The Islamists of Boko Haram rage through northeastern Nigeria with kidnappings, suicide bombings and last week’s mass murder in the town of Baga, acquiring turf in ways that some top-notch experts are comparing to ISIS — with which Boko Haram has a flourishing kinship. Hashtags on Twitter have done nothing to stop this horror, and it gets ever harder to see who or what will. But if there’s one thing that is assuredly not needed, it’s the advice of Kofi Annan. You remember Kofi: former secretary-general of the United Nations from 1997-2006, and joint winner with the UN of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.
Annan’s public career should have ended along with his tenure at the UN (or even earlier). But, like another of the Nobel’s more dubious Peace laureates, Jimmy Carter, Annan just keeps turning up, perpetually ready to dispense terrible advice about the next crisis. Right on cue, here he is, telling the BBC that politicians have to find a way to “reach out” to Boko Haram.
Let’s be clear. Boko Haram is not a group of sensitive souls desperate to surrender to politicians or international bureaucrats who come bearing gifts and professing an interest in their grievances. These are terrorists who have been doing quite well for themselves with guns, bombs, abduction, invasion and slaughter. A few days ago they strapped a bomb vest to a girl who may have been as young as 10, and sent her as a suicide bomber into a busy market, to die in an explosion that killed some 20 others. Like ISIS, they are carving out turf for themselves in ways that suggest ambitions unlikely to be addressed by diplomatic group therapy.
Reaching out is not cost free. There may be circumstances in which it will work — but there are also circumstances in which it can be a disaster. It chews up time and entails concessions that can make a horrific problem even worse. Annan’s record in dealing with matters of mortal crisis suggests his advice is probably an excellent guide for what not to do. Recall that way back in early 2012, as the carnage mounted in Syria, Annan was dispatched by the UN-Arab League as a joint special envoy to sort things out. That was clearly a doomed project — as seemed obvious to some of us at the time. Annan’s period of reaching out provided an excuse for the U.S. and others to hang back in hope of some sort of politically brokered settlement. After much high-profile diplomacy — now largely forgotten — Annan finally stepped aside, one of his former UN lieutenants gave it a try and also failed, and events rolled on to staggering death tolls, chemical weapons, and the rise of ISIS. Nor did Annan’s instincts serve humanity well in such instances as his bureaucratically complacent failure while head of UN peacekeeping to heed the warning of impending genocide in Rwanda, or his administration of the UN’s profoundly corrupt Oil-for-Food program in Iraq.
If Kofi Annan feels a need these days for publicity, he could better serve humanity by confining himself to topics far removed from the realms of such mortal threats as Boko Haram. He’d still have plenty to talk about, if he chose. I’d bet he could still generate a headline or two if he ever reached out with some real answers to a host of lingering questions about his role in Oil-for-Food. But please, enough with the Elder Statesman. There are lives at stake.