The Rosett Report

Kofi Annan as a Reformer of FIFA? Seriously?

Soccer is not a sport I follow, but international corruption is an activity to which I’ve devoted a fair amount of attention over the years. When a massive corruption scandal erupted last year within FIFA — the governing body of world soccer — I gave it a passing glance, musing that the FIFA corruption described by U.S. prosecutors as “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” bore some distinct similarities to problems I have covered at the United Nations.

This week I did a double take, when FIFA and one of the UN’s iconic has-beens briefly converged. On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that one of the candidates running for the presidency of FIFA, Prince Ali Al Hussein of Jordan, was proposing — should he win — to have an independent panel monitor the FIFA reform process. And of all the eminences, in all the wide world, to whom did Prince Ali extend an invitation to head this reform-promoting panel?

Yep. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Who, according to his spokesman, “would be available” to take up this task.

As it turned out, Prince Ali lost his bid for the FIFA presidency to Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino. Whether that knocks Kofi Annan out of the running for Lord High Chancellor of FIFA reform, I don’t know. I have not seen any further reports on where Annan now stands in that lineup. But I am still marveling that at this stage of the game anyone, anywhere, would turn to Annan for help in cleaning up corruption at a global institution. It’s like asking the planners of Obamacare to design your web site.

What’s most remarkable, though, is not how little the would-be reformers of soccer seem to understand about Annan, but how little Annan seems to understand about himself. If almost no one else remembers his own history, surely he does. Exactly what, in his record, would suggest that he is equipped to reform anything? Over a long career, he has scored a great many credentials, including 10 years as the chief administrator of the UN, and self-described “chief diplomat of the world.” But the performance, and judgment — or lack of — that accompanied these credentials could best serve FIFA as a case study in behavior to avoid.

As head of UN peacekeeping in 1994, Annan received warnings from the UN’s commander of peacekeeping forces in Rwanda that genocide was imminent. Annan’s office told the peacekeepers not to intervene, and failed to inform the Security Council of the warnings. More than 800,000 Rwandans died. The following year, 1995, also on Annan’s watch, came the massacre in Srebenica, in which peacekeepers stood by while Serbs slaughtered more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.

At the UN, this was no bar to Annan’s election to secretary-general. In that post, he presided over the administration of the UN’s 1996-2003 Oil-for-Food program for Iraq, repeatedly urging its expansion and publicly praising its performance. Oil-for Food, advertised by the UN as a means of providing humanitarian relief for Iraqis suffering under UN sanctions on the regime of Saddam Hussein, became a bacchanalia of corruption — on a scale that makes FIFA look like amateur hour. The UN presided over a global extravaganza of Iraqi government deals laced with billions in graft, which Saddam used — while Annan administered this erstwhile relief program — to buy influence (including on the UN Security Council), furnish palaces, purchase weapons, bank illicit funds in places such as Syria, and run the brutal machinery of his totalitarian state.

The graft came in too many dimensions to catalogue here, but the list ranges from fiddles within the UN-supervised Iraqi bank accounts, to phony pricing, to illicit fees, to UN agencies double-dipping to pad their own commissions out of money meant for sick and hungry children, to alleged corruption within the UN Secretariat itself. We can go on from there to Saddam’s skimming of funds meant for buying relief rations of baby milk and soap, and Saddam’s payoffs, via lucrative oil sale deals, to a cast of characters that included, allegedly, Annan’s handpicked head of the Oil-for-Food program itself, Benon Sevan (who was indicted in 2007 in New York federal court, on bribery charges, but has never faced justice — having quietly skipped town in mid-2005, while Annan’s office was assuring the press that Sevan was cooperating fully with investigators).

As Kofi Annan played it, when this scandal erupted bigtime in 2003-2004, all these problems, and multitudes more, had pretty much escaped his notice. So had the activities of his own son, Kojo Annan, who was for years on the payroll of a company hired by the UN to inspect relief goods imported into Iraq under Oil-for-Food, and who used his father’s diplomatic status to import a Mercedes duty-free into Ghana.

Having initially resisted calls for an investigation into corruption under Oil-for-Food, Annan was finally forced by the growing evidence of corruption to authorize an inquiry in 2004, which was led by Paul Volcker. When the Volcker committee clocked in with its findings, in 2005, Volcker said his committee had “found no corruption by the secretary general… but his behavior has not been exonerated by any stretch of the imagination.”

To this day, it remains a mystery whether, during its inquiry, the Volcker committee ever asked a number of precise questions that might have better clarified what Annan knew, or didn’t know, about the astounding extent of the corruption. But putting the best possible reading on it, and taking Annan at his word, we are left with the conclusion that Annan just isn’t very good at curbing corruption. What he does seem to be good at is ignoring or downplaying it — as he did in 2006, shrugging off Oil-for-Food with the phrase: “If there was a scandal... .”

Perhaps the most useful role Annan could play in the FIFA saga could be to serve as a counter-indicator. If FIFA does go ahead and appoint him to a reform panel, it’s time to ask if FIFA is serious about reform — or is it simply after someone whose credentials include the ability to preside over one of the most corrupt relief programs ever mounted by the UN, and then — so it would appear — forget it ever happened?