Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General who died last weekend in Switzerland aged 80, was perhaps the most important and powerful leader the organisation ever had, though he was also one of the most controversial.

A descendant of generations of Ghanaian tribal chiefs, the soft-spoken Annan was the first secretary-general to have risen through the UN ranks to attain the post in 1997. His candidacy was championed by the United States, desperate to deny Boutros Boutros-Ghali, his Egyptian predecessor, his expected second five-year term.

Boutros-Ghali had fallen out of favour with Washington over his failure to reform the organisation‘s ramshackle structure and his outspoken attack on 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.

Annan, by contrast, seemed to be a man who would refrain from making diplomatic waves but would be an efficient chief executive, instilling some order into the morass of UN bodies and agencies and bringing about much-needed reforms that Boutros-Ghali had been reluctant to carry through.

He would, it was hoped, be more secretary than general.

On reform, at least, Annan did not disappoint. He stripped a thousand posts from the organisation, and made a string of popular appointments to some of its bodies, including our former president Mary Robinson to watch over human rights.

He replaced a system whereby agencies were led by independent heads reporting individually to the secretary-general with a cabinet system of leadership. He introduced fiscal reforms and brokered a deal to get the United States to pay its debt to the United Nations, estimated to be at least $1bn, thus saving the organisation from bankruptcy.

As a consequence, morale rose and in 2001 Annan became only the second secretary-general to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – for “bringing new life into the UN”.

But the Americans regretted their support for Annan, for it soon became clear that he would not be Washington‘s patsy. In February 1998, as America and Britain geared up for air strikes against Iraq, he made a dramatic journey to Baghdad to attempt to talk down Saddam Hussein from his position that his presidential palaces were out of bounds for the UN weapons inspectors.

He returned with an agreement which forestalled military action in the immediate term, but infuriated hawks in the Clinton administration, who saw it as a sell-out.

He kept a low profile in the run-up to the Iraq war, but after hostilities began, he angered the Bush administration and its allies, who had claimed the war was sanctioned by UN resolutions, by declaring the war illegal. And at the height of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the Americans saw Annan‘s hand behind moves to end the exemption of US soldiers from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

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Annan had also been involved, while Iraq was subject to economic sanctions, in negotiating the oil-for-food programme under which Iraq was allowed to sell oil supposedly in exchange for humanitarian food and medical supplies.

It later emerged that the programme had become a gigantic scam in which Saddam Hussein was able to skim billions of dollars intended to help the Iraqi people and spend it on himself and his cronies, a scam also implicating UN personnel and western contractors.

When, in 2004, it came out that Annan‘s 29-year-old son Kojo had worked for a company that was awarded contracts under the scheme, influential Republicans, with the assumed backing of the White House, clamoured for Annan‘s resignation, ignoring the fact that all the contracts for the programme had been approved by the sanctions committee of the UN Security Council – whose permanent members include the United States. Annan ordered an inquiry and members of the UN rallied to his defence; he was cleared of improper influence in the award of contracts.

Kofi Annan was born on April 8, 1938, one of twin sons of a manager for a chemicals company in Ghana, who was in line to become chief of the Fante tribe. A bright child, he was educated at a boarding school run by Methodist missionaries and then at Kumasi University.

He first went to America in 1959 to attend summer school in Harvard. Later he won a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota, where he graduated in economics. Soon afterwards, in 1962, he joined the UN, working for the World Health Organisation in Geneva, where he also studied postgraduate Economics at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Internationales.

Apart from a break in 1972 to take a master‘s degree in management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a two-year stint as head of Ghana‘s tourist board (1974-76), he remained with the UN working in Africa and Europe, but mainly in New York, where he served as head of budget affairs and personnel.

He first came to public attention in 1990, when he persuaded Saddam Hussein to allow the repatriation of 500,000 foreign workers trapped in Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion.

In 1993 he assumed the pivotal post of Under Secretary General for peacekeeping, at a time when UN peacekeeping operations were experiencing unprecedented growth. At their peak in 1995, almost 70,000 military and civilian personnel from 77 countries were involved.

It was no easy job, and the record of UN peacekeepers at this time would provide Annan‘s critics with material to use against him. Under his watch, the UN suffered the humiliation of the fiasco in Somalia, including the incident that left 18 US servicemen dead, and the attempt to set up the so-called “safe havens” in Bosnia which did nothing to stop the massacre in 1995 of 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.

The UN received much of the blame, but there was considerable sympathy for the view, expressed privately within the organisation, that responsibility lay principally with the governments who had endorsed the policy in principle, then failed to supply the UN with anything like the manpower necessary to implement it.

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 in 1998 that Annan‘s office had received intelligence before the massacres from General Dallaire, the Canadian head of the UN peacekeeping contingent, clearly warning that an immense tragedy was at hand.

The UN not only did nothing to stop the carnage, but actually scaled down the peacekeeping force at the height of the killings. This was in part due to French and American indifference, but the UN got the blame. Later in 1998, Annan issued a qualified apology: “Looking back now, we see the signs which then were not recognised. Now we know that what we did was not nearly enough – not enough to save Rwanda from itself, not enough to honour the ideals for which the United Nations exists.”

The limitations of his role as head of the UN peacekeeping operations continued to constrain Annan‘s options as Secretary-General. Mandated to carry out Security Council resolutions, he was reliant on the willingness of member nations to commit their resources and trained manpower to UN operations. When that was not forthcoming and UN operations failed, Annan got the blame.

In East Timor, he brokered talks between Indonesia and Portugal that led to the 1999 referendum on independence for East Timor.

But the UN failed to act on the warnings of a bloodbath and there were weeks of chaos and mass-murder as the province sought independence.

In Sierra Leone, a UN observer mission established in 1998 had to be saved from collapse by British troops. In the Congo, the UN came under attack for the behaviour of its ill-disciplined soldiers – mostly supplied by other African nations – who were accused of taking bribes and raping and beating women.

But the organisation also had its successes, largely thanks to Annan‘s refusal to grandstand and his skill in delivering messages to those who needed to hear them.

He was instrumental in helping to bring an end to the stalemate between Libya and members of the Security Council over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, and played a significant role in persuading governments to face up to the global problem of HIV/Aids.

He also scored a small but significant diplomatic victory in persuading India not to stand in the way of a nuclear test ban treaty. In 2001 he was elected unopposed to a second term as Secretary-General.

The next few years were to prove some of the most difficult in the UN‘s history. In February 2003 Annan was unable to preserve the unity of the security council as France led a rebellion against US-UK policy in Iraq.

America insisted that in a world of terrorists, rogue states and weapons of mass destruction, it must have the right to make pre-emptive strikes against those it feared might attack.

Then on August 19, while Annan was on holiday in Finland, he learnt that the UN‘s office in Baghdad had been blown up by a suicide bomber. Among the many killed were the head of the UN mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, a close friend and possible future secretary-general.

Annan‘s woes overshadowed his attempts to restore the credibility of the United Nations: he presented reports on reform to the General Assembly in 2006, his final year in charge.

But he faced his role as the world‘s scapegoat with good-humoured calm; and it seemed that the more the American Right criticised him, the more the world‘s 191 member states rallied to his side.

He also became something of a star in Manhattan, where he and his wife were fixtures on the social circuit.

Annan recruited the likes of Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone and even Luciano Pavarotti as UN “Ambassadors for Peace”.

In 2007, he established the Kofi Annan Foundation and was appointed a British honorary Order of St Michael and St George. He continued to advise and mediate in global crises, notably in Zimbabwe and in Syria.

Kofi Annan was twice married. By his first marriage to a Nigerian woman, he had two children. The marriage was dissolved and he married secondly, in 1981, Nane Lagergren, a Swedish artist and lawyer whose uncle, the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, helped thousands of Hungarian Jews to escape from the Nazis during World War II.

© Telegraph

Telegraph