The Secret Plot Against the Head of the World Health Organization

A cache of documents reveal an Ethiopian government investigation into Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He calls it a ‘smear campaign.’

(Bloomberg) — They are two of the best-known African leaders on the planet. The 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, and his compatriot Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who as head of the World Health Organization became the face of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet the two are now on opposite sides of a campaign exposed by previously undisclosed Ethiopian government documents that appear to show how the Abiy administration tried to discredit the global health leader with allegations of embezzlement and sexual misconduct ahead of his reappointment at the WHO in 2022. Tedros, who has denied all the allegations and hasn’t been charged with any crimes, says he is reluctant to return to his native Ethiopia — Africa’s second-most populous nation — without assurances that he and his family will be safe. 

The collapse in relations between the two men can be traced back to November 2020 — the month Abiy declared war on the ruling party of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. Prior to his appointment at the WHO, Tedros, a Tigrayan, had dedicated his professional life to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the political party that for three decades governed Ethiopia. But, as the conflict erupted, Tedros was drowning in terrifying data: more than 50 million cases of Covid-19 had been reported globally, no vaccines were available at that stage, and deaths were spiking in Europe and the US.

Reports of massacres, human rights violations and indiscriminate killings on both sides of the Tigray conflict flooded in — the war would eventually kill more than 500,000 people, according to estimates by the US and European Union. Tedros, based in Geneva, feared for friends and family living in Tigray.“History looks favorably on those that manage to reach across, bridge division and move from war to peace,” Tedros wrote on Twitter on Nov. 19 that year. On the same day, the head of the Ethiopian army accused Tedros in a televised statement of procuring weapons for the TPLF without providing evidence to support the allegation. Tedros denied the claims. 

By June 2021, the Financial Intelligence Centre in the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance had opened an investigation of Tedros, according to hundreds of internal documents seen by Bloomberg News that were made available by the Paris-based Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa.

In an interview with Bloomberg in August, Tedros, 58, called the probe part of a “smear campaign” based on his ethnicity and membership in the TPLF, which was itself accused of detaining and torturing opponents while in power. The WHO director-general said that his family in Ethiopia was harassed and that he installed security cameras at his Geneva home after identifying what he said were plainclothes agents from Ethiopia. 

“They harassed my mother-in-law, and they detained my brother-in-law for two weeks in 2021,” Tedros said over Zoom from Geneva, recounting how Ethiopian authorities expelled him from his rental apartment in the capital, Addis Ababa. “They searched the flat, found nothing and told my mother-in-law to take the books and furniture.” 

The Ethiopian prime minister’s office, the finance ministry and the justice ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Compiled over several months in 2021, the documents are part of a report sent to judicial authorities and the federal police. They include bank statements, handwritten witness accounts and email correspondence among investigators, witnesses and banks.

The intelligence unit probed allegations that Tedros was involved in embezzlement of state funds, sexual misconduct, illicit purchases of property in Addis Ababa, rigged tender offers and illegal procurement during his tenure as Ethiopia’s health minister from 2005 to 2012, the documents show. They paint a picture of an effort by the Ethiopian government to criminalize the head of the WHO, say former colleagues of Tedros who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

No charges appear to have been filed, although the intelligence unit recommended that the Tedros case, along with others against individuals, local companies and an international development organization, be referred to the police and attorney general.

The investigation coincided with the start of Tedros’s campaign to win a second term as director-general of the WHO, which Ethiopian diplomats in Geneva opposed. Despite that effort and criticism of his handling of the pandemic by some countries, Tedros was reappointed in May 2022.

Bloomberg saw the documents before approaching Tedros, who said he was unaware of criminal proceedings against him in Ethiopia. He agreed to talk about the duress he and his family have been under but said he didn’t want to undermine attempts to implement a peace deal reached last November by the government and the TPLF. 

The documents were provided to the French group by Distributed Denial of Secrets, a nonprofit whistleblower website, and were shared with several other media organizations. Bloomberg verified the documents by analyzing attached metadata to check that they were created by their authors and confirmed the investigation with two Ethiopian officials who had direct knowledge of the matter. Both agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity as they are not authorized to speak publicly. 

“When government officials subvert the fight against corruption and financial crime to settle political scores, it undermines the rule of law and is a setback to authentic good governance efforts,” Gabriel Bourdon-Fattal, director of programs at the French whistleblower organization, said in a statement. “The Ethiopian government materials give us a rare insight into the bureaucracy and mechanics of such targeted acts.”

Most of the allegations against Tedros supposedly came from officials working for the Ethiopian Public Health Institute and the Ethiopian Pharmaceuticals Supply Agency, established by Tedros to improve procurement procedures in the country.

In one case of alleged misconduct, Tedros was investigated for allegedly violating a government procurement law by purchasing HIV test kits and epidemic drugs that were prohibited by the WHO. The original complaint was made by Atsbeha Gebregziagher, a researcher at the institute, according to a police statement.

But Atsbeha said in a telephone interview that the problem of substandard HIV test kits was related to the period between 2014 and 2016, after Tedros had left the health ministry to become foreign minister. Atsbeha said he had no knowledge of Tedros being involved in the embezzlement of state funds or other illegal activities. “My task was specific, so I had no chance to meet with management. I had no chance to get this information because it’s high level information.” 

The intelligence unit initially requested that every bank in the country send statements and information on money transfers carried out by Tedros, family members and senior Tigrayan officials, the leaked documents show. 

“It was a very personally targeted campaign — they raided his family’s home, they took away things, they threatened him, he could not contact his own family,” said Mukesh Kapila, a professor of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester, who has worked for the UK government, the United Nations and the International Red Cross and who backed Tedros in his successful bid to run the WHO in 2017. All Tedros did, he said, “was to say he was very concerned about the health situation in Tigray because of the continuing blockade.”

The banks that responded to the investigators said they either had no accounts belonging to Tedros and his associates, or that accounts did exist but with insignificant amounts of money, the documents show.

Yet, in a previously undisclosed report dated Sept. 2, 2021, and forwarded to police and judicial authorities, the financial intelligence unit said of Tedros: “His actions, which run counter to his professional training in the health field, pose a significant danger to the health of the Ethiopian people.” It added, “this not only warrants criminal charges but could also result in the revocation of his doctoral degree.”

Early in 2022, Zenebe Kebede, Ethiopia’s representative to the WHO, told the body’s executive board that “Tedros has not lived up to the integrity and professional expectations required from his office and the position.” He also said Tedros “has been using his office to advance his personal political interests at the expense of the interests of Ethiopia.” Zenebe didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In September 2022, after Tedros won approval for a second five-year term, the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia in Geneva submitted a complaint to the WHO asking it to conduct an unrelated investigation of Tedros, accusing him of using his WHO position to attack the government of Ethiopia. Tedros had criticized the government for failing to grant enough access for UN agencies and humanitarian groups attempting to deliver aid to Tigray, and later described Ethiopia as the epicenter of “the worst catastrophe on Earth.”

A spokesperson for the WHO said that an independent committee looked into the matter and advised the board that Tedros was “within the role of the director-general to comment on humanitarian or health emergencies.”

The Ethiopian investigation eventually lost steam as talks between the government and the Tigrayan liberation organization led to a negotiated peace deal in November 2022. The investigation is no longer active, according to the two Ethiopian officials.

One accusation leveled at Tedros in the documents is that he enriched himself through bogus contracts doled out by the health ministry and the Pharmaceutical Supply Agency. But Amir Aman, a former Ethiopian health minister who worked with Tedros for more than a decade, said the WHO head had created the agency to clean up the procurement process and had no direct involvement in the purchasing of goods. “The agency has its own board, director, management and staff,” he said. “He’s one of the people I always looked up to.”

Alan Court, a former senior official with Unicef, the UN children’s fund, also worked with Tedros when he was health minister. Court, then the Copenhagen-based director of the fund’s supply division, was asked to help Tedros, who was having trouble buying enough mosquito nets during a surge in malaria cases. 

The Ethiopian documents include an allegation that Tedros accepted a bribe to award the mosquito net contract. Court said there was nothing suspicious about the granting of the contract and that Tedros’s management was flawless. The deal, which led to an increase in global production that helped Ethiopia import almost 20 million nets, Court said, “sent a super signal to the market of where the future was.”

The financial intelligence unit also alleged in the September 2021 report that Tedros harassed and assaulted women, and that he promoted those who acceded to his sexual advances and punished those who didn’t. Tedros denied the accusations, and no evidence to support the claims was provided in the documents.

The report said money from the Omaha, Nebraska-based Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation was provided to women, some of whom allegedly had sexual relationships with Tedros, to study in Ethiopia and abroad. The foundation, which doesn’t provide scholarship opportunities in Ethiopia, did not respond to a request for comment. But Senait Fisseha, a vice president of the foundation, who is accused in the report of facilitating the supposed scheme — which she denied — said Tedros had never abused his position in any dealings with her. She declined to comment further.

Beyond the investigation, life was also becoming more difficult for Tedros’s family. The WHO director-general said his uncle, a farmer in Tigray province, was killed by Eritrean troops loyal to Ethiopia in 2022. “He was killed in cold blood, they just took him out of his home and killed him,” Tedros said in the interview. 

“For three months during the conflict I did not know where my brother was, whether he was dead or alive,” said Tedros. “Fortunately, he survived, and I hope someday to be reunited with him and other relatives at home.”

For now, Tedros’s relationship with the government in Addis Ababa remains so strained that he feels unable to return home. “I would like to be home,” he said, “but the circumstances don’t allow.”

–With assistance from Fasika Tadesse.

(Adds comment from Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa after 15th paragraph. An earlier version of the story removed reference to a power play in 2nd paragraph and corrected 8th paragraph to show that Tedros’s apartment in Addis Ababa wasn’t confiscated but that he was expelled.)

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