September 12, 2006 | National Review Online

About that Mercedes

Remember Kojo Annan's Mercedes? The car that reporters kept asking about last year, finally sending Kofi Annan into a temper tantrum at a televised press conference? I'm talking of course about the green Mercedes SUV that Kofi Annan's son, Kojo, back in 1998, bought in Europe and shipped to Ghana — saving himself more than $20,000 in the process by making false use of his father's name and privileges as United Nations secretary-general.

Well, with the 61st U.N. General Assembly opening this week, Kofi Annan held a press conference Wednesday morning at the U.N.'s New York headquarters, in which the Mercedes popped up again — but this time only as a joke. As preface to a softball question about Kofi's legacy, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times kidded Kofi, “About that Mercedes…”

Kofi, before speeding right on to the usual platitudes, quipped: “I'll give you a ride.”

Actually, Kofi has already taken us all for a ride. Questions about the car have pretty much faded away since Kojo Annan's lawyer told the press this past January that Kojo, more than seven years after the fact, was offering to pay Ghana the customs duties owed. And — added the lawyer — the Mercedes had in any event been wrecked in an accident in Nigeria in late 2005 (as it happened, that would have been just weeks after Kojo's car deal first made the news, and, with Times of London reporter James Bone in the lead, the press began asking about it at U.N. briefings).

That Mercedes still matters. The tale of Kojo's luxury car is emblematic of both the abuses of privilege, and the cover-ups, that are hallmarks of today's U.N. Many of the mysteries surrounding that car have yet to be solved — including how a Mercedes imported into and registered in Ghana in the name of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (documentation can be found here ) ended up wrecked seven years later in Nigeria. (Assuming the car was indeed wrecked, or for that matter, that it indeed ended up in Nigeria. Neither Kojo, nor Kofi, nor the U.N. has released to the public any evidence, documentary or otherwise, of this alleged wreck). To make even the simplest journey to Nigeria, from Ghana, the car would have had to motor across at least two other countries, Togo and Benin. Did it cross these borders while registered in Kofi Annan's name? Did it travel with diplomatic plates? If so, who drove it under U.N. auspices? Was ownership ever transferred out of Kofi's name? If so, are we to believe that the staff of the U.N. Development Program office in Ghana, which handled the paperwork for the customs exemption and car registration in Ghana, in the secretary-general's name, kept no further records whatsoever of the fate of a Mercedes presumably belonging to their top boss back in New York?

All these questions about that Mercedes, and many more, Kofi Annan and his spokesmen have at every turn refused to answer. The U.N. response is that these are not U.N. concerns, and that there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Kofi Annan or any other U.N. official. Paul Volcker's U.N.-authorized Oil-for-Food inquiry, which discovered and last year disclosed the Mercedes story, reported finding no evidence that the secretary-general knew the car was being handled in his name. That included Volcker finding no evidence that Kofi Annan had ever seen or acted upon a note addressed to him and written by his personal secretary, less than two weeks before the Mercedes was bought, recording an alleged request made by Kojo for a signature “re: the car he is trying to purchase under your name.”

But Volcker's inquiry appears not to have followed the trail of the car once it entered Ghana. Volcker presented his findings about the car in his committee's Sept. 7, 2005 “final report,” and that account ends with a broad summary of events surrounding the car's arrival in December, 1998, in Ghana. Volcker's report supplies no underlying documentation — the limited material we have seen came later, from Kojo Annan's lawyer). Volcker has so far refused to release to the public the archives of his investigation, now apparently headed back to the tender care of the U.N. at the end of this year, unless someone powerful acts fast. Nor has the remaining skeleton staff of the Volcker inquiry been willing to answer questions from the press — or at least questions from this reporter — about the Mercedes. So it is unclear whether Volcker even tried to follow the car, or any of the attendant U.N. paperwork, as the Mercedes, having cleared customs in Kofi Annan's name and under U.N. seal, began its travels into Africa.

If we are going to talk about Kofi's legacy, this is a good moment to review what we do know about the Mercedes story, starting with Kofi's blowup at that press conference last December, when James Bone asked about the car. Annan called Bone “very cheeky” and went on to insult him as “behaving like an overgrown schoolboy” and “an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession.” The exchange lasted only about 90 seconds, but bears revisiting for the glimpse it gives into the real workings of the U.N. (here's a link to the U.N. webcast of that Dec. 21, 2005, press conference— just slide the time counter to where the Mercedes exchange begins, 36 minutes and 12 seconds into the proceedings.)

Bone published a story the following week, headlined: “Where is the Car?” (For further background, here are links to my own coverage from that period, including: Annan's promotion last fall of the U.N. official, Abdoulie Janneh, who handled the Mercedes paperwork in Ghana, and whose account last year to the Volcker inquiry helped spare Kofi Annan any blame in the matter (Janneh has denied any wrongdoing, and he has not been accused of any); the U.N. stonewalling about the Mercedes; and Kofi Annan's blow-up.

In late January of this year, with the mystery Mercedes threatening to become a chronic embarrassment to Kofi Annan and the U.N., Kojo Annan's lawyer tipped out to the press Kojo Annan's offer to “make full payment” of any customs duties that would have been due seven years earlier on the car, with the footnote that the car had been wrecked. Kofi Annan told the press that he considered the matter closed, and the story faded from the news.

Of course, in a busy and crisis-beset world, few have time to wade through the maze of details surrounding the Kojo-Kofi vanished green Mercedes. The tale spins out to include Kofi Annan sending Kojo $15,000 to pay for a car, and meeting with Kojo in Paris, during the same month — November, 1998 — that Kojo was buying and shipping the Mercedes. All this was going on while Kojo Annan was still consulting for a company, Cotecna Inspection, which the following month landed a lucrative U.N. contract to “authenticate” relief imports into Saddam Hussein's Iraq, under the U.N. Oil-for-Food program. It is a labyrinth on which Volcker closed the door by saying he found no evidence of wrongdoing by Kofi Annan; merely that Kofi could have done a better job of looking into Kojo's ventures. We cannot ask for details from the former investigator, Robert Parton, who in April, 2005 defected from Volcker's probe, implying at the time through his lawyer that Volcker was going soft on Annan. Last year, Volcker went to court and got a seven-year gag order against Parton.

Asked in January if Kojo planned to pay not only the Ghanaian duties on the Mercedes, but the more than $6,500 he saved via his father's diplomatic discount on the purchase of the car, Kojo's lawyer replied, according to Reuters: “Mercedes doesn't need the money.”

Maybe not. But what's really at issue here is not simply money — or a Mercedes — but the integrity of a United Nations that in handling crises demands the public trust. And what we still need from Kofi Annan is not a quip, but serious answers to the many questions still out there … about that Mercedes.

Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


International Organizations