THE WORLD'S GREATEST: Nelson Mandela with Kofi Annan in 2007. Annan died at the age of 80. File Photo: AP

JOHANNESBURG - When I think of Kofi Annan, the late former secretary-general of the UN, I recall comical actions by eminent heads of state in global meetings. Those were early days as a young diplomat, I particularly enjoyed casual visits to the UN in Geneva to hear the “percolated” Kofi speak. Very nice and eloquent diplomat indeed.

I wanted to grow up and become like him. Maybe there is still time…

I am not particularly interested in talking about Annan’s legacy because some people, who intimately know his work well, will talk about it. But he is clearly “the best president that Ghana never had” – the world’s top diplomat between 1997 and 2006. The world changed right in the palm of his hands as it moved from US-USSR rivalry to unipolarity under Washington. And this means his work was cut out for him as he constantly quarrelled with Bush and his lieutenants over budgets, Iraqi bombings, et al.

It was also during his tenure some of the interesting duels emerged on the podium of the UN general assembly: Hugo’s sulphuric comment on Dubya, Robert Mugabe versus Tony Blair, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad political ballistics, Russia flexing muscle in the Caucusus (Chechnya, Georgia), heightened battle of Arafat against the rest, War on Terror and subsequent witch hunt, India and Pakistan go to war for the barren Kashmir, etc.

This period saw the heightened proximity between Iran and Venezuela – they tackled hard in opposing the US hegemony over international politics. This was the time Russia and China were crawling below the radar. George Bush Junior. called Iran and Venezuela “the new Axis of Evil” for their “rejection of the historical dominance of Western powers and the irreverence, if not contempt, they all too often have shown to the developing world”. To this day the relations between the US and the two states haven’t thawed.

Koffi Annan went greyer as many leaders openly exchanged verbal blows at the headquarters of multilateralism and diplomacy in Turtle Bay, Manhattan.

September may have been chilling months in the Alps but I never missed the big debates in New York as diplomacy would be forgotten and replaced by personal battles and slurs. Besides cartoons and football games, that was the only time my television set was useful. There’s no need to guess who I supported in grand debates.

Nonetheless, Annan oversaw a very difficult but yet interesting period in global affairs. UNGA sessions each year are now boring as hell without Annan and his crew of uncanny band of heads of state and government.

As realists would say, Annan presided over a chaotic world assembly that saw countries press hard for individual interests at the expense of multilateralism. And his role was to steer discussions in order to find a middle ground. For Annan, diplomacy is/was about “letting the other guy do things your way”.

Siyabonga Hadebe is executive manager at South Africa’s Department of Labour responsible for the management of international relations portfolio for the Department. His views do not represent his employer.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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