1 September 2004

The year 2004 may have been Annan's Annus Horibilis. The war on Iraq; the swift fall of Baghdad (and the permanent loss of Tareq Aziz cigars); Food-for-Oil (don't remind us of Kojo!); first ever bombing of U.N. premises in Baghdad with loss of U.N. credibility at his watch; an ongoing clash with staff representatives on the manner in which investigations were handled (the most popular head of Department becoming the target of staff frustration including the first march around the Secretariat-fountain); Rwanda revisited (what happened to the Black Box (lost, found and lost); senior officials personally picked by him accused of corruption, unwanted sexual harassment -- and nepotism (that means appointing close relatives in plum jobs in evasion of staff rules -- as the former head of Personnel knows only too well).

More, and much more may be in store. Who knows.

And who's leading the defense cavalry? Certainly no chevaliers in sight. Most of those around him are "cleaning their own front door" -- as the French would say. Some are very busy trying to find out who may be coming next and how to connect.

Initially, he had at least six arms for communications at his disposal. 1) The Department of Public Information (reformed, reformed and re-reformed), 2) Spokesman's Office (enlarged and professionally polished), 3) Assistant Secretary General for External Affairs was occupied by Gillian Sorensen (with Ted lending a hand, especially in drafting speeches and some other advice) until she was offered to Ted Turner's Fund, 4) Communications Director, first the highly professional (and close associate Shashi Tharoor who was then appointed to head the Information Department), then Edward Mortimer who was brought in a speech writer then promoted to D-2 with a larger team, 5) A private Public Relations firm -- or at least one of its partners -- who listed Annan as his client when addressing news media and other potential targets, 6) Kofi Annan himself who is well attuned to media requirements even if it took him away -- sometimes -- from pressing substantive issues.

While everyone tried to help in their own way, there are limits -- and limitations. There is also a real problem of staff morale -- otherwise they would have shouldered the burden voluntarily. It was disheartening to observe Annan personally attempting to fend off attacks. Even some of those disappointed by his overall leadership were very angry at the manner in which some writers or reporters treated the Secretary General. Why did it come to that?

Supposedly, the Communications Director for the Secretary General (on the same floor close to his office), is expected to spend full time on such a challenge. But what did Ed Mortimer do? He wrote a few letters to the editor (prompting further attacks) then lapsed into ponderosity. Ah, yes, he did pass on a few whispers to some reporters and generally made "nowhere plans for nobody."

A story around some field offices is that when Ed finally gathered steam to send a detailed "policy" letter, he asked for it to be given for publication to mainstream newspapers in key capitals. When none was published, Ed tried to throw his weight around. So he asked someone to ask the offices why was the letter not published. Well, because it was a bit late and the substance was not that much revealing nothing new. Try again, the hard labouring field staff were told. After all, it was by Mr. Mortimer. Some had the guts to respond that editors asked: Who exactly is Mr. Mortimer?!

Sometimes such problems may not need elaborate analysis. It may just be that some people, however brilliant, bring bad luck. Napoleon (if an analogy may be allowed) had a preference not for learned spinners but for lucky generals. The question is to have the attention span to find out who's who.