Kofi Annan, who was described by his own foundation colleagues, as “strong and fit” while “he worked until the very end, without giving himself a break,” succumbed to a short illness on Saturday at age 80. His foundation made the announcement on Twitter.
The former U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize laureate had been living in Geneva for a decade, running a non-profit, and had recently returned from Zimbabwe “a little weakened, but all those working closely with him day in and day out did not see this coming,” said Bijan Farnoudi, a spokesman for the Kofi Annan Foundation.
For decades, Annan, a native of Ghana, championed efforts to try to end conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
He triumphed in many cases, like persuaded Saddam Hussein to comply with weapons inspections, East Timoor’s independence and stability, his commitment to fighting HIV in Africa, and, in times, where he was not triumphant, his grace showed.
After the Rwanda crisis where the U.S. government was slow to intervene, and in Bosnia where UN forces withdrew and he was accused of failing, “Annan felt that the very countries that had turned their backs on the Rwandans and Bosnians were the ones making him their scapegoat,” Samantha Power, former UN ambassador during Obama’s administration, wrote in 2008.
“But he knew that his name would appear in the history books beside the two defining genocidal crimes of the second half of the 20th century.”
Annan expressed regret: “The international community failed Rwanda, and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow.”
Annan also addressed environmental issues. In one of his last arguments in December, before the major climate conference in Paris, he said:
“In the past when we went through this sort of crisis, you had leaders who had the courage and the vision to want to take action, to understand that they needed to work with others. Today, leaders are going in the wrong directionLeaders are withdrawing.”
One of Annan’s predecessors had referred to his role as “the most impossible job on Earth.”
Leaders have expressed their sentiments for Annan:
NATO leader Jens Stoltenberg: “His warmth should never be mistaken for weakness. Annan showed that one can be a great humanitarian and a strong leader at the same time.”
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “Kofi was humanity’s best example, the epitome, of human decency and grace. In a world now filled with leaders who are anything but that, our loss, the world’s loss becomes even more painful.”
Barack Obama said he “embodied the mission of the UN like few others. His integrity, persistence, optimism and sense of our common humanity always informed his outreach to the community of nations. “
Ghana has declared a week of national mourning. Funeral plans to be announced. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo called Annan “one of our greatest compatriots.”