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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Arts and Entertainment
Original Netflix series such as Orange Is The New Black are to benefit from a 'substantial' increase in investment
TVHoax announcement had caused outrage
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

News
One Direction star Harry Styles who says he has no plans to follow his pal Cara Delevingne down the catwalk.
peopleManagement confirms rumours singer is going it alone are false
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Arts and Entertainment
'Deep Breath' is Peter Capaldi's first full-length adventure as the twelfth Doctor
TVFirst episode of new series has ended up on the internet
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?