A U.N. official claims his warnings of a catastrophic cholera outbreak were stifled by a U.N. bureaucracy intent on keeping good relations with Zimbabwe’s dictator, Robert Mugabe.
Georges Tadonki, the former head of the Zimbabwe branch of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was fired at the height of the cholera crisis in early January 2009 — in part, he says, because of the warnings he raised. He has appealed his termination, and his case opened before a U.N. dispute tribunal in Nairobi, Kenya, on 23 February 2010. International lawyer Robert Amsterdam, famous for defending the Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is Mr. Tadonki’s pro-bono legal counsel.
Between August 2008 and July 2009, about 98,600 people contracted cholera and more than 4,000 died. In April 2008, months before the initial outbreak exploded into a full-blown epidemic, Tadonki says he warned his superiors of the severe risk. But U.N. country director Agostinho Zacarias stifled that warning, Tadonki claims.
Tadonki claims that Zacarias forced him to significantly lower the initial prediction of cholera cases from 30,000 to 2,000 in the UN funding appeal launched in November 2008. “Because the government did not accept that there was cholera, the United Nations was forced to align with that position.” Both a high-level official from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who worked on the humanitarian response and Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), confirmed that Tadonki had warned of a catastrophic outbreak.
Although some facts are in dispute, Tadonki’s story highlights the perils of U.N. engagement in authoritarian states such as Zimbabwe.
In response to the claim that the figures in the November 2008 UN appeal document had been manipulated, OCHA’s Deputy Spokesman told Inner City Press that “the prediction of 2,000 was realistic when it was made”, comparing it to the previous cholera outbreak in 2002, when 3,125 people were infected and 192 died.
Some U.N. officials contested Tadonki’s allegations, including a former U.N. agency head who told Foreign Policy that “the actual size of the cholera outbreak was larger than anyone (including Tadonki) had forecasted.” And some claimed Tadonki’s clash with Zacarias was due to poor performance, which is cited in U.N. internal reports as the reason for his firing, not his efforts to sound the alarm.
There are also conflicting reports about the response of the World Health Organization (WHO), which lead the health response. WHO representative in Harare, Custodia Mandlhate, told Foreign Policy that she, Zacarias, and the country head of UNICEF had finally “decided to go and see the minister of health … and convinced him to declare cholera an emergency.”
Schenkenberg, however, said that WHO “didn’t have its first meeting [to begin coordinating operations] until the first week of December” — after the government had already declared the cholera emergency. Nor had Zacarias pushed the WHO to do so, according to Schenkenberg.
Commenting on the Tadonki case, Wall Street Journal columnist Marian L. Tupy reminds us that “the crisis started when the Mugabe government nationalized Zimbabwe’s water supply in 2005 but soon ran out of money to maintain the infrastructure and treat the water […]. In 2008 the government shut down the water supply altogether, reducing the people in the urban areas to scavenge for water in ponds and sewers. Since the Zimbabwean health-care system collapsed along with the rest of the economy, the U.N. effectively became responsible for providing the necessary aid to tackle the emerging health crisis”.