Kofi Annan is sitting in his private dining room on the 38th floor of the United Nations Building, sipping a glass of red wine at lunch. He sounds hurt and angry as he talks about the “lynch mob” out to “destroy” him. It’s Monday, March 28, the day before the scheduled release of the second of three reports from the Volcker commission, the panel investigating Annan and his son, Kojo, for their role in the U.N. oil-for-food debacle. The pressure the 67-year-old U.N. secretary-general has been under since the scandal broke has been so withering—Annan has been blistered by conservative pundits, and Republican congressmen have called for his resignation—that he’s discussed quitting with close friends and his wife, Nane. “I’ve thought about it,” he says. “Resignation is the easy path. Nane and I could have a wonderful life, travel, sit on the farm I dream about.” A weary smile plays on his face. “No one is indispensable.”
The secretary-general had spent much of his weekend at his official residence, a sprawling brick mansion on Sutton Place, working and bracing for a difficult week ahead. Annan had been given a partial advance summary of the Volcker commission’s findings, which amounted to a slap on the wrist but found no evidence that Annan steered a lucrative oil-for-food contract to a company that employed Kojo. Still, the preliminary report criticized Annan for lax oversight, and word was that the final version would excoriate Kojo for significant improprieties. Annan called French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac to discuss the situation in Lebanon. He spoke with the family of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in February. He and Nane, who have significantly cut back on their once-busy social life, had a quiet dinner with Ted Sorensen, the former JFK speechwriter, and his wife, Gillian, a former U.N. staffer. On Sunday, Annan huddled with his lawyer, Gregory Craig, and his chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, to draft a response to be included with the Volcker report. Although the Annans attend church occasionally (he’s Anglican, she’s Lutheran), this Sunday—Easter Sunday—was not a day when they wanted to say their prayers in public. Instead, they went for a walk in Central Park and watched The King and I.
Kojo had called Annan during the weekend. Annan had learned in November that his son had misled him about his unsavory financial dealings. “He has apologized,” Annan says. “He is extremely embarrassed.” Yet their discussions continue to be a tug-of-war: “I’ve talked to him about coming clean with everything he knows, no surprises,” Annan says. But Kojo, who has refused to meet with investigators since October or to turn over additional documents, held firm.
In the U.N. dining room, on a day when thick clouds obscure the normally sparkling view of the city, Annan sounds baffled as he tries to grasp the magnitude of his son’s deceit. “I have no theories. You know, it’s incredible when you see these little children. You carry them in your arms and lead them along the way. And over time, they develop their own personalities and become their own person.” He stops, then adds quietly, “Of course, he maintains he did nothing wrong.” Even now? I ask. “Yes, now.”
It’s hard to fathom just how far Kofi Annan has fallen. Elected U.N. secretary-general in December 1996, he instantly became the rarest of things: an international diplomatic rock star. Fawning profiles invariably noted his noble African ancestry, soft-spoken charisma, and sterling reputation for honesty (even criticism that Annan had acted too slowly to stop the Rwandan genocide in his previous position as head of U.N. Peacekeeping didn’t tarnish his star). The Clinton administration crusaded for Annan’s ascendancy, citing his deft diplomatic skills and moral authority, and world leaders from diverse nations saw him as their champion. In his first term, he made fighting AIDS a global priority, promoted a measure to allow the international community to step in when countries can’t protect their own people, and even got Senator Jesse Helms to release nearly $1 billion to pay the backlog of American U.N. dues. Annan and Nane (the niece of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust) became the toast of Washington and New York, socializing with Brooke Astor, Oscar de La Renta, and Tom Brokaw. “They’re an extraordinary couple,” observes author Kati Marton, a close friend. “I don’t think people were falling over themselves to wine and dine Mr. and Mrs. Boutros Boutros-Ghali.”
Annan was unanimously reelected in 2001 to a second five-year term, and his career peaked when he won the Nobel Peace Prize that December for his efforts to bring new life to the beleaguered U.N. Footage of the award ceremony in Oslo shows a beaming Kojo at his father’s side. “Kofi had the quiet charisma and the respect of most of the world, and the Nobel Prize was the high point,” recalls Richard Holbrooke, the former American ambassador to the U.N. (and Marton’s husband), who attended the event. “The night before the ceremony, he looked out from a balcony at a crowd holding candles in the street below. It was an extraordinary moment.”
It was one of Annan’s last good moments to date. The U.S. decision to invade Iraq without U.N. consent created the biggest rift between the U.N. and the U.S. in decades, and left Annan, a fierce war opponent, politically hobbled. In August 2003, 22 of Annan’s colleagues, including the U.N. special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, one of Annan’s closest friends, were killed in the bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. The oil-for-food scandal has not only raised questions about Annan’s integrity and competence as a manager, but also embarrassed him—and caused him tremendous pain—as a father. Aides have been accused of unethical behavior, U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo have been charged with sexually abusing minors, and a Swiss investigation was launched recently into whether bribes were paid to renovate a United Nations building in Geneva. In March, the Bush administration nominated John Bolton, a fire-breathing conservative and one of the U.N.’s most outspoken critics, as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.—a straight jab at Annan and the international body.
Five separate congressional committees are currently holding hearings on the oil-for-food program and other U.N. mismanagement issues, and Capitol Hill Republicans are screaming for Annan’s resignation. “He’s headed up a scandal-ridden and broken organization,” says right-wing California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, the chair of one investigation. “The U.N.’s ability to do its job has been tarnished.”
Most diplomats who visit Annan’s office these days begin by referring, obliquely, to his troubles by offering comforting words. Paulette Bethel of the Bahamas recently led off a session with two other ambassadors by saying, “We’d like to reaffirm our support for you.” But Nile Gardiner, a conservative U.N. critic with the Heritage Foundation, insists some of the declarations are hypocritical. “Many countries are expressing their support, but they smell blood in the water. They’re maneuvering to get someone into his job.”