WHO chief Tedros walking tightrope on Ethiopia's Tigray region

WHO chief Tedros walking tightrope on Ethiopia's Tigray region
4 min read
09 November, 2022
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was a top figure in the Tigray People's Liberation Front, which forms the backbone of the Tigrayan rebellion.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 57, hails from Tigray, the besieged northern region of Ethiopia [FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty-archive]

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the leader of the World Health Organization (WHO), is in the rare position of heading a UN agency's response to a humanitarian crisis in which his own family's survival is at stake.

Tedros, 57, hails from Tigray, the besieged northern region of Ethiopia gripped by two years of fighting and misery.

Last week's ceasefire deal between Ethiopia's government and Tigrayan rebels raised hopes that the brutal situation in Africa's second-most-populous country could ease.

"We are glad that peace is being given a chance," Tedros told a press conference on Wednesday.

But he insisted that aid must be allowed in urgently, lamenting that "after the ceasefire agreement, I was expecting that food and medicines would just flow immediately. That's not happening."

Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the region's six million people have been virtually cut off from the outside world.

They face dire shortages of fuel, food and medicines, and lack basic services, including communications and electricity.

Globally recognisable as the face of the international Covid-19 response, Tedros frequently uses his platform to speak out on his homeland.

Tedros was a top figure in the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which forms the backbone of the Tigrayan rebellion.

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"Yes, this affects me personally. I don't pretend it doesn't," the WHO chief told reporters on 19 October.

"Most of my relatives are in the most affected areas, more than 90 percent of them.

"But my job is to draw the world's attention to crises that threaten the health of people wherever they are."

War of words

In seeking to open the floodgates for aid, UN agencies will need to tread carefully to avoid alienating the Ethiopian government.

Tedros therefore has to walk a fine line, knowing that in evoking the suffering in Tigray, he opens himself up to allegations of overstepping his brief.

Going further than most UN leaders, Tedros said on 1 November that the risk of "genocide" in Tigray is "real but can be averted if we act now".

Addis Ababa has repeatedly accused him of being partisan and abusing his position, and warns that his interventions threaten the WHO's integrity.

At the WHO's executive board meeting in January, Ethiopian ambassador Zenebe Kebede Korcho accused Tedros of "using his office to advance his personal political interest" at Ethiopia's expense.

Addis Ababa also slammed Tedros's re-election in May and urged the WHO to investigate him for "misconduct and violation of his professional and legal responsibility".

Tedros and the TPLF

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray on 4 November 2020, accusing the region's ruling TPLF of attacking federal army camps.

The TPLF was the dominant force in the four-party Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition which controlled Ethiopian politics from 1991 for the best part of three decades.

Tedros sat on the TPLF's nine-member executive committee until he was appointed to the WHO in Geneva.

Tedros led the Tigray Regional Health Bureau before becoming Ethiopia's health minister from 2005 to 2012.

When Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in 2012, Tedros was seen as a possible successor as head of the TPLF – and potentially therefore of Ethiopia.

But he instead became Ethiopia's foreign minister and served until 2016, before starting as the WHO director-general in 2017.

He was, therefore, out of the country when Abiy came to power in 2018 on the back of years of anti-government protests.

When Abiy dissolved the EPRDF and formed the Prosperity Party in 2019, the TPLF refused to go along.

The Tigrayan rebellion leaders emerged from the TPLF's ranks.

Tigray childhood shaped Tedros

Tedros has said his gut motivation for his public health career lies in his family's suffering, saying growing up in poverty and seeing, aged seven, his younger brother die from a preventable disease influenced him in a big way.

At the WHO's weekly press conferences, Tedros usually leaves it to the experts alongside him to answer questions on most global health issues.

However, when Tigray is raised, he typically speaks at length, from the heart, in a stream of consciousness on the human impact of the crisis.

In August he lamented that he could not reach his relatives or help them.

"I don't know even who is dead or who is alive," he said.

And on Wednesday, he stressed that many Tigrayans were "dying from treatable diseases" and starvation.

"Even in the middle of fighting, civilians need food, need medicine. It cannot be a condition," he insisted.

The ceasefire deal could provide a window for a humanitarian corridor, and all eyes will be on Tedros to see if he can finally get the international community to heed his pleas.