electionNick Clegg's wife has impressed during the campaign
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living