Kofi Annan, the first Black African United Nations Secretary General and a 2001 Nobel Peace Prize winner, passed away at 80 years old, the morning of August 18 while hospitalized for a brief illness in Bern, Switzerland.The Ghanaian born world leader was one of ours; he lived in Island House from 1978 until becoming Secretary General in 1997. Roosevelt Island residents offer a unique personal glimpse into the life of an iconic figure described as the “conscience of humanity,” by Forbes Magazine.
“Most people will learn about him through his obituary, through a blurb written by someone who spent very little time and it’s all the little nuances about a person that are special” explains Bobzie Tiewul. Bobzie’s father, Sylvanus Tiewul became close friends with Annan while the young Ghanaians began their careers together at the United Nations. They worked on peacekeeping missions including monitoring Namibia's first "free and fair" elections and the demilitarized border zone between Iraq and Kuwait in the early 1990s. “He was a person that came out of a country that was colonized and broke through so many ceilings. Kofi was the blueprint for Barack Obama because his vision didn’t just lead him to a path of ‘help my people ’– it was a global perspective.”
Former United Nations Medical Director, Dr. Sudershan Narula was Annan’s neighbor and personal physician. She paints a picture of the Island in the early 1980’s. “The population of the Island was only 2,500 when we came in 1982.” said Narula.“When we walked together in the morning, from the tram to work, it felt like everybody was UN. For us it was very significant that he was appointed Secretary General from Roosevelt Island; it’s as if we made it with him.”
Annan shaking Sylvanus Tiewul’s hand (1991-1993), courtesy of Bobzie Tiewul
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Mrs. Nane Annan share a laugh with UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Harry Belafonte at a UN event between 1998 and 2002
Dr. Sudershan Narula and Annan commemorate their retirement in December 2006
Sylvanus Tiewul and Annan at Umm Qasr Base, Iraq 1992 monitoring the demilitarized zone during the UNIKOM Peacekeeping mission
Annan, flanked by Dorothy Davis, Roosevelt Island resident and Founding Manager of UNDP Goodwill Ambassador Program, and Marco Masotti, Partner at Paul Weiss, UN event between 1998 and 2001
Annan offered Dr. Narula a medical officer position at an Addis Ababa clinic in 1989, but she opted to stay on Roosevelt Island because her daughter was beginning the college application process. When the Cold War ended and a new global consensus formed, the number of peacekeeping officers grew from 11,000 to 75,000 over the next six years. Narula was among those new hires; she started a new position in New York the following year.
Annan’s ability to remain calm and remain unflappable in times of stress, hailed as one of his biggest strengths, was considered a weakness by others, namely when acts of genocide were committed in Sarajevo and Rwanda under his watch. Those closest to him have a different perspective.
“Is that not the way they describe any Black man who holds that level of office?”, Tiewul challenged. “What was the state of the world during Kofi’s watch? He was leading at the end of the Cold War, through the HIV/AIDS crisis, his opposition to the second Iraq War and the refusal of the US government to heed his warnings about the lack of evidence for Weapons of Mass Destruction to be found there. It’s not going to be perfect but how many conflicts did he resolve through diplomacy rather than military means?"
Tiewul saw Annan in his day-to-day life on Roosevelt Island. "What no one understands is that he was a regular person. He was a person that my mom and dad would be arguing with and stay friends. I ran into him 12 years after my dad passed, he remembered our names, our interests and asked about my uncles. It’s easy to assume that much responsibility and forget about your day to day life, but he wasn’t that type of guy.”
Another neighbor, Dorothy Davis, agrees, explaining that in many cases, his hands were tied. “While he is Secretary General, he can't move unless the Security Council allows him to. He acknowledged his mistakes when he was alive,” she said adding that he didn’t act alone, “a lot of people and countries were sleeping on the watch.” Davis is a filmmaker and social entrepreneur born in Monrovia, Liberia to US Foreign Service parents.
“He was a very soft-spoken, thoughtful, multidimensional thinker,” Davis, the first director of the Goodwill Ambassador program, a celebrity advocacy arm of the UN that expanded during Annan’s tenure, said of her friend.
She was struck by Annan’s compassion for UN staff after September 11. “In the days following the September 11 attacks, Annan came to every UN agency wearing a hard hat telling everyone that it will be okay. With the anxiety levels of the UN staff here, that was very sensitive of him. All of us had seen pictures of him going to some conflict ridden place with a hard hat; and here he was in New York with the same hard hat."
Davis saw the human side of Annan, both as a neighbor and a colleague. "The trauma of 9/11 opened up the floodgates of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) for many of the New York UN Staff who had thought New York was their safe place and now that was gone. He was sensitive in telling the management that their staff had been traumatized by 9/11 and therefore some people would be able to work at full strength and some people wouldn’t because they’re coping with the emotional aftermath of trauma.That to me, is one way of expressing his humanity.”
“He was so well informed and such a good human being,” said Dr. Narula. “If he made a decision that didn’t go well, he’d never put responsibility on anyone else. How much he suffered during that period I cannot tell you, but he never gave up."
Narula describes her longtime friend as someone who could never walk away, even after retirement. "He never lost hope - never, never, never. Otherwise he would have given up, ‘Oh I’m retired now.’ He was involved in Myanmar, he was involved in Syria, he was Chair of the Elders because he had this hope in him. Until now he was fighting, he just came back from Rwanda and Zimbabwe, fell sick, and was hospitalized.
He was such a good friend. He was a Secretary General, I was just one of the medical directors, but whenever he would see me, he would always ask, ‘How is your husband, how are your children? ’His memory was so sharp and he was a great human being, let the world say whatever they want to say.”
Asked if she had anything else to add, Dorothy Davis emphasized, “When you talk about Kofi Annan, you have to talk about Nane Annan, his wife because she was his partner in life and profession. They were a team. You have to give her kudos too. They loved Roosevelt Island, they enjoyed the people and the morning walks. This was their last place of residence before what I call his ascendance.”
Kofi Atta Annan, born April 8, 1938, served as the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations, from January 1997 to December 2006 and was a 2001 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. After his death, the Ghanaian president declared a full week of mourning. Annan will be buried in his home country of Ghana, on September 13 with a full state burial. Memorial services in Geneva and New York will also be held. He is survived by his wife Nane, and three children, Kojo, Ama, and Nina.