Africa’s long tradition of producing a timely philosopher prince remained in place despite Europe’s modern global holocaust against its people. The capacity to reason as if above the canopy of chaos, while feet remained rooted in the turbulent turf has remained a legacy. A mantle of Mandela’s humanist mission fell onto the gifted Ghanaian son, Kofi [born on a Friday], who rose to become the continent’s first black Prince of the United Nations in 1997 before returning to ancestors on Saturday, August 18, 2018.
The UWI, an academy he respected, conferred on him an honorary doctorate in special convocation in 1998, two days before his 60th birthday. Claiming and naming him a UWI man, Professor Baugh, the Mona’s campus orator of excellence, framed him as the Asante from Kumasi who crossed the Atlantic with an African agenda to address its middle passage, evil deeds and to heal the world’s deepest wound.
While it has been said that he ruled ‘best for the West’, it cannot be claimed that he did not remain embedded within the intellectual power of the African cosmology and sensibility that captured the global imagination, dedicated as it was to the peace and reconciliation that sought to uproot the rue as recognised and reasoned by Bishop Tutu.
To this end, he took the United Nations in 2001 to Durban, South Africa, for a global reasoning in the form of a conference on race, xenophobia and other related intolerances. With Thabo Mbeki in the presidency and Nelson Mandela in diplomatic retreat, Kofi fought to convince the world that this was its moment to rise, as if from a baptismal cleansing. He believed it to be the ‘Mandela moment’, and that the international community could be convinced to embrace a new, even if surreal, appetite for tolerance with justice.
The dapper diplomat went to work knowing full well that the test of his talent would be on display. Blood was running in Rwanda and the West was preparing to end traditional leadership in Libya. He stood as a lonely man, seeking to save the world from itself, to extract the toxins of colonial legacies, and to bring an imagined biblical peace to the Middle East. Every land with an angst that wished for relief from pain and grief called for Annan. Peace was his passion. But he knew the limits of the letter and positioned his person at the centre of the stage to be settled. This was the signature of his commitment. Where he did not succeed he had tried hardest.
The Durban discourse was dying at the outset. The USA pulled out citing the need to protect Israel from unfounded allegations. Yasser Arafat was unmoved. The EU threatened to pull out feeling shame and guilt for its committed crimes against humanity within colonial empires. There was to be neither dialogue nor diplomacy on reparations.
Kofi stepped in. Compromises were struck. The conference proceeded. Delegates proceeded to give the world what it needed. The approved resolution stated that slavery, slave trading, and colonialism were crimes against humanity. Annan secured for Africa’s global diasporas what was long pursued. From then it has been said that reparatory justice for these crimes will constitute the greatest global political movement of the 21st century.
Diplomacy, the master craftsman once said, “is the art of enabling the other side to celebrate your victory as their own”. The subtlety of success is today rarely celebrated. We will now be living in the post Annan diplomatic world that in many places rejects the decency of diplomatic dialogue. Annan was the ‘light as a feather’ African sage, a universal peace soldier, and a UWI, Caribbean supporter. And so, as we hear the distant drum, we say unto him, rest, rise, turn and come again.
(Sir Hilary Beckles is a Barbadian historian and the current vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies)