Ethiopia’s Tedros becomes first African to lead WHO, not all his compatriots are happy

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hugs Dr Margaret Chan after he was elected as the next WHO Director-General (Credit: WHO/L. Cipriani)

The World Health Organization (WHO) elected Tuesday Ethiopia’s former health minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom to be its director general for the next five years. He replaces Hong Kong’s Margaret Chan, who will step down on June 30, and will be the first African to hold the job and the first to have won the post through a competitive election before.

However, in what can be seen as a reflection of Ethiopia’s political fractures, not all his countrymen, at home and abroad, are happy about his victory.

Health ministers from 186 countries cast their ballots in closed door sessions for the three finalists – among six original candidates – in which Tedros received more than half the votes in the first round. After Dr. Sania Nishtar, a Pakistani cardiologist and expert on noncommunicable diseases, was eliminated in the initial round Tedros faced competition from Britain’s Dr. David Nabarro. But Tedros managed the scores he needed to defeat his opponents with a final tally of 133 votes to 50 with three voters abstaining.

Speaking after his election, Tedros told health ministers at WHO’s annual assembly at the UN Geneva headquarters that universal health coverage will be his primary priority. “At present, only about a half of the world’s people have access to health care without impoverishment,” he said. “This needs to improve dramatically.”

The 70th World Health Assembly opened in Geneva on May 22nd. Some 3,500 delegates from WHO’s 194 member States attended, including a large proportion of the world’s health ministers.

A malaria expert, during his tenure as Ethiopia’s health minister (2005-2012), he is credited with having curbed death from malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. He is also praised for the training of 40,000 female health extension workers who helped Ethiopia’s largely rural community access better health care. But he is criticized for his role in Ethiopia’s failure to acknowledge a cholera outbreak by resorting instead to using other terms like ‘acute watery diarrhea’.

His fiercest critics, however, raise his complicity in Ethiopia’s dismal human rights record. Olympic medalist Lelisa Feyisa who opposed Ethiopia’s government at the marathon finish line at the Rio Olympics called Tedros’ argument that health is a human right issue “hypocritical.”

In an opinion piece he wrote days before the election, Feyisa claimed that in Tedros’ health ministry a “donor funded health extension program [is used] as a coercive political recruitment tool for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).” Tedros has been a senior member of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the powerful wing of the ruling coalition EPRDF, which protesters in 2016 accused of marginalizing the two largest ethnic groups in the country, the Oromo and the Amhara.

In the weeks leading up to the election, some Ethiopians were also campaigning against Tedros in social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. According to Girma Gutema, a Norway-based activist who campaigned against the Ethiopian’s bid, Tedros is a face of an authoritarian government that still leads the country through a state of emergency decree. “He was a cabinet minister” when many people were killed at the hands of the security apparatus, he says. “Ethiopia has many talented and capable leaders both in the health sector and beyond to offer the WHO and other UN agencies if competence, integrity and leadership qualities are considered,” Girma says. “But certainly Dr. Tedros is not one of them.”

Dozens of his opponents were gathered in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva when voting was about to begin, demonstrating against his candidacy. One Ethiopian activist who made it into the press gallery inside the UN building interrupted the assembly with shouts urging African health leaders who backed Tedros to “think again.” He was escorted out of the hall.

“I feel stakeholders are now in charge, not bureaucrats.” – Rwandan delegate

Nonetheless, many African delegates were happy that an African finally got the chance to lead the world health body. “It’s a joy, the continent is celebrating at last,” said Janine Barde, a Rwandan delegate. “I feel stakeholders are now in charge, not bureaucrats.”

Back at home the Ethiopian government, which funded the larger part of Tedros’ bid, shares the delegate’s joy. Prime Minister Hailemarian Desalegn underscored that Tedros’s victory reflects an acceptance Ethiopia has managed to earn on the global stage, according to state-affiliated Fana BC.

Nathanael Feleke, a blogger with the Zone9 collective who was jailed in 2014 on the other hand used the occasion to highlight the importance of credible elections at home. “You won a free election, congratulations,” he wrote on Twitter. “Now, why don’t you try that here in Ethiopia?”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was born in the Eritrean capital Asmara in 1965. From 2012 to 2016 he has served as Ethiopia’s foreign minister.

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