“A Continent in Crisis”: Kofi Annan Reflects on Africa

“A Continent in Crisis”: Kofi Annan Reflects on Africa

Part I

By Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


As secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi  Annan is arguably the most politically influential African in the world. Harvard professor and Africana.com co-founder Henry Louis Gates, Jr. spoke to Annan in an exclusive interview before an audience at The Princeton Club in New York City on May 6, 2000, at an event commemorating the 75th anniversary of New Yorker magazine. Africana.com is proud to publish a complete transcript of their extensive conversation as a three-part series that will that will run through the next two weeks.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you very much for coming out this afternoon. It is my pleasure to introduce the secretary general of the United Nations. The first person from sub-Saharan Africa to head the United Nations, Kofi Annan is also the first secretary general to have risen through the ranks of that organization. A lifelong diplomat, Annan assumed the UN’s top post in January 1997 to serve a term ending December 31st 2001. As Kate Tuttle puts it [in Encarta Africana], Annan had impressed the international diplomatic community while serving as under-secretary general for peace keeping, a job in which he coordinated efforts to help such tortured areas as Rwanda, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, of course. He began his term as secretary general under pressure to reform the large and economically troubled UN bureaucracy. Following his appointment, Annan pledged to improve the effectiveness of UN programs in poor countries,

saying, and I quote, “Economic development is not merely a matter of projects and statistics, it is above all a matter of people. Real people with basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.”


Kofi Annan was born into one of Ghana’s most prominent and influential families. His father was a hereditary chief, a chief of the Fante people and a high-ranking civil servant. After studying science and technology in Ghana, in 1959 Annan traveled to the United States where he matriculated at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It was an exciting period,” says Annan. To say the least, we can add. Two years earlier, Ghana had declared its independence, and in America the Civil Rights Movement was gaining vast momentum. He graduated from Macalester in 1961 with a degree in economics, saying that his American years had taught him, if it taught him anything, “that you should never walk into a situation and believe that you know

better than the natives.” It was a lesson Annan would apply often during is diplomatic career.


After graduate studies in economics in Geneva, Annan took his first UN job at the World Health Organization. After more than a decade of diplomatic work, he took a break to serve from 1974 to ’76 as director of the Ghana Tourist Development Company. Four years later, he received his first high-level UN post as deputy director of administration and head of personnel at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He worked there until 1983, when he became director of budget in the office of financial services. By 1990 he had risen to the office of assistant secretary general for program planning, budget,

and finance. Annan’s 1993 appointment as the head of peacekeeping operations made him one of the UN’s most visible, and also controversial, leaders. UN peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia had recently provoked widespread criticism, and raised doubts about the agency’s future.


But he gained an international reputation, not only for shrewd diplomacy, but also for his candor, and, as you’ll see, for his great personal charm. When the United States publicly campaigned against a second term for then secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, it was to Kofi Annan that it turned.


Ladies and gentleman, please join me in welcoming to the stage, the seventh secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. (applause)


                HLG: So you’ve been busy?


                Kofi Annan: You can say that again.




                HLG: Well, it’s only appropriate, I think, that we start with the news from Africa.

                Yesterday [May 5, 2000], certainly, will be remembered, I think, as a banner

                day for what we might call “Afro-pessimists.” Three hundred UN workers held

                hostage in Sierra Leone; war, once again, between Rwanda and Uganda, but

                this time in the middle of the Congo; the collapse of peace talks between

                Eritrea and Ethiopia; more black opposition members murdered in Zimbabwe.

                Recently, in an apt if unfortunate phrase, you said that Africa, far too often, was

                “a cocktail of disasters.” Why is this so, do you think? Why are all these things

                happening on the continent now?


                KA: I think there are many reasons, and as a secretary general of the United

                Nations, and also as an African, I have been particularly concerned about the

                situation on the continent in several ways. First of all, there’s been this

                proliferation of conflicts, wars on the continent, even though there are individual

                African countries that are doing well, and there’s good news coming out of the

                continent as well. Recently, we all saw the excellent elections in Senegal,

                where there was a democratic changeover. We’ve seen it in Nigeria, we’ve seen

                it in South Africa, there is positive economic news out of Botswana, and

                Mozambique until the floods, but we do have these crises, which in a way

                affects the entire continent. And if you mention Africa today, people see it as a

                continent in crisis. It affects the investment climate, nobody wants to invest in a

                bad neighborhood. So I’ve been trying to work with the African leaders to calm

                these troubled waters, and be able to focus on economic and social issues.


                I think the reasons for the crisis you’re seeing on the continent – one is a

                question of management. It’s a question of leadership. It’s a question of greed.

                It’s a question of ethnic conflicts, which are sometimes based on one group’s

                perception that they are not being treated fairly, they are being discriminated

                against by the state, or by the group that wields power, sort of a “winner take

                all” approach to political process.


                After the elections, we did an interesting study, the UN did an interesting

                study, and discovered that one of the main reasons why we have these

                conflicts is that one ethnic group or religious group may feel discriminated

                against by the government. The existence of the group discrimination itself

                does not provoke conflicts, but it is often exploited – by leaders, by the elite –

                to political advantage, and it often leads to explosion. And it is important for

                governments to treat their citizens fairly and get the message across to each

                group, and each citizen, that the government belongs to them too, and that

                they can expect to share fairly in the economic welfare of the country, and that

                the law works for them as well. If you have that sort of situation, the likelihood

                of getting into a conflict situation is limited.


                We’ve been trying to work with the governments to strengthen their institutions,

                come up with the right regulatory system, and to help avoid the kinds of

                situations I have described. But there is also greed. In fact, most countries

                where you have natural resources, be it diamonds or oil, it’s a blessing, but in

                some of the African countries this has also become a curse; a curse in the

                sense that special interests sometimes provoke wars and exploit the situation.

                You have war profiteers who are gaining from wars in Africa, and are not really

                particularly interested in peace, and I think the first [Security] Council report on

                sanction-busting in Angola [which exposed the international network UNITA

                uses to traffic arms and diamonds] was quite revealing. We are also going to

                set up another group to look into exploitation of resources in the Congo, which

                we also consider as part of the reason for the prolonged war in the Congo, and

                we have the same situation in Sierra Leone. It’s diamonds again at the bottom

                of it.


                HLG: Considering the fact that most of the boundaries obtained today between

                African nations more or less reflect arbitrary decisions made in Berlin in

                1884-85, do you think that we need border reform in Africa or not?


                KA: I think it’ll make matters worse, quite frankly. I think any attempt to change

                the borders of Africa will lead to greater conflict, and I think the OAU rightly

                recognizes and decided as early as ’63,’64 that there would be no border

                changes, and in fact the only border change that has taken place in Africa is

                the one between Eritrea and Ethiopia. There was a secondary one where the

                Aozou strip was taken away from Libya and given to Chad. But that was as a

                result of a court decision, a decision by the international court of justice. But

                beyond that, since the independence era there have been no border changes,

                and I think it is wise.

                 I think what we need to try and do is to find a way of getting the governments to

                work together, and of course you are beginning to see sub-regional groupings.

                You have SADC for southern Africa, ECOWAS for West Africa, and the central

                African region has also created one, and the East Africans have been making

                an effort. We [need to] get the governments to work together, and in fact get

                them to exploit resources, which sometimes straddle their borders and often

                lead into war, jointly rather than competitively. We have a situation today

                between Nigeria and Cameroon on the Bakassi peninsula where there is oil,

                and both countries are claiming it, and of course the case is a headache at the

                international court of justice. And we are trying to keep them away from each

                other, but that is a typical situation where eventually they should do a joint

                exploitation of the resources rather than fight over it. So I will be against border

                changes in Africa.


                HLG: The Times yesterday editorialized, and I quote, “Sierra Leone

                demonstrates the dangers of sending a weak and inadequately trained

                peacekeeping force into a country where there is not yet a peace to keep. The

                UN’s mistake should not be repeated in the Congo.” In fact, when I woke up

                this morning I was expecting from David Remnick anytime a call saying this

                whole thing is off because the secretary general is too busy solving these

                problems in Africa, and thank goodness you were able to come. But tell us

                what the latest news is out of Sierra Leone and the Congo, and frankly how you

                reacted to the Times’s little lecture there.


                KA: Let me say that I’m here, but I’m still busy, on Sierra Leone and a couple

                of other crises. I think there is a measure of justification in what the Times

                editorial said in that if you take on these oppressions you ought to go in with a

                force that is capable of defending itself and its mandate. Obviously, we go in to

                maintain peace, not to impose peace, and if you’re going in to maintain peace

                as a peacekeeper there is a tendency to go in an entirely different kind of

                mode. And we should not forget that we went into Sierra Leone after a peace

                agreement, ostensibly signed by everybody and with the commitment that they

                will honor it. So the Council put in the peacekeepers to help maintain the peace

                that the protagonists had signed. We did not go there to make peace in the

                combative mode. Now we are confronted with the situation where one of the

                signatories to the peace agreement for Sankoh and the rebel movement has

                challenged the UN in three specific locations and taken some of the people

                hostage or prevented them from joining their units. What we are now trying to

                do for the moment, the emphasis is on getting everyone to safety, getting our

                people to safety and then take measures. We are going to take measures to

                strengthen the force, the force is not up to full strength yet. We were just in the

                process of deploying, we are three battalions short, but we are going to get

                them in there as quickly as we can.


                The leaders in the region, particularly those with influence on Sankoh, have

                been very busy during the past forty-eight hours putting pressure on him to be

                responsible and honor the agreement he signed. I’ve been on the phone with

                several of them who believe that in the next forty-eight hours we may see some

                positive development but I wait to see that. So we need to work with the leaders

                in the region who brokered the agreement, as well as take steps to strengthen

                our own military presence to be able to contain the situation and carry on. If the

                peace unravels in Sierra Leone, in a very fragile situation it can have an impact

                in the whole sub-region and it is important that we take charge of it and make

                sure that we get over this hiccup that we are having at the moment. But we are

                determined to overcome it, but to overcome it we need help, we need support,

                we need resources from countries with capability, and here some of them are

                hesitant at the moment but we are talking to them.


                On Congo the Security Council mission is there at the moment. They’ve had

                very useful discussions with president Kabila, they are talking to president

                Kagame of Rwanda, and I think they’re seeing president Mugabe today. All the

                signatories to the Lusaka [peace accords signed in 1999] maintain that they

                want peace to move forward, they want the UN forces to be deployed. The UN

                has maintained that if you want us to come in, demonstrate that you are

                serious about peace, you are going to honor the commitments you took in

                Lusaka, and that you will respect in a demonstrable way, for example, by

                stopping fighting. If you’ve signed an agreement, and you’ve signed a cease-fire

                agreement, there’s no need for you to fight, and you demonstrate your

                seriousness and we will come in. Recently the cease-fire has more or less

                held. The situation in Kisangani that you referred to, which in a way is between

                Uganda and Rwanda, who have been allied against Kabila, is something that

                has persisted over a year. I think both are deployed there, and I think it’s a

                question of fighting for turf and influence in the Kisangani area. The discussions

                I had with leaders in the region yesterday led me to believe that that is going to

                be brought under control very quickly, and that it should not impact unduly on

                the agreement that they had signed, and this was a family skirmish. We shall



                HLG: Well do you agree then with the Times’s implicit criticism that troops

                were committed insufficiently?


                KA: No, I started by saying that there was a measure of justification in what the

                Times had said in that some of the troops that were committed and arrived in

                Sierra Leone were not as effectively equipped as we would have liked. Because

                the UN has no troops, we borrow them from governments, and we tell the

                governments how the troops must be equipped, what they must come with,

                they must come self-sustained with the equipment and the materiel. And in

                fact, the UN then reimburses the governments providing the troops, roughly at

                the rate of $1000 per soldier per month. For some of the governments it doesn’t

                cover the cost, in fact it does mean the governments are subsidizing some of

                our efforts. And because member states do not pay, and owe the UN, we have

                not been able, in all these circumstances, to reimburse the contributors, and

                so we owed them about $800 million, which implies that some of these poor

                countries who take on these challenges are granting an interest-free loan to the

                UN. It is sometimes difficult to get governments to sign on. We must also not

                forget that we’re living in an era where most governments do not want any

                casualties even when they go into a military operation. That is the attitude of

                the Pentagon today, and so they are not going to get into these kinds of

                situations, particularly after Somalia. So you have a situation where

                governments with capacity do not come forward, those who are willing to do it

                may not always have the capacity, but because they are so kind to do it they

                don’t always tell you. They say we have it, it’s when they get on the ground and

                actually come out of the planes and the boats that you discover they’ll be



                HLG: So you don’t know until then?


                KA: Some of the situations we’ve gone to check, but in some cases in fact,

                even there they tell you it’s a question of national security and we don’t want

                you running around our army, checking our materiel. [They say,] “We give you

                our word we have it, it’s in our interest to have a well-equipped troop.” But

                sometimes when they arrive you discover they don’t have what you have. We’ve

                had situations, and I’m sorry I’m taking so long, we’ve had situations where we

                were so desperate that we got soldiers without equipment, and then got

                equipment from a third country.


                A classic example was what happened in Bosnia: we needed troops at the

                height of the crisis [but] we could not get them. After the peace agreement was

                signed, we got thousands of well-equipped soldiers, the U.S. came in and it

                made it clear, “we will come in after the war,” but during the war, when we

                needed to really hold off the onslaught, we couldn’t get troops. Eventually,

                “country A,” and I’m saying this out of respect for the countries concerned,

                country A offered us troops. Understand we have no equipment and we will

                need equipment, and then country B offered equipment, and said we will train

                them. Well, country A was a third world country, B was a European country.

                Just a month before they got there they told us, “Our constitution doesn’t allow

                us to train foreign troops on our ground,” and so we started negotiating with

                country C, another European country, which said, “we will do it.” They came

                back with the same argument, and then country D [offered to do] it, so we had

                to move the equipment from country B to country D, and train the troops from

                country A, and then inject them into Bosnia. That took about a year. But whose

                failure is it when the failure comes? It’s the UN. But the UN is as strong as the

                member states, and since we don’t have troops and we have to get it from

                them, if they don’t give it to us we are sometimes in a tricky situation.


                In the situation in Sierra Leone we have suggested that we, obviously, we need

                to bring all political pressure to bear. But it may be necessary at some stage, if

                it becomes necessary, to send in a rapid reaction force. We’ve put that on the

                table, we will get it or we won’t get it. We shall see.


                HLG: So sometimes you’re saying it’s better, given the desperate nature of the

                situation, to commit some troops rather than no troops, even if the troops are



                KA: Ideally we would want to have well-equipped and well-trained soldiers. The

                best peacekeeper is a well-trained and an equipped soldier, even though they

                often do not have to fight. And the soldiers will tell you, peacekeeping is much

                tougher than fighting in a war because in a war the objective is clear, we know

                who the enemy is. In peacekeeping you have to exercise patience and

                discipline, and often go between people and talk to them, and it’s much

                tougher, but the soldiers enjoy doing it as a challenge. The question you’ve put

                to me is a question, which I think maybe is addressed to all of us. When we

                see some of these situations, should we stand back as an international

                community and do nothing because we don’t have the perfect answer? Or

                should we try with the limited resources we have to make a difference? The

                Council often has tended to take a decision and say, “Do something, we need

                to try to help.” And therefore we move in with the limited, or sometimes

                inadequate, resources that we have. But the capacity is there, around the

                world. What is lacking is the will to do it. How do you generate that will? I think

                the public also has something to say about that.


                Next week:

                Kofi Annan: “We have to draw lessons from Rwanda, but we have to draw the

                right lessons. And if we do not draw the right lessons we will repeat it.”