Once Boutros-Ghali was out of the picture, the Security Council considered four African candidates. Kofi Annan, Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, soon emerged as the front runner. But because he was so clearly Washington’s candidate, France, a firm supporter of Boutros-Ghali, vetoed him several times. Paris relented under growing pressure from African countries but not before exacting a pledge that its nominee would get the post of Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations.
On Friday, 13 December, Kofi Annan, consummate UN insider, was picked to be Secretary-General. He was the first sub-Saharan African to get the post, the first career staff member of the UN, the first with broad administrative experience. He had headed, successively, the offices of Personnel, Finance, Administration and Peacekeeping. Unlike any of his predecessors, he also had a politician’s capacity to relate to people, to charm.
Within the Secretariat, Annan was seen as a new broom that would, at long last, know where to sweep clean. He brought immediate and marked improvement in tone and spirit, but mainly to the top echelon of the Secretariat. At regular weekly meetings of Under- and Assistant-Secretaries (those outside New York participating over the corporate teleconferencing facilities of the World Economic Forum), his collegial lead helped ease long-standing rigidities. Turf battles faded, department Heads cooperated in new thematically oriented management groups. In the larger UN System, he had a similar impact. The traditionally stiff and unproductive meetings of the Administrative Committee on Coordination (now the Chief Executives Board), relaxed into productivity. For the first time in UN history, the Heads of UN agencies and programs, including the World Bank and the IMF, attended enthusiastically. Real work got done.
On the stultifying internal culture of the Secretariat as a whole, corrupted by many years of low standards and mismanagement, Annan’s impact has been minimal. Staff morale is low and reform efforts have had little impact. After a honeymoon period with the Staff Union, the job of dealing with them was delegated to Under-Secretary-General Joseph O’Connor, a former head of Pricewaterhouse World Company who had arrived at the United Nations as part of the effort to placate critics in Washington. His tendency to ignore due process in making decisions, and on occasion to back out of agreements with staff, created increasing sourness. Efforts by the Staff leadership to see the Secretary-General were fruitless. “As far as you are concerned” Mr. O’Connor told Staff Representatives, “I am the Secretary-General.”
Closely surrounded by a number of well-connected Americans, the Secretary-General’s relations with Washington remained excellent throughout the Clinton administration. In the media he achieved celebrity status. That changed after the Secretary-General failed to support the Bush administration’s march to war in Iraq, and decidedly so after he said publicly that the coalition forces were, as occupiers, bound by the Geneva Conventions. That was seen as perfidy at a time when the neo-conservative activists who led the way into Iraq fully expected American forces as liberators.
The August 2003 bomb attack on the UN Office in Baghdad that killed a number of UN staff members, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy in Iraq, moved Annan into completely new territory in relations with Washington. In his opening speech to the General Assembly session in the fall of 2003, he flagged unilateral use of force as a threat to world order. As the occupation of Iraq became increasingly bloody during 2004, he refused to rebuild the UN's international presence in the country. A small electoral team was sent in to help with the first Iraqi elections, but it was a minimal effort. As President Bush headed for re-election, the Secretary-General told a BBC interviewer that the American invasion of Iraq was “illegal.”
Against that background, most observers at the United Nations took the first allegations of Annan’s personal involvement in the corruptions of the Iraq Oil for Food Program as retaliation. But the September 2005 findings of the Independent Investigation Commission headed by Paul Volcker have made clear that the charges were not entirely smoke. The Secretary-General’s son, Kojo Annan, was found to be clearly involved in influence peddling. There was incontrovertible evidence that the head of the Iraq oil for food program, Benon Sevan, had helped a small company headed by a friend to get Iraq oil contracts, and strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that he had received $147,000 in bank deposits while that was happening. Sevan claimed the deposits were from a deceased aunt, but she had exhibited few signs of such wealth when alive. A procurement officer dealing with Iraq oil for food contracts was indicted by federal authorities in New York of requesting and receiving bribes, and he implicated over a score of others, including the Chairman of the prestigious Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ).
There was no reasonably conclusive evidence that Kofi Annan had known of his son’s activities, or of the other corruptions in the program. But investigators found that his Chef de Cabinet, Iqbal Riza, had shredded the chron files in his office two days after instructing all UN System officials involved in the Iraq program to preserve all relevant paperwork. The Commission did charge with mismanagement the Secretary-General and Louise Frechette, the Deputy-Secretary-General (a former Canadian Minister of Defense who was appointed in 1998 in the first wave of UN reforms under Annan). Frechette had offered to resign in 2004 after being criticized in a report on the security failures surrounding the August 2003 bombing of the UN Office in Baghdad, but was kept on. She seemed likely to continue in office despite the acid comments of the Volcker Commission on her managerial incompetence, but in early 2006 it was announced that she would be leaving the Secretariat to join a think tank in Canada.
The Iraq war cast a shadow on Kofi Annan's last years at the UN but his established record as a consummate diplomat helped him through. After the end of his tenure at the UN he has been asked several times to help the UN deal with difficult situations in Africa.