Politics & Policy

The Mercedes Monologues

Dodge ball at the United Nations.

The mystery of the Kojo-and-Kofi-Annan Mercedes Benz gets deeper by the day. The real riddle by now is why the U.N. secretary-general’s office keeps dodging all questions about the fate of the luxury car on which the secretary-general’s son, Kojo Annan, allegedly saved a bundle back in 1998 by buying it in his father’s name and shipping it to Ghana under his father’s U.N. privileges–allegedly without his father’s knowledge or consent.

#ad#The tale of Kojo’s alleged Mercedes deal turned up this September in Paul Volcker’s main report on Oil-for-Food, as a sidelight section titled “Kojo Annan’s Purchase of a Car in the Name of the Secretary-General.” Kojo’s lawyers in a response included in the report dismissed the car caper as a youthful “indiscretion,”–”if indeed it is one”–and perhaps they have a point. What young man could resist acquiring a $45,000 Mercedes, especially if the price could be knocked down to $39,000 by buying the car at a U.N. diplomatic discount in the name of an allegedly unwitting U.N. secretary-general. And what young man shipping that same Mercedes to Ghana could resist trying to save $14,000 in Ghanaian import duties by asking the local U.N. resident representative to claim a tariff exemption on the car in the name of the secretary general?

The real issue is not Kojo Annan per se, but Kofi Annan’s response–or complete lack of it–now that Volcker’s report has officially informed him that a Mercedes appears to have been bought and shipped in his name, involving alleged misuse by the U.N. itself of the secretary-general’s privileges. By Volcker’s account, “Kojo Annan saved $14,013 because of the false attestation that the car was for the personal use of the Secretary-General.” By comparison, in a U.N. financial report dated Sept. 21, 2000, an instance of false customs declarations prepared by a U.N. country office was subject to U.N. investigation under the heading: “Cases of fraud or presumptive fraud.”

Volcker excuses the U.N. country official who filed the false claim, Abdoulie Janneh, on grounds that Janneh didn’t know the claim was false. Instead of checking with the secretary-general’s office about the Mercedes, Janneh by his own account relied on Kojo’s word, and the bill of lading. And Volcker excuses Kofi Annan from responsibility for the alleged misuse of his name and U.N. status on grounds of the secretary-general’s usual claim that he didn’t know, or didn’t remember, anything about… well, whatever the problem was.

Fine. Let’s assume Kofi Annan was too busy with one of his previous U.N. reforms to pay attention to such mundane matters as Mercedes traffic. But that still leaves us with a discredited U.N., a Mercedes last seen in limbo, and $14,000 in falsely claimed U.N. customs exemptions presumably owed to the government of Ghana.

Volcker does not follow up on the post-1998 fate of the Mercedes. Nor does Volcker address the question of whether the U.N.–having falsely claimed $14,000 in import-duty exemptions–should make restitution to Ghana. Compared to the billions that flow through the U.N. every year, the sum may seem small. But the symbolism is not. For the average Ghanaian, it would take about six years to earn that much money. For the scores of millions of impoverished people in some parts of Africa, whom Kofi Annan has described as living on $1 per day or less, the $14,000 exemption falsely claimed by the U.N. on that Mercedes would represent 38 years worth of sustenance. Surely the U.N. would not want to deprive Ghana of income in order to accommodate whoever ended up with that luxury car.

And yet, for the U.N. to compensate Ghana would also have its eccentric aspects. Because the U.N. is funded by tax money of member states, any restitution on the car out of the U.N. budget would mean that U.S. taxpayers, among others, would end up footing the Ghanaian customs duties for the Annan Mystery Mercedes.

So where does the buck stop? And, concretely, where is that Mercedes?

Transcript of a Stonewall

For the past two weeks, a few members of the U.N. press corps–especially the intrepid James Bone of the Times of London, and Benny Avni of the New York Sun–have been asking these questions, or variations thereon, almost daily at the U.N.’s noon press briefings. And Kofi Annan’s office won’t answer. What follows cannot quite convey the full-body experience of U.N. stonewalling, but it does provide a sample of what has become the ritual exchange between reporters and Kofi Annan’s spokesperson (excerpted from more of the same):

Nov. 7: “About the Mercedes … “

“I don’t think we have anything further to talk about this car.”

“I have nothing further right now.”

Nov. 9: “First of all, have you found the Mercedes yet? Secondly, is Mr. Abdoulie Janneh, the one who claimed the exemption of Ghanaian import taxes at the behest of the Secretary-General’s son, is he still with the U.N., and what is his post at the U.N.?”

“We have nothing further to say on either the car or the official that you’re referring to. There were no adverse findings against them, and we have nothing to say.”

“… we have nothing further to say. You can ask me many times, but I have nothing…”

“I have nothing further to say. This questions stems from your repeated questions every day, and I have nothing further.”

“You are asking the same question over and over again. We have nothing to say on the official that you’re referring to and the case that you’re referring to, and I … I have nothing further to say on this subject. I’m sorry.”

Nov. 10: “Where is the Mercedes?” (Laughter)

Nov. 11: “Along the same lines of questions we are not getting answered, I’d like to review the question of where the Mercedes is, and whether any disciplinary action has been taken against the United Nations official involved in apparently fraudulently claiming tax discount for that Mercedes.”

“James, it’s like a broken tape recorder. My answer is the same. I have nothing further to say on the subject.”

(Note to NRO readers: On the morning of Monday, Nov. 14, NRO reported that the official who had filed the claim for the import-duty exemption on the Mercedes, Abdoulie Janneh, whose recent whereabouts the U.N. had refused to comment on, had been promoted to the U.N.’s third-highest rank of undersecretary-general on Sept. 19, 2005, 12 days after the release of the Volcker report )

Nov. 14: “Now that we have found where Mr. Janneh is, can we find where the car is?”

“I think we’re done with this conversation.”

“We have nothing to say on the Mercedes. As I mentioned, there were no adverse findings in the Volcker report neither against the Mercedes, nor against Mr. Janneh.”

Nov. 15: “On the Mercedes, do we have any update on the whereabouts of the Mercedes and can you assure us that Mr. Janneh imported only one car on behalf of Kojo Annan with a tax exemption?”

“We have nothing further on that case.”

“Are you going to look for the whereabouts of the Mercedes? Because this is a question that we ask everyday and it’s on the verge of comical, but we don’t get answers.”

“We have no further comment on the issue of the car and we don’t consider it a U.N. matter.”

“So the secretary-general of the U.N. owns a car and it was purchased with a tax discount given to the U.N. How could that not be a U.N. issue?”

“This is the statement that I have on this issue.”

“Could you ask for clarification on that statement? And whether the secretary-general still owns that car, a question we’ve been asking for a long time. And what’s happened to the tax discount? Has the U.N. or anybody else refunded the $14,000 tax discount?”

“I have nothing further.”

Nov. 16: “… the question of the Mercedes… .”

“I have nothing further on that since what I said yesterday.”

“On the Mercedes… “

“I have nothing further on the issue of the car beyond what I said yesterday.”

Nov. 17: “The other day you said the issue of the Mercedes is right now not a United Nations matter, is that still the same? Are you sticking by that?

“I have nothing further to say than what I said the other day.”

“Should we understand that the secretary-general has zero interest in pursuing this matter of what happened to the car in his name?”

“We have nothing further comments on the issue of this car and that’s what I have to leave it at.”

“It sounds like you’re in an awkward spot with this Mercedes. Someone has told you that you should simply say that you have nothing further to say… .Who it is that gave you that instruction”

“I am the official spokesman for the United Nations and I take my guidance from the secretary-general ultimately.”

So, Mr. Secretary-General, about that Mercedes…?

Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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