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Kofi Annan, one of the world’s most celebrated diplomats and a charismatic symbol of the United Nations who rose through its ranks to become the first black African secretary-general has died, his family and foundation confirmed Saturday. He was 80.
A statement from the foundation said Annan passed away peacefully on Saturday after a short illness. The foundation said Annan’s wife Nane and their children Ama, Kojo and Nina were by his side during his final days.
“Wherever there was suffering or need, he reached out and touched many people with his deep compassion and empathy,” the foundation said.
Fellow diplomats and political leaders responded with sorrow and warm words to the news of Annan’s passing.
“Kofi Annan was a guiding force for good,” said current U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. “In many ways, Kofi Annan was the United Nations.”
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called Annan “a wise mentor and good friend.”
“We at UNHCR – and millions of others around the world – will miss him very much,” he tweeted.
Chairman of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat said he was devastated by the news.
“A great man, a dear brother,” Faki tweeted. “An immeasurable loss of a great man, a humble statesman and a global icon.”
Former U.S. President Barack Obama also offered condolences. “Long after he had broken barriers, Kofi never stopped his pursuit of a better world, and made time to motivate and inspire the next generation of leaders,” he said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in a statement that Annan “devoted his life to making the world a more peaceful place through his compassion and dedication to service. He worked tirelessly to unite us and never stopped fighting for the dignity of every person.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement: “Even after leaving his post as Secretary-General he embodied the mission of the United Nations, by sowing the seeds of peace as Chair of The Elders, an independent group of global leaders committed to advancing the cause of peace and promoting human rights around the world.”
Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was in office at the same time as Annan’s two-stints as U.N. Secretary General, called him “a great diplomat and a true statesman.”
Annan was born April 8, 1938, into an elite family in Kumasi, Ghana, the son of a provincial governor and grandson of two tribal chiefs.
He led the U.N. from 1997 to 2006, serving two terms as the body’s Secretary General — the first to emerge from the ranks of United Nations staff.
In 2001, Annan and the U.N. were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for a better organized and more peaceful world.”
During his tenure, Annan presided over some of the worst failures and scandals at the world body, one of its most turbulent periods since its founding in 1945.
Just before becoming secretary-general, Annan served as U.N. peacekeeping chief and as special envoy to the former Yugoslavia, where he oversaw a transition in Bosnia from U.N. protective forces to NATO-led troops.
The U.N. peacekeeping operation faced two of its greatest failures during his tenure: the Rwanda genocide in 1994, and the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
Annan took on the top U.N. post six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and presided during a decade when the world united against terrorism after the September 11 attacks — then divided deeply over the U.S.-led war against Iraq. The U.S. relationship tested him as a world diplomatic leader.
Challenges from the outset forced him to spend much of his time struggling to restore its tarnished reputation. His own standing remained largely undented, however.
Annan was the chief architect of what became known as the Millennium Development Goals, and played a central role in creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the U.N.’s first counter-terrorism strategy.
Before leaving office, Annan helped secure a truce between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and mediated a settlement of a dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi peninsula.
At a farewell news conference, Annan listed his top achievements as the promotion of human rights, the fight to close the gap between extreme poverty and immense wealth, and the U.N. campaign to fight infectious diseases like AIDS.
In his memoir, Annan recognized the costs of taking on the world’s top diplomatic job, joking that “SG,” for secretary general, also signified “scapegoat” around U.N. headquarters.
After leaving his high-profile U.N. perch, Annan didn’t let up. In 2007, his Geneva-based foundation was created. That year he helped broker peace in Kenya, where election violence had killed over 1,000 people.
He also joined The Elders, an elite group of former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela, eventually succeeding Desmond Tutu as its chairman after a failed interlude trying to resolve Syria’s rising civil war.
Deputy Chair of The Elders, Gro Harlem Brundtland, said in a statement: “The Elders would not be where it is today without [Annan’s] leadership.”
His homeland of Ghana was shaken by his death. “One of our greatest compatriots,” President Nana Akufo-Addo said.