Traveling With Kofi Annan

Diplomatic theater in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam.

Travels with Kofi

It must have been 100 degrees under the big white tent that had been pitched on the grounds of the Golden Tulip Hotel in Dar Es Salaam last Friday. The formal opening of the first annual International Conference on the Great Lakes Region was running late, and the distinguished delegates were beginning to sweat into their dark suits. Finally, 20 minutes after post time, Madame Chair announced, “ADCs and chiefs of protocol, please post yourselves behind your head of state’s chair.” The Tanzanian Police Band tootled up a processional tune, audience members were instructed to rise, and in marched the heads and their surrogates, 17 in all, including Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the great suppurating wound at the heart of the Great Lakes region; Thabo Mbeki of South Africa; Paul Kagame of Rwanda; the great continental villains, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar el-Bashir of Sudan; and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was not a head of state at all but who had organized the conference in the hopes of lowering the pitch of hostilities in the most murderous region of the globe.

I’ve been traveling with Annan as he and his entourage barnstorm from conference to conference across Africa. We first touched down in Nairobi for a special U.N. Security Council session designed to promote the peace process in Sudan. Next up is palaver on Iraq in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, and then the biennial conference of French-speaking nations in Ouagadougou, the capital of—give up?—Burkina Faso, the nation formerly known as Upper Volta.

These events are almost wholly ritualistic: The secretary-general delivers a speech summoning men’s better angels, attends a plenary session, and signs a document that has been prepared in advance. The wretched Africa that Annan has spent much of his time in office trying to heal recedes into a blur of local color as our motorcade races along the immaculate roadway from airport to hotel, the poor souls in their jammed vans and taxis and trucks backed up for miles as the police clear our route. Annan has been to the most exotic and dangerous places in the world, but he rarely sees anything of them beyond the VIP lounge at the airport, his hotel suite, and the conference headquarters.

It’s hard to believe that this ceaseless rotation among diplomatic bubbles does much of anything beyond providing a living to chambermaids and security guards. Diplomacy as most Americans imagine it is a vastly more muscular and melodramatic affair: President Carter or Clinton cajoles Middle East leaders at Camp David, President Reagan goes for broke on his “walk in the woods” with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Richard Holbrooke browbeats Balkan strongmen into submission at Dayton.

That’s what diplomacy looks like if you are the world’s most powerful nation. But of course you can’t practice “diplomacy backed by force” if you don’t have force. And not having force, or not having force sufficient to the situation, is almost a given for a U.N. secretary-general. His watchwords must be diligence, modesty, and infinitely tedious detail. A diplomat I spoke to in Dar Es Salaam compared U.N. statecraft to “watching glaciers move—it doesn’t look like anything’s happening while you’re there, but when you get away you see it’s shifted a few inches.”    

One does not, in fact, say “force” at the United Nations, at least not without hedging it with caveats and subclauses, since the institution is deeply disinclined to apply force to one of its members. One speaks rather of “political will.” If the five permanent members of the Security Council, and above all the United States, care about something enough to push for it—and if they are more or less united among themselves—then diplomacy can be backed by either threats or inducements. The Security Council session in Nairobi was an instance of just barely sufficient political will—adorned with diplomatic theater.

Back in New York, the council had proved unable to impose, or even threaten, any penalty strong enough to compel the Sudanese government to call off the Arab cossacks known as ” Janjaweed” who have been killing and terrorizing the residents of the northwestern province of Darfur; attempts to broker a cease-fire have largely failed. They were, however, united in the wish to encourage a peace agreement between the government and rebels in the south, with the hope that this would serve as a precedent to a settlement in Darfur. John Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had decided that, in order to dramatize their commitment, council members, and the secretary-general, would fly halfway around the world to engage in deliberations they could have conducted without going anywhere.

The council, having wielded a feeble stick to almost no effect in the past, came instead with promises of aid and trade. There was something repellent in bribing a government that has been engaged in wholesale ethnic cleansing, but bribery was the only tool the council was prepared to use. It worked, sort of. The government and the rebels agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding, pledging to quickly reach a power-sharing agreement. And in his speech Vice-President Osman Ali Taha of Sudan agreed to offer Darfurians the same degree of autonomy, and the same kind of deal to share the (admittedly meager) national wealth, that he had with the largely Christian south. Annan, who has been trying in his mild-mannered way to shame the council into action since April, pronounced himself “very pleased” at the outcome, though he conceded that the council would have to think up a punishment if the government reneged on its promises, which it has done, and still does, in the most brazen fashion. As theater, the performance left something to be desired: The auditorium at U.N. headquarters in Nairobi was three-quarters empty, and several of the ambassadors nodded off from jet lag.

There is almost no political will at all in the case of the godforsaken countries of the Great Lakes; and it’s not quite clear what you would do if you had any. Almost 3 million people have died through warfare, and war-related disease and hunger, in the Congo over less than a decade. Each country in the region—Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi—exports its problems across the border in the form of refugees fleeing conflict, thus provoking yet more conflict. A continental war has sometimes seemed ready to break out, though this threat has receded. At the same time, there are no monstrous rulers against whom to mount a humanitarian intervention or even to punish through sanctions. As for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, which is soon to reach 17,000 troops, it is a rickety barrier against that country’s epic torrent of chaos. The outside world cannot solve the region’s problems, and Annan’s representative had spent almost three years organizing the conference with the hope that it would help local leaders solve them, or rather mitigate them, by themselves.

Not a lot actually happened at the Golden Tulip. Annan and the conference’s host, President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, gave fine speeches urging regional leaders to take responsibility for their own problems. The delegates then went into closed session, where they approved a pact on Security, Stability, and Development in the Great Lakes Region that had been prepared in advance and was barely changed. Then the Tanzanian Police Band tootled up again as the heads of state solemnly signed the pact, and everyone went home in a state of high optimism. The declaration committed the signatories to respect one another’s borders, though it was silent on the fate of the 10,000 to 15,000 Hutu rebels, many of them former Rwandan genocidaires, who wreak havoc in eastern Congo, drawing the Rwandan and Ugandan armies across the border. Nor did it say anything about the non-functional Congolese state and economy that provide fuel for future rebellions.

It all seemed, on balance, even more flimsy than Nairobi. But nobody I talked to agreed. Hamuli Kabarhuza, who had headed up the delegation from Congo that had done the preparatory work on the agreement, said, “For the first time, the presidents of the region sat together.” The presidents, he said, are accustomed to going behind each other’s backs; now they had committed to talk to one another regularly. The U.N. officials and Western diplomats I talked to took the view that while much of the declaration was virtually meaningless, the process itself mattered greatly—working out arguments, visiting one another’s capitals, agreeing to talk to each other and then making solemn commitments in front of respected elders like Kofi Annan. When I asked Carolyn McAskie, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Burundi, if the telephone calls wouldn’t in fact stop with the next violent cross-border clash, she said, with the chastened optimism of the seasoned diplomat, “The more they talk, the more chance there is that reverting to form will take a different shape.”

There’s a slogan the marketing team is going to love. And yet the truth is that the Camp Davids and the Daytons don’t always wear that well. Bosnia is still hopelessly divided nine years after the deal that was meant to forge a new, multiethnic nation. You can force people to sign, but not to change. There is, by contrast, something to be said for inch-by-inch progress, which gives the parties time to adapt to the new reality. This is a tough time for Kofi Annan and the United Nations; it’s good to remember that he, and it, actually make life a little bit better for people whom nobody else cares about.