Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Kofi, Kojo, Ama Annan and Titi Alakija Episode

The Wall Street Journal’s news section published a major investigation of the oil-for-food program on May 2, 2002, charging that Saddam had siphoned money from the program for his war chest and that U.N. auditors were lax. Annan’s name wasn’t mentioned, but shortly after Bush went before the U.N. General Assembly in September 2002 to make the case for going to war, Claudia Rosett, a commentator writing on the Journal’s editorial page, led a two-barreled attack on Annan for being a “ditherer” over the war and ethically tarnished in presiding over the oil-for-food program. After major combat in Iraq ended, other conservatives, including William Safire, began focusing on the oil-for-food program as well.

Annan took a very long time to respond, suggesting, to his critics, that he didn’t take the matter seriously. It wasn’t until April 2004 that Annan named an independent commission, led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, to investigate oil-for-food, with a freewheeling mandate to look at the questionable behavior of U.N. officials monitoring the program, examine whether Security Council members were aware of the corruption, and take a hard look at his own and Kojo’s roles.

The secretary-general was so convinced that he had nothing to hide that he didn’t initially hire a personal attorney—he met with investigators twice without legal advice before friends intervened.

The criticism of Annan grew louder last year even as the Volcker commission began its work, but the complaints primarily focused on his handling of other issues. Whether preoccupied by the inquiry or haunted by the deaths of his colleagues in Iraq, Annan seemed to have lost his once-vaunted political instincts.

As a longtime U.N. bureaucrat, Annan has always had a reputation for being reluctant to fire employees and for being extremely loyal; mention the latter quality now and he interrupts to say, “Loyal to a fault?” That is, indeed, the rap. Ruud Lubbers, the U.N.’s high commissioner for Refugees, was accused of groping several women in December 2003, and investigators found the complaints valid.

But Annan consulted outside lawyers who concluded that the U.N.’s internal investigation wouldn’t hold up in court. He officially cleared Lubbers in July, a decision that sent shock waves through the organization, essentially conveying the message that Annan, the renowned human-rights champion, was a member of the old-boys’ club. “Kofi didn’t go back to the investigators and say, ‘Get more goods, you haven’t made your case,’ ” says one high-ranking staffer. An Annan pal says bluntly, “He should have just fired the guy.” Only this winter, when newspapers printed the affidavits describing Lubbers’s boorish behavior, did Annan force Lubbers out.

Another sign that Annan’s political judgment was out of whack came on the Sunday before the November 2, 2004, presidential election, when he sent letters to the U.S., Great Britain, and Iraq, urging the countries not to send forces to go after rebels in Fallujah. “We were thunderstruck,” says a senior American official. “It was hard to see this as anything but an effort to interfere with the electoral process.” Annan insists that he wasn’t trying to tilt the election toward John Kerry, but he admits that the Fallujah letter was a mistake: “In retrospect, maybe the timing was not the best.”

The dark atmosphere at the U.N. grew darker after Bush’s reelection, as congressional committees investigating the oil-for-food scandal began to churn up information about Saddam’s looting. “There were weeks when Kofi seemed disturbed, bothered, unfocused,” says a prominent diplomat and Annan backer. Annan became increasingly worried and withdrawn. Staffers and diplomats grumbled that it took forever for him to make decisions.

In December, in the diplomatic equivalent of a substance-abuse intervention, Annan sat through two separate confrontational meetings (the first with top staffers at the home of Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette and the second with friends and informal advisers at Holbrooke’s Central Park West apartment) as people told him in excruciating detail all the ways in which he was screwing up. Annan was urged to make amends with Washington, clean house, and be more forceful in his leadership.

At the same time, the secretary-general’s heartbreak over Kojo was intensifying. Annan got a call from Fred Eckhard, telling him that, according to news reports, Kojo had deceived him; the Cotecna checks had kept coming for years. “It hit him like a rock,” said an aide who was with Annan when he got the news. Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, promptly demanded Annan’s resignation. “I was taken aback and puzzled,” Annan says, in a soft voice. He called Kojo, and a series of angry father-son conversations ensued. The Volcker report subsequently revealed that, according to Kojo’s financial records, Kojo conspired to hide the payments by disguising them as money wired to him from three separate companies and other sources, a sum estimated to be about $400,000.

Annan received more bad news in December. The Volcker commission was also quizzing his chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, about shredding documents. Riza insisted to Annan and the commission that the documents were duplicates—that he’d agreed to the shredding after secretaries complained their files were full. The news of the shredding wouldn’t become public until the Volcker report came out in March, but Annan knew that the revelation would be damaging. Did he worry that everyone would think “cover-up”? “Exactly,” he says. “Cover-up, and remember the eight minutes in the Nixon tapes.” Annan decided to purge his staff in late December, sending Riza, 70, into retirement, getting rid of many of his closest advisers, and bringing in Mark Malloch Brown, the forceful and witty British head of the U.N. Development Program and a former political spinmeister, as his new chief of staff.

Still, Annan couldn’t shake the blues this winter. It’s been an open secret for months in the U.N. that he has been melancholy and unable to hide his distress. “He’s put on a brave front and tried to soldier on,” says Pakistani ambassador Akram. “He’s been under pressure for so long. It affects his mood.” The entire diplomatic community and staffers, it seems, have been swapping stories about how distracted Annan has been. After Annan met with Tony Blair and Condoleezza Rice in London in March, word spread quickly that he had stumbled over his talking points, an embarrassing and uncharacteristic faux pas. His every gesture is under a microscope, from the slump of his usually erect shoulders to each nuance of his body language. “Watch his hands,” says a sympathetic ambassador. “The more nervous he gets, the more his hands are all over the place. They betray him.”

This winter, Annan and Nane stopped hosting what were once regular parties at their home, and have turned down virtually all the invitations they receive. “I’m not in the mood for socializing,” he says.

Tell Annan that friends and colleagues worry that he seems depressed, and he doesn’t deny it. “There hasn’t been too much to laugh about,” he says. “There have been those difficult periods when you wonder, What’s it all about and where are we going? I’ve been under pressure for, how many years now? Almost fifteen years, going back to my background in the Department of Peacekeeping. I can handle the pressure, but certain things touch you.”

Kofi Annan married Titi Alakija, a Nigerian woman from a well-to-do family, in 1965. A few years later they had a daughter, Ama, now 35, followed by a son, Kojo, now 31.

A friend recalls that there was “trouble” relatively early in the marriage, remembering a vacation when the couple opted for separate quarters. Still, Kofi and Titi stayed together for many years, through a number of Annan’s career moves—to a U.N. job in New York, a posting in Ethiopia, a year at MIT for a master’s degree in management, a career detour back to his native Ghana where he managed the state tourism agency, and a return to the U.N. in Geneva, to work at the High Commission on Refugees.

The couple separated in the late seventies, but Annan remained an involved parent. “Kojo lived with his father for a while; Kofi did everything for him,” says Julia Preiswerk, a Geneva psychoanalyst who has known Annan for four decades and remains a close friend. Shashi Tharoor, now the U.N. undersecretary-general for communications, who worked with Annan in Geneva, says, “He had this rule that he’d leave work to pick up the kids at school and bring them home and then come back to the office.” Annan was proud that his young son saw him as a nurturing figure. Tharoor adds, “One story he told was how Kojo said, ‘Dad, I want you to come to this event at school,’ and Kofi said, ‘I can’t, I have an official commitment.’ And Kojo said, ‘But all the other mothers will be there.’”

Annan had been living apart from his wife for several years when in 1981 he fell in love with Nane Lagergren, a beautiful and accomplished lawyer working at the U.N., who was divorced with a young daughter, Nina, from her first marriage. But the couple never entirely blended their families. Around the time Annan learned he was being transferred by the U.N. to New York, the first Mrs. Annan moved from Geneva to London, and the Annan children were sent to boarding school in England. Ama was 12 and Kojo was 9. (Annan married Nane in 1984.)

It’s been an open secret at the U.N. that Annan has been melancholy and unable to hide his distress.

Annan clearly wonders now about the impact of that early separation on his son, but it didn’t seem unduly wrenching at the time. “I got used to taking decisions for myself very early, from when I went to boarding school,” Kofi said. “Kojo went to boarding school early. He came on holidays.”

The family relationships played out mostly over weekly phone calls and summer vacations. It was a jet-setting life—the children also spent time in Nigeria, their mother’s homeland. Still, Kojo seemed like a happy-go-lucky kid. He was outgoing and a star rugby player at his British boarding school; father and son would see rugby games together and watch them on TV. (Kojo did not respond to several requests for an interview, sent via his London lawyer, Clarissa Amato.) As a teenager, Kojo spent a summer living with his father and stepmother on Roosevelt Island, working as an intern for fund-raiser and family friend Toni Goodale. “We loved him around the office,” says Goodale. “He was a delight—terrific personality, outgoing, funny.”

After graduating from Keele University, Kojo wangled a job in September 1995 at Cotecna through a family friend and was stationed in Lagos, Nigeria, as a junior liaison officer. According to the Volcker report, the company hoped to exploit his family connections. Indeed, Kojo ultimately arranged for his father to meet Cotecna chairman Elie Massey. (The report found no evidence that Annan and Massey discussed the oil-for-food contract.) After two years with Cotecna, Kojo resigned as an employee, but signed on as a consultant.

From that point on, Kojo went all out in using the Annan name to make money, according to the Volcker report. He met with an Iraqi ambassador in Lagos to inquire about business opportunities, visited his father in New York during General Assembly meetings, and talked up the virtues of Cotecna to African diplomats.

If Kojo was rebelling against his father, or was angry over the divorce, it wasn’t apparent. “I’ve never seen any problems or tension between Kofi and Kojo,” says Goodale, who has been hosting a family Christmas dinner at her Upper East Side home with the secretary-general and his children for many years. “Kofi would glow when he talked about Kojo and Ama. Kojo made his father laugh.”

Annan, an indulgent father and by nature nonconfrontational, remains baffled about Kojo’s motives. “I’ve always lived quite a straight life,” he says. “I’m not one of those who is in a hurry to get rich. It’s not my way of life or desire.”

In the Annans’ official residence, the large red-brick mansion on Sutton Place, Nane Annan joins me in the second-floor library, a handsome wood-paneled room decorated with an Oriental rug, stacks of art books, and African masks and sculpture. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a bun, emphasizing the worry lines around her eyes, and she speaks in a lilting Scandinavian accent, her voice often drifting off mid-sentence. 

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