In a telling moment at a United Nations press conference Wednesday, Secretary-General Kofi Annan lost his temper–hurling insults at a widely respected senior member of the U.N. press corps. Beyond the who-what-when-where-how of this episode, the big question is: Why?
The broad answer is that the U.N. Secretariat, despite all the recent talk of reform, evidently remains a place of secrecy and privilege, run by high officials who don’t mind talking about their global goals and grand legacies, but find it highly irritating to be held to normal standards of good governance or subjected to anything resembling the workings of a free press. And in this particular case, given the ferocity of Annan’s reaction, one has to wonder if there is even more to it.
“Behaving Like An Overgrown Schoolboy”
The occasion was Annan’s year-end press conference, at which Annan had just described his own job, and by extension himself, as “perhaps chief diplomat of the world.” It is a role, he said, that requires “a thick skin” and “a sense of humor.” But Annan displayed neither when James Bone of the London Times began asking questions referring to two of the scandals that continue to bedevil the secretary-general: the saga of Oil-for-Food, and the cameo of a Mercedes-Benz allegedly bought and shipped under false use of Kofi Annan’s name and U.N. status by his son, Kojo Annan.
Instead of answering Bone, Annan cut him off, first calling him “cheeky,” and then interrupting him again to say: “Hold on. Listen, James Bone. You have been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy in this room for many, many months and years. You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession. Please stop misbehaving, and please let’s move on to a more serious subject.”
Hold on, indeed. In the interest of serious subjects–U.N. integrity, for example–let’s pause the tape right there. It is no small matter when the secretary-general of the U.N. slings personal insults in a public forum. Bone is a skilled and serious reporter, regarded not least by some of the chronically imperiled whistle-blowers in the U.N.’s own ranks as a credit to his trade. At the press conference his colleagues rallied to his defense, with a spokesman for the U.N. Correspondents Association telling Annan that “James Bone is not an embarrassment,” and “He had every right to ask the question.”
Quite right. But somewhere in the excitement, not only Annan’s temper, but Bone’s question got lost. It’s an old rule of thumb in the reporting trade that when someone answers a good question with a bad attitude (especially someone as seasoned as the chief diplomat of the world), there is probably something there that deserves a closer look. In this case, it might just be that Mercedes.
About that Mercedes…
Bone’s question involved sludge turned up by Paul Volcker’s U.N.-authorized inquiry into the U.N. Oil-for-Food program for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Among other things, Volcker examined the work done by Kofi Annan’s son, Kojo Annan, for a Swiss-based private company, Cotecna Inspection, which in December, 1998 won an important U.N. contract to inspect Oil-for-Food relief goods imported into Iraq. While digging into these matters, Volcker came across evidence that toward the end of that same year, in November, 1998, Kojo Annan allegedly misused his father’s name and U.N diplomatic status to buy a Mercedes-Benz at a discount in Europe and ship it duty-free into Ghana. There, the U.N. resident representative at the time certified to the Ghanaian customs authorities that the Mercedes was for “personal use by Mr. Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary-General”–thus obtaining a customs exemption on the car of more than $14,000.
That discovery raised the question of whether Kofi Annan himself had been complicit in the alleged misuse of his own name and U.N. privileges. According to Volcker, Kofi Annan when asked about the deal claimed ignorance, saying “he did not know that Kojo Annan was buying a Mercedes-Benz in his name.” Volcker reported that he had found no evidence to contradict Annan. And there Volcker’s inquiry abandoned the trail, leaving the fate of the Mercedes itself a mystery.
But unless the Mercedes simply vaporized–lock, stock and documentation–upon arrival in Ghana, there is presumably more to the story–quite possibly involving paperwork with a U.N. stamp. So, for months, Bone and a number of other reporters, myself included, have been asking Annan’s aides what became of the Mercedes–and getting no answer except that Annan’s office does not consider this a U.N. matter.
Indeed, before Bone spoke up at Wednesday’s press conference, CNN had lobbed a softball version of the Mercedes question, to which Annan had replied, at some length, that he felt no obligation to provide any information related either to the car in particular, or the Volcker reports in general. On the Mercedes, he said: “My son and his lawyers are dealing with it. If you want to know more about it, please direct the questions to his lawyers or to him. I am neither his spokesman nor his lawyer.” On Volcker’s findings, Annan delivered what has become the U.N. Secretariat’s refrain: “The report of the Volcker commission is clear, and you have all read the thousands of pages of that report. And I am not going to rehash it here.”
So Bone tried to focus the question, seizing the chance to ask Annan directly: “The Volcker report says that the Mercedes was bought in your name, so as the owner of the car, can you tell us what happened to it and where it is now?”
Rather than answer, Annan chose to insult–and distract.
Unanswered Questions Accumulate
While we wait for Annan to reconsider his response, or perhaps for the Mercedes to heave into view on some far horizon, it might be illuminating to revisit at least a small sample of the items that Annan cannot be bothered to rehash.
For instance, near the beginning of Wednesday’s press conference—before he attacked James Bone–Annan had already rebuked the entire press corps for missing the story of massive graft and smuggling by companies and countries doing business with Saddam’s U.N.-sanctioned Iraq. It seems Annan has forgotten it was his own Secretariat to which, in his own words as he shut down the program on Nov. 20, 2003, the Security Council had “entrusted” the running of Oil-for-Food, with its “mandate” to “assume temporary custody of Iraq’s oil exports and apply the revenue to a humanitarian program.” And it was Annan’s own Secretariat that as a matter of deliberate policy kept secret the names of all the companies doing business with Saddam, along with almost all other vital details of the deals. This was information that would have gone far to expose the corruption, but anyone asking the U.N. for it at the time got much the same response as anyone now asking about the Mercedes.
And while Annan spoke up often to urge that Oil-for-Food be expanded, sped up, and shored up with billions of Iraqi relief dollars spent on new oil equipment, he somehow neglected to inform not only the press, but even the U.N. Security Council, about the massive graft and oil smuggling he now decries. Don’t take my word for it. Rehash Volcker, who reported that the Secretariat’s responsibilities under Oil-for-Food included “monitoring sanctions violations by the Iraqi regime,” and that Annan and several of his top aides “were well aware of the extensive information regarding oil smuggling by the Iraqi regime,” which “blatantly violated the sanctions regime in Iraq, and undoubtedly had a negative impact on the implementation of the humanitarian program.” But Annan never shared that at the time with the press corps he now reproaches for failing to make a major story out of it.
Indeed, Annan seems to have forgotten that far from giving him the “exoneration” he has claimed, Volcker issued “adverse findings” against Annan on a number of serious counts, including not only his failure to inquire adequately into his own son’s U.N.-related ventures; but also his own inappropriate delegation of Oil-for-Food responsibilities, his “inadequate response to and investigation of reports of Iraqi abuses and corruption of the Programme,” and assorted other failures of attention and oversight. “In sum,” reported Volcker, “the cumulative management performance of the Secretary-General fell short of the standards that the United Nations Organization should strive to maintain.”
Backed up by thousands of pages produced by a $35 million 18-month investigation, that is perhaps a way of diplomatically suggesting that Annan himself is–how to put this?–an embarrassment to his colleagues and his profession?
As for the Mercedes, if Kofi Annan still knows nothing of its fate, it seems high time he bestirred himself to find out. A handy starting point might be the following chronology of the busy month of November, 1998, which can be pieced together from Volcker’s report of Sept. 7, Volume IIII:
Nov. 3, 1998: Kojo Annan contacts a Mercedes-Benz representative in reference to shipping a car from Europe to Ghana for the secretary-general’s use.
Nov. 13, 1998: Kojo Annan contacts Kofi Annan’s personal secretary in New York, Wagaye Assebe, who records Kojo’s message in a note to Kofi Annan, dated that same day, and beginning: “Kojo asked me to send the attached letter re: the car he is trying to purchase in your name. The company is requesting the letter be sent from the UN.” (Kofi Annan in 2005 tells Volcker he does not remember the note, and would not have approved the request). About that same time, Kojo contacts the resident representative in Ghana of the U.N. Development Program, and asks for his help in having the Mercedes admitted to Ghana duty-free because it will be arriving in the secretary-general’s name.
Nov. 17, 1998: Kofi Annan makes a wire transfer of $15,000 to Kojo Annan, toward the purchase of a car. (Kofi Annan in 2005 tells Volcker he knew Kojo was planning to buy a car, but did not know Kojo was buying a Mercedes in his name).
Nov. 24, 1998: The funds for Kojo to buy the Mercedes, including the $15,000 wired seven days earlier by his father, and totaling $39,056 after the diplomatic discount, are withdrawn from Kojo’s London bank account to pay for the car, which is allegedly purchased in the name of Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the U.N..
Nov. 28, 1998: Kofi Annan, while attending a Francophone Summit in Paris, meets with Kojo Annan, who has come to the same summit in Paris along with what Volcker describes as “the Cotecna contingent.” Kojo and Kofi Annan lunch together in the secretary-general’s Paris hotel room, at the Hotel de Crillon. According to Kojo Annan, they had personal conversations.
Kofi Annan departed his year-end press conference telling reporters: “You have the right to ask all questions you want to ask. I reserve the right to refuse to answer questions I don’t want to answer.”
Clearly. But the questions keep growing.
–Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.