World Health Organization leader Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is in the rare position of leading a UN agency’s response to a humanitarian crisis in which the very survival of his own family is at stake.
Tedros, 57, comes from Tigray, the besieged northern region of Ethiopia that has been gripped by fighting and misery for two years.
Last week’s ceasefire between the government of Ethiopia and the Tigrayan rebels raised hopes that the vicious conflict in Africa’s second most populous country could come to an end.
“The bravest choose peace,” Tedros tweeted on Saturday. “Give Peace a Chance!”
Recognizable worldwide as the face of the international Covid-19 response, Mr Tedros regularly uses his platform to speak out about his home country.
“Yes, this affects me personally,” the WHO chief, who was once a top figure in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), told reporters on Oct. 19.
“Most of my family members are in the worst affected areas, more than 90 percent of them.
“But my job is to draw the world’s attention to crises that threaten people’s health, wherever they are.”
Since the Tigray conflict broke out two years ago, the region’s six million residents have been virtually cut off from the outside world.
With little help seeping in, they face dire shortages of fuel, food and medicine, and lack basic services, including communications and electricity.
War of words
There is hope that last week’s deal could open the floodgates for aid, but UN agencies will have to be careful not to alienate the Ethiopian government.
Mr. Tedros, in particular, must walk a fine line, knowing that by invoking the suffering in Tigray, he is opening himself up to accusations that he has exceeded his mandate.
But he has become increasingly reluctant to hold back.
For example, last week he labeled the situation “catastrophic” and “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, blaming the Ethiopian and Eritrean armed forces.
Addis Ababa has repeatedly accused him of bias and abuse of office, warning that his interventions threaten the integrity of the WHO.
And at the WHO board meeting in January, Ethiopian Ambassador Zenebe Kebede Korcho accused Mr Tedros of “using his office to advance his personal political interests at the expense of Ethiopia’s”.
Addis Ababa also rejected Tedros’ reelection in May, calling on the WHO to investigate him for “misconduct and breach of his professional and legal responsibility”.
Tedros and the TPLF
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to Tigray on November 4, 2020, accusing the region’s ruling TPLF of attacking federal army camps.
The TPLF was the dominant force in the four-party coalition of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that controlled Ethiopian politics from 1991 for most of three decades.
Mr Tedros served on the nine-member executive committee of the TPLF until he was appointed to the WHO in Geneva.
Mr Tedros headed 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 to head of the TPLF – and possibly Ethiopia.
But instead, he became Ethiopia’s foreign minister and served until 2016, before starting as director general of the WHO in 2017.
Abiy came to power in 2018 after years of anti-government protests.
When Mr Abiy dissolved the EPRDF and founded the Prosperity Party in 2019, the TPLF refused to go along. The leaders of the Tigrayan rebels came from the ranks of the TPLF.
Tigray Juvenile Tedros
Mr Tedros has said that his motivation for his career in public health lies in the suffering of his family.
At a youth forum in 2020, he recalled growing up in poverty and watching his younger brother die at the age of seven, probably of measles.
“I didn’t accept that situation then… Even now I don’t accept it,” he said.
“That influenced me a lot.”
At WHO’s weekly press conferences, Tedros usually leaves it to the experts next to him to answer questions about most global health issues.
However, when Tigray is raised, he usually speaks at length, from the heart, in a stream of consciousness about the human impact of the crisis.
In August, he complained that he could not reach his relatives.
“I want to send them money; I can’t send them money. They’re starving, I know; I can’t help them,” he said.
“I don’t even know who’s dead or alive.”
Mr Tedros went further than most UN leaders, saying on November 1 that the risk of “genocide” in Tigray “is real, but can be averted if we act now”.
The ceasefire could provide that opportunity, and all eyes will be on Mr Tedros to see if he can finally get the world to hear his plea.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)
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