Ethiopia: WHO’s Tedros speaks out on murder of his uncle in Tigray

By Fred Harter
Posted on Thursday, 15 December 2022 17:57

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addresses during a press conference at the World Health Organization's headquarters in Geneva, on December 14, 2022. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus achieved celebrity status, which is rare among international civil servants. His updates on the spread of the virus made headlines worldwide and he hosted figures as diverse as Emmanuel Macron and Lady Gaga to boost the fight against it. His remarks on the Tigray civil war, however, were not always warmly received in his home country Ethiopia. Even so, his latest comments on Tigray show how close to home the conflict has become for him.

He also courted controversy, fending off calls from then US President Donald Trump for the WHO’s funding to be cut and for his resignation over the organisation’s slow response in the early days of the outbreak in China.

Still, in Ethiopia, the former government minister is best known for his regular, outspoken and often deeply personal interventions over war in Tigray, his home region.

The Tigray conflict ranks as the world’s deadliest. It has killed more people than the war in Ukraine, according to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and has been characterised by massacres, gang rapes and the spectre of starvation. All sides have been accused of abuses.

Tedros’ latest remarks on the war came towards the end of a Geneva press conference about Covid-19 on Wednesday. Speaking through tears, Tedros said he had come close to calling off the briefing because he had recently learnt of the “murder” of his uncle in war-torn Tigray.

“I was informed that my uncle was murdered by the Eritrean army,” said Tedros, adding that 50 other people were killed in the incident. “I spoke to my mother and she was really devastated, because he was the youngest from their family and he was almost the same age as me, a young uncle.”

Tedros’ uncle is not the first of his relatives to die in the war, which broke out between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020. In an interview with The New York Times last year, Tedros said his cousin, a 68-year-old woman, was killed while seeking refuge in a church, while another 16-year-old family member was shot in a street.

“Hunger is weaponised, rape is weaponised, there is indiscriminate killing,” he said of the situation in Tigray. “The whole region is hungry.”

Eritrean roots

Born in Eritrea in 1965, when it was still part of Ethiopia, Tedros was raised by Tigrayan parents and his extended family still live in the region. During his childhood, the TPLF waged an insurgency alongside other rebel groups against the communist Derg regime, a war left Tigray and other parts of the country wracked by disease and famine.  The insurgency toppled the Derg in 1991 and the TPLF went on to dominate Ethiopian politics through an iron-fisted, authoritarian coalition government until it was ousted by protests in 2018.

I didn’t accept it, I don’t accept it even now

Tedros started his career as a policy advisor at the Ethiopian ministry of health in 1986, before completing his studies in infectious diseases and community health in the UK. In 2019, he told TIME magazine he was motivated to work in public health after his brother died of measles at a young age. “I didn’t accept it, I don’t accept it even now,” he said.

Tedros rose to become one of the most senior members of the TPLF. In 2001, he was appointed head of Tigray’s regional health bureau, overseeing programmes to stamp out malaria, meningitis and other diseases. After a short stint as Ethiopia’s deputy health minister, he was appointed health minister in 2005. In this position, Tedros won praise for building a primary care system that reached into remote rural areas and slashed maternal and child mortality, as well as deaths from AIDS. He subsequently served as foreign minister in 2012-16.

Criticism

His time in the upper echelons of Ethiopia’s TPLF-led dominated government was not without controversy. Known for jailing journalists and smashing dissent, the administration had a poor human rights record.

When Tedros campaigned for the top job at the WHO, his rivals accused him of covering up outbreaks of cholera as Ethiopia’s health minister. Tedros denied the allegations as a “smear campaign”.

Tedros became head of the WHO in 2017. At the time, the organisation was reeling from allegations it failed to respond fast enough to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak that killed 11,300 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In 2020, Tedros faced similar criticism for being too slow in declaring Covid-19 a global pandemic, with the Trump administration claiming he had bowed to political pressure from China. This is despite the fact that he was renowned as “the world’s doctor” for coordinating the global response and campaigning against vaccine inequality.

Increasingly outspoken on Tigray war

In Ethiopia, the focus has been different. Immediately after war broke out in Tigray, Tedros came under fire from Ethiopian officials who claimed he was aiding his old comrades in the TPLF. In a televised address in the early days of the war, Ethiopia’s army chief General Birhanu Jula alleged that Tedros had helped the TPLF “get weaponry” and used his international profile to lobby on their behalf.

“He […] is a member of that group and he is a criminal,” said General Birhanu. Tedros denied the allegations, saying: “This is not true and I want to say that I am on only one side and that is the side of peace.”

I have a duty to protect and promote health wherever it’s under threat and there is nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray.

As the conflict wore on and reports of human rights abuses emerged from Tigray, Tedros became increasingly outspoken. On his Twitter page, among posts about universal health coverage and the importance of vaccines, are retweets of links to articles about war crimes in Tigray.

One recent post featured a video about the lack of chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients at Tigray’s flagship Ayder Hospital. Another carried a link to a news article about killings of Tigrayan civilians by Eritrean troops.

Tedros has also used his Geneva press conferences to highlight the situation in the region, which has been without phone or internet for most of the last two years. In August, he said he was unable to send money to his “starving” relatives in Tigray, telling reporters: “I don’t [even] know […] who is dead or who is alive.”

That same month, he also denounced the government’s “siege” of the region and suggested the conflict received less attention from world leaders than the Ukraine war because of “the colour of the skin of the people in Tigray”.

On another occasion, he described Tigray as the world’s biggest health emergency. “[…] I’m from Tigray and this crisis affects me, my family and my friends very personally,” he said. “But as the director general of WHO, I have a duty to protect and promote health wherever it’s under threat and there is nowhere on earth where the health of millions of people is more under threat than in Tigray.”

Hate figure

Such comments have made him a hero among Tigrayan activists seeking to shine a light on under-reported atrocities. However, they have also made him a hate figure among government supporters. Replies to his social media posts often refer to him as a “war criminal” or “junta”, a derogatory term for the TPLF.

Earlier this year, Ethiopia’s government refused to support Tedros’ re-election as WHO chief. “He has been interfering with the internal affairs of Ethiopia, including Ethiopia’s relations with the state of Eritrea… continues as an active member and supporter of the TPLF that is proscribed as a terrorist group by the Ethiopian parliament,” said Ethiopia’s foreign ministry in a letter explaining the decision.

Tedros is not the only international figure to be on the receiving end of allegations like  these. Humanitarians say Ethiopia’s government has restricted aid access to Tigray throughout the war, a policy that pushed 900,000 people in the region of six million to the edge of famine, according to the US. It also prompted UN investigators to conclude that federal officials probably used starvation as a war method.

The government and its supporters have fended off such criticisms, instead accusing Western governments and aid organisations of helping their enemy. UN staff and Irish diplomats have been evicted from the country, while state media has broadcast claims that the World Food Programme has armed the Tigray fighters.

Aid is now reaching Tigray, following the signing of a ceasefire deal in South Africa last month. The agreement has stopped the fighting and kindled hopes for a lasting peace. Even so, diplomats say Eritrean troops allied to Ethiopia’s federal government are still in Tigray, holding up implementation.

Speaking of the death of his uncle on Wednesday, Tedros referred to the deal. “I hope that this agreement will hold and this madness will stop, but it’s a very difficult moment for me,” he said.

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