“This is an organization under siege,” says Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard, who’s become a human punching bag for the press. “You go out there every day and get wiped out.” “We’re human,” adds Kevin Kennedy, Annan’s chief of scheduling. “It affects morale.” The litany of woes Annan has endured has not only weakened the U.N. and damaged his career but it’s left him personally shaken as well, especially regarding Kojo. “I’m suffering on various levels,” he says. “As a secretary-general, and as a father dealing with his son. It’s all heavy and difficult.”
For a man who is only five seven, Annan has long been seen as a leader with a commanding presence. He joined the U.N. in 1962, and he’s the first secretary-general to rise through the ranks. He’s never been a table-pounder, he doesn’t swear (“Oh, gosh” is about as vitriolic as he gets), and his diplomatic style is to listen thoughtfully and play the conciliator. “He doesn’t like confrontation,” says British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry. “He becomes quite distant.” The multiple crises have changed him. Annan was vibrating with tension on the first day I met with him at his office, on a Friday morning in early February, to discuss whether he would cooperate with this story. It was admittedly a difficult day: He was in the process of ousting Ruud Lubbers, the head of the U.N. Human Rights Commission accused of sexually harassing staffers (more on that below), and Lubbers was scheduled to arrive within the hour. But for a man renowned for his personal charm and ability to remain calm under pressure, Annan came across as wary and abrupt. I had scarcely made my pitch when a secretary handed Annan a note to say that John Negroponte, the former American ambassador to the U.N. and new U.S. intelligence czar, was on his way down the hall; Annan hustled me out.
Annan’s emotions fluctuated visibly during the next six weeks as I sat in on a half-dozen meetings with him, from discussions over how to end the massacres in Darfur to talks about a sweeping U.N. reform package. Annan was edgy and strained some days, engaged and astute on others. The overall impression he left was that of a man at the center of a maelstrom, coping by the hour.
“I’m suffering on various levels,” says Annan. “As a secretary-general, and as a father dealing with his son.”
About the only time Annan seemed happy was in the presence of his wife. At his office one day, midway through a conversation, he picked up the phone and invited Nane, who was in an anteroom, to meet me. Annan and Nane have been married twenty years and are extremely close. Nane, a lawyer turned painter, is a slim and stylish blonde. Making small talk, I asked whether any of the paintings in the room were by her, and she demurred that her works aren’t worthy. “I’m the world’s most famous non-famous artist,” she said. Then she walked over to the window and pointed toward Brooklyn. “I used to have a studio there,” she said. She was referring to the period before her husband became secretary-general and her duties as his wife took so much of her time.
When the Iraq war began in March 2003, Annan had a striking personal reaction: He lost his voice. Doctors performed tests, found nothing wrong, and diagnosed stress. “It was completely psychosomatic,” says a staffer. Annan was ordered to limit his speaking and had to cancel appointments for weeks. In the two years since, he’s been vulnerable to similar attacks. Sometimes he whispers his way through meetings; his bodyguards keep Halls cough drops at the ready.
On August 19, 2003, a suicide bomber blew up a cement mixer packed with explosives in front of the U.N. building in Baghdad, killing Vieira de Mello and 21 others. Annan still agonizes over the deaths. “To have done everything I could to help avoid this war,” he says, “which could have been avoided, and sending these wonderful people to help, and they get blown away. You know their wives, their sons. You feel responsible for their lives.”
Annan didn’t start the oil-for-food program—it was launched under Boutros-Ghali in 1996—but the program continued under his watch. U.N. trade sanctions had choked the Iraqi economy, so the Security Council allowed Saddam to sell oil to purchase food and medical supplies under U.N. auspices. Saddam manipulated the program to loot billions, smuggling in weapons and paying kickbacks to win international favors. “The U.N. had never administered a program of this nature, and they didn’t know how to do it,” says Pakistani ambassador Munir Akram. Member nations weren’t eager to look closely at the program, Akram says, since countries were busily pushing to make sure their banks and local corporations got a piece of the action. “There was a permissive atmosphere in the council,” he says. “It was not a well-kept secret.”
The first time Annan realized he might have a personal problem with the oil-for-food program came as far back as January 24, 1999, when the London Sunday Telegraph ran a story with the headline FURY AT ANNAN SON’S LINK TO £6M U.N. DEAL. The story questioned whether nepotism played a role in helping Cotecna, a Swiss company that employed Kojo Annan, to win a lucrative U.N. contract to inspect oil-for-food shipments. Annan says he was stunned by the news, and was unaware that Cotecna was angling for the contract, since he didn’t supervise bidding. Annan immediately asked that the charge be investigated, but the in-house inquiry he ordered ended after one day, after concluding that Cotecna won because it was the low bidder. Kojo insisted he had done nothing wrong, and told his father that he had severed his relationship with Cotecna on December 31, 1998 (according to the Volcker report, Kojo actually stayed on the payroll through February 2004). The Volcker commission would later conclude that Annan was derelict in not pursuing a more vigorous investigation of Cotecna since the company was already under an ethical cloud for other business dealings.