Politically Motivated Investigation Targets WHO Director-General

A recent investigation by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) found that Ethiopian authorities allegedly launched a sprawling anti-corruption probe into Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the midst of his bid for a second five-year term as the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). Former Ethiopian minister and WHO head since 2017, Tedros found himself under scrutiny from his own government, with the investigation appearing to rely on dubious sources and unverified allegations. The investigation against Tedros was led by the Ethiopian Financial Intelligence Service (FIS), the government entity responsible for monitoring suspicious financial transactions.

PPLAAF’s investigation stems from a trove of internal Ethiopian government emails and documents provided by the pro-transparency organisation Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets). DDoSecrets received a large collection of government emails and documents from an anonymous source, including approximately 19 000 emails from the Ethiopian FIS, some of which related to the investigation on Tedros. 

After examining the FIS’s communications, PPLAAF disseminated its discoveries to several media collaborators, including Bloomberg in the United States, Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, Tamedia in Switzerland, and The Continent in South Africa. These media partners conducted independent assessments of the materials, cross-referencing them with other sources of information, and revealed not only the government’s investigative efforts but also what appeared to be a more extensive intimidation campaign. The information suggests that the investigation on Tedros was based on dubious sources and unsubstantiated allegations. 

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

The FIS Investigation 

Tedros is the former Ethiopian Health Minister (2005-2012) and the Director-General of the WHO since 2017. In  June 2021, the FIS in the Ethiopian Ministry opened an investigation into Tedros. His tenure as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health was investigated, and the allegations made against him included abuse of office, misappropriation of public funds, sexual misconduct, and illicit purchases of property in Addis Ababa.

By July 2021, just months after the lengthy renewal process for WHO Director-General kicked off, the FIS materials show that the government entity had begun compiling evidence, including requests to Ethiopian commercial banks for information on Tedros, his wife, and their children. Then, roughly three weeks before the WHO nomination period was set to close, a key investigator sent an extensive report summarising the agency’s findings to the head of the FIS, asking his superior to quickly review the report. “I attached part one new report with supportive documents which needs your argent [sic] order,” he wrote in English.

The report, entitled “Inspection and Analysis Report on Suspected Embezzlement and Money Laundering of Proceeds of Crime by Tedros Adhanom: Part 1,” laid out a litany of serious allegations against Tedros related to his tenure as Ethiopian Minister of Health, including abuse of office and misappropriation of government money. The agency report recommended that criminal referrals be made for Tedros, even suggesting that his medical degree be revoked. The report also recommended similar criminal referrals for people and entities alleged to have conspired with Tedros, including the German government-owned development agency, the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).

According to Ethiopia’s FIS, “Tedros allegedly asked women for sexual favours in exchange for promotions when he was minister of health (2005-2012),” Tamedia reported. However, these accusations appear to be unfounded. The FIS also accused Tedros of “embezzlement and money laundering”, claiming he “purchased faulty Aids tests, (and) overpriced mosquito nets and medicines when he was minister of health between 2005 and 2012”. An investigation into the accusations was launched, but its current status is unknown.

Political Motivations and the Tigray Conflict 

In an interview with Bloomberg in August 2023, Tedros called the probe part of a “smear campaign” based on his ethnicity and membership in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an Ethiopian political party which was itself accused of detaining and torturing opponents while in power. Prior to his appointment at the WHO, Tedros, who is Tigrayan himself, had dedicated his professional life to the TPLF. On 3 November 2020, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared war on the ruling party of the Tigray region in Northern Ethiopia. On 19 November, Tedros wrote about the war on Twitter, calling for peace. On the same day, in a televised statement, the head of the Ethiopian army accused Tedros of procuring weapons for the TPLF, without providing evidence to support the allegation. Tedros denied the claims.

As it stands, the allegations against him appear weak. For example, one of his accusers is said to have been convicted of corruption, the purchase of the Aids tests was made after Tedros had left the Ministry of Health, and the order for mosquito nets was placed through the UN Children’s Fund which says that Tedros never touched the money. Furthermore, in its responses, GIZ said it had seen no indications of financial or other misconduct in a project the FIS said was used as a vehicle for misappropriating government funds.

In September 2022, three months after Tedros’s reappointment as Director-General of WHO, diplomats from the Ethiopian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva submitted a complaint to the WHO asking it to conduct an unrelated investigation into Tedros. Diplomats were accusing him of using his WHO position to attack the Ethiopian Government and support Tigrayan forces, including by providing them material support and facilitating weapons transfer. The WHO did not answer the request, given that Addis Ababa did not substantiate its accusations.

 The Ethiopian FIS investigation was not the only initiative targeting the WHO director general. According to Tribune de Genève, Tedros was followed near his home in Switzerland by apparent Ethiopian agents. One of his children, who is a student in the United Kingdom, also had his Ethiopian passport confiscated for eight months until the Swiss authorities granted him a pass that allowed him to join his father in Geneva following Tedros’s intervention. Finally, in his interview regarding the government investigation, Tedros also told Bloomberg that his uncle was “killed in cold blood” for political reasons in December 2022.

PPLAAF and the media partners sent requests for comment to Ethiopian government entities, those targeted by or referenced in the investigation, and others. As of today, the Ethiopian government did not respond to any of these requests.

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