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Kofi Annan’s memorial was a celebration of his service to the world

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Kofi Annan, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, the only black African to hold the post and the first elected from within the ranks of the organization, was laid to rest on Thursday in his native Ghana at a State Funeral usually reserved for the passing of presidents. Annan was 80 years old.

The ceremony, which took place at the Accra International Conference Center, was attended by dignitaries and current and former heads of State from across Africa and around the globe including the Presidents of Namibia, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, along with Niger’s Prime Minister, Angola’s Vice President and the Senate President of Nigeria. Their presence was a testament that this son of West Africa belonged to the world.  

I was in Accra on a long-planned business trip, so the event originally was not in my sights, nor was I on the invitation list, but I felt compelled to attend. Working in Africa for more than three decades, I saw Kofi Annan as a model of leadership on the continent, and one of few voices of authority who could weigh in during times of electoral crisis or civil unrest. I wanted to pay my respects.   

Persistence paid off for me, as it usually does, and I got myself ticket.  

Arriving well-past the time for general seating, finding a spot anywhere in the main hall was near impossible. I initially sat in the seat labeled for the envoy from Myanmar but was asked to move when the deputy showed up. I eventually landed in an empty seat labeled “deputy minister of Ghana,” and though I didn’t look the part, no one asked me to leave. 

The mood of the thousands in attendance, crammed into a space not accustomed to hold such a solemn event, was collective – a shared sorrow for the passing of a hero who personified the best of humanity and at a time when the world could least afford such a loss.

Kofi Atta Annan was born in Kumasi, on the Gold Coast of Ghana, on April 8, 1938, entering the world with his twin sister Efua Atta. In the official biography handed out to attendees, it is said that Kofi Annan’s peace-making tendencies in later life came from being a twin, as Ghanaian elders believe that twins are “naturally accommodating because they have to share a womb.”

Kofi Annan’s parents instilled in him and his four siblings an independence of thought. His father, Henry Reginald Annan, saw no contradiction in being an African in identity, and a European in outlook, a nationalist and traditionalist, a proponent of political change and an upholder of traditional values. He believed in hard work and discipline. Clearly, this parental advice was foundational for Annan’s life’s work.

While his tenure at the UN was not without its controversies, Kofi Annan confounded expectations, and in 2001, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to both Annan and the United Nations. Gunnar Berge, the chairman of the Oslo-based panel, said that Annan, was “probably the most effective secretary-general in its history.”

In 2002, Annan was conferred the title Busumuru, the highest traditional honor of the Asantemen in recognition of his service to humanity and promotion of peace throughout the world. Busumuru is the name of the golden sword used by the king to swear allegiance to the Ashanti kingdom at his coronation. Annan was the first to be granted the title since the Ashanti kingdom was founded in 1680.

Antonio Guterres, the current Secretary General of the United Nations, said in one of the select tributes during the service: “He was someone who virtually anyone in the world could see themselves in from those on the far reaches of poverty, to the junior UN officer.” 

He said: “In Kofi, the world lost a standard-bearer of global cooperation, and the UN, an embodiment of its mission.”

The flawlessly composed ceremony, characterized as dignified, restrained and moving,  showcased the West African nation – its heritage, tolerance, thought leadership, and culture of democracy.

A communal clergy from Ghana’s multi-dimensional Christian community presided over the service, with traditional leaders and representative of the Muslim population seated along-side the visiting heads of State.

Kofi Annan’s diverse family – his first wife from Nigeria, their two children Ama and Kojo, his widow of 35 years, Nane Annan from Sweden, and her daughter Nina – grieved together.  In his sermon, Reverend Akrofi said of the Annan family, “as in work, Kofi brought together, black and white, north and south, and men and women.”

The Reverend also spoke of Kofi Annan being of the Akan people, a dominant ethnic group in Ghana, whose symbols and ancient wisdom continue to be reflected in Ghana society. He noted that that Kofi Annan understood that wisdom had a sweet taste, but it could be bitter as well, as with it, came great responsibility.

President Akufo-Addo, in his eulogy, said he was humbled to be able to decree a state funeral in Kofi Annan’s honor, and emphasized the political tradition of the country grounded in respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the principle of democratic accountability.

Indeed, Ghana’s proud democratic history was on display for the world, with its three former presidents in the audience: Jerry Rawlings, John Kufuor and John Mahama, all of whom handed over power peacefully to their political opponents. 

And then there was the divine music of the service. An Akan flute, which proclaims mourning through its melodies, played alongside the tributes from family and friends and the thunderous voices of the soloists and choirs, including the Winneba Youth Choir, which converted a non-descript theatre-like setting, into a holy Cathedral.

Turns out that my ‘deputy minister’ seat was the best in the house, as I sat next to a former minister who in his free time, was a choir director. Stephen had this booming base voice with perfect pitch, knew the words to each song and hymn, and accompanied the program with flawless harmony.

Reverend Akrofi said that Ghana was privileged to share Kofi Annan with the world, and that the world was richer for him, and Ghana no the poorer.  That seemed to best sum the sentiments of those in attendance at the Accra Conference Center, which for those two plus hours was transformed into a revered place of worship.

Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016).

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