What does it take to get promoted by Kofi Annan at the United Nations? For longtime U.N. staffer Abdoulie Janneh, it took less than two weeks after his recent testimony to investigators helped clear Annan of any role in his own son’s alleged misuse of the name and privileges of the secretary-general to ship a Mercedes duty-free into Ghana–at a savings of more than $14,000.
Janneh’s statements excusing Kofi Annan were included in a report released Sept. 7, 2005, by Paul Volcker’s investigative commission into Oil-for-Food. Twelve days after the report came out, Annan promoted Janneh from assistant secretary-general to the U.N.’s third-highest rank of undersecretary-general. No one has accused Janneh of wrongdoing, and Janneh himself in an e-mail this past weekend replying to queries about the timing of his promotion called it “An unfortunate coincidence.” But as an indicator of U.N. practice at the top, the tale of Kojo’s Mercedes continues to raise awkward questions–which Kofi Annan’s office has variously ignored or refused to answer.
The Mercedes story tracks back to 1998, the second year of Kofi Annan’s tenure as secretary-general; but was not disclosed until this September, when it turned up as a sideshow of Annan-family financial affairs in Paul Volcker’s main report on Oil-for-Food. As recounted by Volcker, the saga of the Mercedes began with Kojo Annan’s trip to a car show in Geneva, Switzerland, in early 1998, where “he saw a Mercedes Benz vehicle that he wished to buy for his personal use” and in order to get a U.N. discount–although he did not work for the U.N.–”he set out to buy the car in his father’s name.” This led later to a note dated November 13, 1998, unearthed from a U.N. computer by the Volcker committee, in which Kofi Annan’s personal secretary, Wagaye Assebe, relayed a message from Kojo to Kofi Annan, requesting a signature from the U.N. executive office “re: the car he is trying to purchase under your name.” Kofi Annan has told the Volcker committee he does not recall seeing this note, and would not have allowed anyone at the U.N. to sign such a request in his name.
But somehow or other, according to Volcker, the Mercedes purchase did take place in Kofi Annan’s name, with Kojo Annan paying $39,056 for the car after a 14.3-percent U.N. discount. And sometime around November 13, 1998, Kojo contacted Abdoulie Janneh, who was then serving as resident representative of the U.N. Development Program in Kofi Annan’s native Ghana. Janneh, a Gambian who joined the U.N. in 1979, is described in the Volcker report as an Annan “family acquaintance.” Kojo Annan asked Janneh’s help in arranging to ship the Mercedes into Ghana under duty-free privileges granted exclusively to the secretary-general. Volcker reports that “Kojo Annan falsely represented to Mr. Janneh that the car was intended for the personal use of the Secretary-General.”
By Janneh’s own account, he did not try to confirm the car’s status with any other U.N. officials, including Kofi Annan. According to Volcker: “Mr. Janneh stated that he had no reason to doubt Kojo Annan’s representation and he relied on the bill of lading as a supporting document and confirmation that the car was for the Secretary-General”–and so “did not seek additional confirmation about the matter.” Thus, reports Volcker, Janneh “filed a formal certification under the seal of the UNDP claiming an exemption from customs duties” with the result that “When the car was shipped to Ghana, Kojo Annan saved $14,013 in import duties because of the false attestation that the car was for the personal use of the Secretary-General.”
No one, including Volcker, has accused Janneh of deliberate wrongdoing. In a footnote, Volcker’s report says that the Volcker committee “does not conclude that Janneh was aware of the falsity of Kojo Annan’s claim.” Janneh himself, in an e-mail responding to my queries says he relied on documents for the Mercedes supplied by a car dealer in Geneva, Switzerland, issued “in the name of the Secretary-General.” He adds, “I did not at that time consider it necessary nor was I required to refer this matter to the Secretary-General or any other UN official.” (To this, one might add that at a U.N. where whistleblowers have not fared well, any staffer presented with such a request by a family member of the secretary-general would be placed in an awkward spot).
Volcker’s account prompts questions, however, and the secretary-general’s apparent lack of interest in addressing them raises even more. Asked at U.N. press briefings last week what had become of Janneh since the Volcker report, and whether the U.N. was inquiring into his role in the Mercedes incident, a spokesperson for the secretary-general–instead of pointing out that Janneh had been promoted–offered nothing more than variations on: “I have nothing further on any part of the Volcker investigation.”
In a telephone interview Sunday, Kofi Annan’s chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, said the Mercedes affair is a matter not for the U.N., but something “between Kojo and his conscience and the Ghanaian authorities.” Kojo’s lawyers in a letter appended to Volcker’s Sept. 7 report responded that Kojo was “barely out of college” and “He can be forgiven for an indiscretion of this sort, if indeed it is one.”
But given that it was not Kojo Annan directly, but a U.N. official who allegedly filed the false claim with the Ghanaian government, misrepresenting the Mercedes as a car for the U.N. Secretary-General, the issues are broader than that.
For starters, there’s the mystery of what became of the Mercedes. If the customs exemption was falsely claimed by the U.N., then presumably the U.N. owes Ghana more than $14,000 on the car. And if the car documentation was in Kofi Annan’s name, has any Annan, whether Kofi or Kojo, sold the car, or for that matter, refunded the money? Has the U.N. compensated Ghana? If so, from what budget? And if not, then why not? While $14,000 may be counted by the U.N. secretary-general as petty cash, it is still real money, and for millions in Africa it would be wealth beyond dreaming.
In 2000, following the stint in Ghana that included the Mercedes filing, Janneh was promoted to U.N. assistant secretary-general and UNDP regional director for Africa. This year, just 12 days after Janneh’s testimony helped establish to the satisfaction of the Volcker committee that Kofi Annan knew nothing about the Mercedes shipment made in his name, Kofi Annan promoted Janneh to undersecretary-general, with the portfolio of executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa. The precise day of the promotion was Sept. 19, the Monday immediately following the U.N. World Summit this September. With all eyes still on the diplomatic gridlock and scores of departing dignitaries, Janneh’s promotion attracted little attention. The official press release was dated Sept. 20, the same day that a power outage at the U.N. shut down even the noon press briefing.
Whatever one makes of Kojo, the crucial issue in this Mercedes traffic centers on the U.N. and what kind of due diligence–after all Kofi Annan’s promises of reform–is even now being exercised by the “Hell no”-he-won’t-go secretary-general. It is quite possible that Janneh was promoted, as Malloch Brown explained in the Sunday phone interview, solely for his “talent and experience.” But unlike, say, the U.S. confirmation process, the U.N.’s deliberations over staff promotions are not matters of public record. And one sorry result of Kofi Annan’s apparent inattention to everything from massive corruption under Oil-for-Food, to crooked dealings in the procurement department, to the alleged misuse of U.N. privileges by his own son, is that there is by now no reason to trust the U.N. without verifying. At the very least, the tale of the Mercedes and the timing of Janneh’s promotion highlight the need for a lot more disclosure in the process by which the secretary-general doles out the U.N.’s top jobs.
–Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.