“A measure of a man is not determined
By his show of outward strength,
Or the volume of his voice,
Or the thunder of his actions
Or of his intellect or academic abilities
It is seen rather in the measure of the love he has For his family and for everyone.
The strength of his commitments
And the genuineness of his friendships,
Sincerity of his purpose
The quite courage of his convictions……”
– Grady Poulard
At the John F. Kennedy School of Government, one of the Professors who taught a subject called Reading History gave us an assignment. The strongest part of the course was the need for students to prepare themselves for problem-solving roles which come with leadership in public life. The idea was to let students know that as leaders, the problems of yesterday could repeat themselves. The idea was to use the experiences of leaders to teach.
One day the Professor came to class with a small basket. Towards the end of the class, he asked that the small basket be passed around the whole class. It contained pieces of paper which he said we were just to pick one piece of paper but not to open it.
A few minutes later, he asked everyone to open the little paper he or she had. We all did. The pieces of papers were names of prominent leaders around the world. I opened my own piece of paper and there before me was the name, Hanna Ashrawi. The Professor said we were all to research on the names we had chosen. The following weeks, we would each have ten minutes to address the class impersonating the person we had chosen.
I thought it would take away the essence of the programme if I complained that I had chosen a woman. I admired the brilliance and spunky patriotism of Dr. Ashrawi and I knew little bit about the Palestinian question, so fitting into her shoes was going to be great fun, I thought. Then, as the class ended, one of my female classmates walked up to me and said: Father Matthew (as I insisted they call me), I picked Kofi Annan and I do not see how I, a white female can mimic Annan without making a fool of myself. I think you would make a good Kofi Annan (I was the only black person in the class!) Who did you pick, she asked me? I told her I picked Dr. Hanna Ashrawi. She said she hadn’t heard of her but it would make sense so, she pleaded with me to take Annan and give her Ashrawi. I told her we needed to clear with the Professor. He graciously agreed. Although it spoilt my fun, being Kofi Annan had great appeal.
I set about researching on Kofi Annan. When my turn came, I wore a suit and told the class about my rural but aristocratic background and the good education I had received.
I was a prince from Kumasi and now, Secretary General of the United Nations. In my fake speech before the class, I spoke about coming from Africa, studying in MIT just down the road from the Kennedy School. In the course of my research I had decided to go to MIT and look up the place so I spoke with some little of authority. I spoke of the challenges of
being the number one peacekeeper in the world. Pretending to be Annan was quite some fun and in the end, the class agreed that I had really faked it well.
My chance of meeting the legend in real life came in January 2014 after the Conference of Political Parties that had been convened by Chief Ben Obi of the Office for Interparty Affairs then. Chief Emeka Anyaoku chaired the Conference and I had accepted the invitation and planned to attend, but in the end, I could not make it. Late that evening, I got a call from Chief Anyaoku. I was convinced he had called to ask why I had not made it to the Conference. Rather, he was gracious but then went straight to the point. Have you met Kofi Annan? he asked in his gentle, authority-laden but firm voice. I told him I had not had the honour and then he proceeded: “If you are free, Mr. Annan and I are at the Transcorp Hilton and he will like to meet you, but he has a flight to catch tonight.” I dropped everything else I was doing and rushed to the 10th floor of the hotel where I met the two great men waiting for me.
Chief Anyaoku made the introductions and as I shook his hand, I told him how very pleased I was to finally meet him. Time did not allow me to tell him I had successfully faked him. I congratulated him for having held the candle for Africa at the United Nations and the great work he was still doing for peace in the world.
Chief Anyaoku had already requested me to convene the National Peace Committee and therefore introduced me to Mr. Annan in that regard. We discussed briefly the prospects and he informed me of his willingness to assist the NPC in any way we wanted. We must all ensure that Nigeria succeeds he said firmly, as we bade goodbye. I thanked and bade him goodbye.
Our paths would later cross again and I got to know the man a bit better. His serenity was always an inspiration and I later had the opportunity of actually sitting and listening to him in Geneva and at the prestigious Oslo Forum where he was always an inspiring special guest, sharing the hazards and challenges in his wide experiences in peace keeping around the world. It was humbling to be in the company of so great a man who had no airs, who, despite the high pedestal on which he stood, was extremely polite in speech and conduct.
At the Oslo Forum in June last year, I took the opportunity to sit down to lunch with him. I had the rare privilege of chatting with him for some time before a few others joined us.
We spoke about the efforts of the Peace Committee in Nigeria, the deep concerns and frustrations about the elusive quest for peace in Africa and the challenges of democracy on the continent. I listened to him repeat the famous story of someone running after him and asking for an autograph from him thinking he was Morgan Freeman. On closer look, you really see that he was a Morgan Freeman without the diamond earpiece.
The last time I saw Mr. Annan was on April 12 this year at an event titled “Retreat to Peace”, where the Swiss government had brought together prominent political actors from different countries that were dealing with issues of elections between now and next year.
Our delegation, led by General Abubakar Abdusalami was made up of Professor Okey Ibeanu of INEC, Clement Nwankwo of the Situation Room and my humble self. With us was Pascal Holliger of the Swiss Embassy, an effective Nigerian hand, who was our facilitator.
Mr. Annan had graciously accepted to sit down to discuss the possibility of his involvement with the NPC ahead of the 2019 elections in Nigeria. He had already committed himself to making at least two trips to Nigeria before our elections to support and encourage our country.
His commitment to Nigeria for very obvious family reasons is already well known. In the last month or so, the NPC had already established contact with him through his Foundation and were already working on his participation in a future meeting of the NPC and the political actors in Nigeria ahead of the 2019 elections.
What tribute can people like us on the periphery make to so great a man? With Mandela gone and now Mr. Annan, it is hard to think of any other overarching leader with enough moral authority to summon our erring leaders to the paths of rectitude, honour and service to our people.
Increasingly, far too many African leaders, while pretentiously wearing the toga of democracy, continue to retain the corrosive tendencies to tyranny and autocracy, determined to criminally hold on to power at all cost and at the expense of the future of their people. Now he is in a higher place and his prayers will help our dear continent.
For now, the new generations of Africa, the youth, will have to grow up and get used to facing the turbulent oceans that lie ahead with no moral navigational aids. His death marks the end of an era for Africa and Africans.
Father Kukah is the Catholic Archbishop of Sokoto Diocese.