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No Peace for Kofi

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“It’s not been easy,” she begins, reciting the sad series of events of the past few years. She tells me she’s been accompanying her husband on recent trips. “I try to provide a home away from home, to have somebody, to hold hands and sit together,” she says. “All the things that are not official, that are between two people who love each other.”

Mention Kojo, and she flinches, breaking eye contact to stare at the coffee table. The conversation stops—so I ask what Kofi has been like as a parent. “I think he’s been a caring father,” she says, cautiously. “Of course, this is very painful to him as a father and a secretary-general. It’s difficult, it’s difficult,” she says. “This is so unfortunate.”

Nane has maintained a full schedule, speaking at a reception for women with AIDS, attending an award ceremony for the king of Jordan. But friends say she’s counting the days until her husband’s time at the U.N. is over. The couple hasn’t yet made plans for the future, even though they’ve always known his second term would end in December 2006. They’ve had conversations about purchasing a farm in Ghana and a home in Europe, but it’s all quite abstract. As Nane says, with a bleak look on her face, “We are living in the present.”

On the afternoon of March 29, hours after part two of the Volcker report was released, Annan walked into the press room downstairs, flash bulbs popping. He read a brief statement expressing relief at his “exoneration,” and took just three questions. The final one was the zinger: “Do you feel it’s time for the good of the organization to step down?” Looking straight at the TV cameras, Annan delivered the line that would define the news coverage of the day: “Hell, no.”

For all Annan’s bravado, the reaction to the report was resoundingly negative. Norm Coleman reiterated his call for Annan’s resignation, and more newspaper editorials ripped into him. Mark Pieth, a member of the Volcker panel, challenged Annan’s defiant comment by saying, “We did not exonerate Kofi Annan . . . A certain mea culpa would have been appropriate.” (Two investigators on the panel have since resigned in protest, apparently because they believe Annan has been treated too gently.)

Still, Annan seems likely to hold onto his job—important members of the Security Council are stoutly behind him. “Kofi enjoys the full support of the British government,” says British ambassador Jones Parry. France’s Jean-Marc De la Sabliere is equally unequivocal: “Kofi is a man of principle. We are supporting him.” Influential Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman adds, “He has weathered the eye of the storm, and has come through maybe scarred, but with his integrity in place and able to carry on.”

The final Volcker report is due out this summer. Insiders say that Annan is no longer under investigation for personal ethical lapses, but that doesn’t mean he’s in the clear. “To the extent that he’s the guy at the top, that’s where the buck stops,” says a source. “The thing that’s going to get to him is the kid.” Kojo continues to stonewall, but his business dealings remain under intense scrutiny and the report is not likely to make for pleasant family reading, says the source.

This is a story that clearly isn’t going away. Just last week, David Bay Chalmers Jr., an American oil trader, and Tongsun Park, a South Korean lobbyist, were indicted by federal authorities for kickbacks related to the oil-for-food program; conflict-of-interest questions have been raised about Maurice Strong, a Canadian businessman and U.N. special envoy linked to Park; and Annan’s predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has been linked to Park as well (no charges have been filed against anyone but Chalmers and Park).

Annan is working hard, meanwhile, to salvage his reputation. In late March, he unveiled his ambitious, long-in-the-making U.N. reform plan. His goals are to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission, expand the size of the Security Council to fit the modern era, and officially define terrorism in harsher terms.

Annan has also been aggressively globetrotting lately—Geneva, Jakarta, New Delhi—simultaneously lobbying countries to back his reform plan and arm-twisting for international action to halt the genocide in Sudan. The efforts to do good seem to have bolstered his spirits. Annan has started to step out again. He and Nane attended a dinner at the home of Columbia president Lee Bollinger, and he received a warm welcome last week at the VIP screening of The Interpreter, the Nicole Kidman–Sean Penn U.N. thriller.

Candidates are actively campaigning to replace Annan when his term ends in 2006, but there are no signs of any effort to force a coup before then. At the moment, more attention is being paid to the embattled Bolton, whose confirmation is now in jeopardy because of allegations that he browbeat staffers at the State Department.

As I was typing away on this story, several days after the Volcker report came out, the phone rang. There was a familiar voice on the other end. “It’s been a crazy week,” said Annan. He told me he had been thinking about our previous interview and wanted to talk more. We wound up speaking for 40 minutes on a Saturday morning, as rain slashed down outside.

The secretary-general began by attempting to spin his situation, emphasizing all the calls of support coming in. Earlier in the week, he had spoken, with evident pain, about the friends who had seemingly vanished: “Some feel embarrassed to call,” he allowed. “They don’t know what to say.” Now he wanted to tell me that, among others, a sympathetic Bill Clinton had phoned. “He understands. He had gone through similar situations where he’s been under a microscope, attacked,” said Annan. Then he added, with a sense of surprise, that the former president had confided in him. “He was sort of reminiscing with me, sharing his own experiences with his brother, his brother-in-law, things like that.” Did Clinton offer advice? “That you have to remain focused and carry on.”

Annan admitted that he can understand why people might read the Volcker report and wonder, “ ‘Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?’ Which is a reasonable question to raise.” But he insisted yet again that he has done nothing wrong. “I walked into this with a clear conscience.”

Kojo had called him several times in the previous few days. After reading the Volcker report, with its appalling details of how Kojo hustled to make money, Annan said he was so angry that he kept the conversations brief. What did Kojo tell him? “He was sorry he hadn’t leveled with me. He’s obviously ashamed.” Annan clearly doesn’t want the 31-year-old to feel abandoned, yet he’s obviously devastated by his son’s betrayals.

Despite his “Hell, no” earlier in the week, I asked whether resigning has seemed increasingly appealing. “You think it through. What would be the best for me to do, to stay, to leave? Resignation would be easy, but to stay on and confront, pick up the lessons, push for the reforms you believe in, and work with the member states to get it done is much, much harder. Having balanced the arguments, I have an obligation to finish what I started.”

I mention that several ambassadors had speculated that Annan would remain only through the Security Council meetings in September, in hopes of salvaging his legacy through a victory with the reform package, but would then leave—a year early.

“That’s a question for the future,” he said. “In life, you cannot rule out, you cannot say never or forever.”


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