Global Economy

Kofi Annan, Former United Nations Secretary-General, Dies at 80

Kofi Annan, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat who rose through the ranks of the United Nations to become its first black African secretary-general and reshape the organization as a proponent of human rights, died Saturday at the age of 80.

Mr. Annan’s family confirmed his death from a short, unspecified illness, in a statement from his foundation.

Known for his cool manner, noble posture and charismatic personality, Mr. Annan served as the U.N.’s leader for two five-year terms, from January 1997 to December 2006. He campaigned to protect people everywhere from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, though his tenure was also clouded by allegations of corruption and bribery within the organization.

From 1993 to 1997, Mr. Annan served as the head of the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations, a period that saw the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which about 800,000 people were killed, and the massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica in 1995. Mr. Annan later said he should, and could, have done more to raise the alarm and galvanize support from member nations. That regret led him to focus acutely on the plight of marginalized people around the world.

He had a keen influence on many of the crises of recent decades, from the HIV/AIDS pandemic to the Iraq War and had a strong hand in making the world’s tragedies the responsibility of the organization.

Mr. Annan overhauled and revitalized the U.N., creating an organization much more deeply involved in peacekeeping efforts and alleviating poverty around the globe. An ardent human rights advocate, he championed development in the developing world and especially his home continent of Africa. Mr. Annan established the U.N.’s Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council.

“Kofi Annan was a global statesman and a deeply committed internationalist who fought throughout his life for a fairer and more peaceful world,” the Kofi Annan Foundation said in a statement.

“It is with profound sadness that I learned of his passing,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a statement. “In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations. He rose through the ranks to lead the organization into the new millennium with matchless dignity and determination.”

Kofi Atta Annan was born along with his twin sister Efua Atta, in Kumasi, a city in southern Ghana, on April 8, 1938.

He earned a degree in economics from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in 1961, joining the U.N. the following year as an administrative and budget officer at World Health Organization in Geneva. A decade later, he graduated with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

In 1965, Mr. Annan married Titi Alakija, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1983, and a year later he remarried, to Swedish lawyer Nane Marie Lagergren, who had a daughter from a previous marriage.

He served as the Economic Commissioner for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, and various roles in New York before being appointed as the U.N.’s seventh secretary-general in 1997.

In 1998, Mr. Annan negotiated directly with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad over U.N. weapons inspections. Though the diplomatic mission was successful, he faced backlash for shaking hands and smoking cigars with Mr. Hussein.

Mr. Annan again became embroiled in scandal in 2004, when his son, Kojo Annan, was implicated in a scandal surrounding a U.N. humanitarian program in Iraq, known as “oil for food.” The program, which allowed Iraq to sell oil on the world market in exchange for food, medicine, and other humanitarian items, was exploited by Mr. Hussein, due to lax oversight at the U.N. headquarters.

A commission eventually exonerated Mr. Annan, but found that he hadn’t done enough to investigate once he was made aware of the situation.

Mr. Annan and the U.N. were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for revitalizing the organization and prioritizing human rights.

He is survived by a wife and three children.

Write to Alexandra Wexler at


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