One of their own, and the first African, had become the head of the UN health agency as the world was battling disease outbreaks such as Ebola.
But now the tide has turned in Addis Ababa, with Ethiopia accusing Tedros of supporting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a group that the Ethiopian government defines as a terrorist organisation.
Ethiopia says it mobilised African and friendly nations to win Tedros his first term at the WHO, but as soon as the TPLF engaged in conflict, “he showed his true colours” – he chose his political affiliation to the TPLF over his country, the Ethiopian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva said.
The mission alleges that Tedros, who previously served as the Ethiopian health minister and foreign minister in the TPLF-dominated ruling coalition, “abused his office and the international nature of the director general to advance the TPLF’s propaganda”.
Ethiopia said it submitted a formal complaint to the WHO’s executive board and was still waiting for acknowledgement of receipt of its complaint.
Its ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Zenebe Kebede Korcho, also tried to deliver a speech criticising Tedros but was cut off by the WHO executive board chairman.
On the first day of the executive board meeting on Monday, the chairman postponed a decision on a request from Addis Ababa to investigate Tedros over allegations that he had interfered in the internal affairs of Ethiopia and the Tigray war.
The civil war erupted in November 2020 after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government accused the TPLF, a leftist political party, of attacking its military base to steal weapons.
Months of fighting followed, with thousands killed and millions displaced. The Ethiopian military withdrew from most of Tigray at the end of June but Tedros, an ethnic Tigrayan, accused Abiy’s government of blocking humanitarian access to northern Ethiopia, especially Tigray. At a briefing in mid-January, Tedros said people in Tigray were living under de facto blockade for over a year and were dying from lack of medicine and food.
“Nowhere in the world are we witnessing hell like in Tigray. Even in Syria, we have access during the worst of conflicts in Syria. In Yemen the same, we have access,” Tedros said.
The Ethiopian government has denied the allegations and refused to nominate Tedros for a second term – usually a formality by the home country.
Instead, Tedros was nominated unopposed by 28 other countries including Germany, France, Kenya, Rwanda, Botswana, Indonesia and Oman.
That nomination was approved at a WHO executive board on Tuesday and will be put to the World Health Assembly in May for formal endorsement, according to WHO election protocol.
Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, said the lack of support from Addis Ababa was unlikely to make much difference to the outcome.
“Ethiopia’s refusal to support Tedros is a political and reputational problem but it is unlikely to affect his re-election as WHO director general,” Gostin said.
“He is running unopposed and thus far there have been no major political calls for him to step aside from key member states.”
Neither China nor the United States have formally opposed his re-election, and Tedros will attend the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing this week.
“China has probably soured on Tedros but that is only because he has recently stood up to the Chinese government,” he said.
“All in all, I expect Tedros to be re-elected and think he has earned it. I wish there were a contested election because I think it is good for the democratic future of the WHO. Once he is re-elected I don’t expect the issues with Ethiopia to affect his performance as DG.”
Tedros has committed to building “a WHO that is even more effective, more efficient, more accountable and more transparent”.
“After witnessing up close the world’s response to the pandemic, I have a unique understanding of the dynamics that have brought us to where we are, and a deep commitment to making the global system fit for purpose, with WHO at its centre,” he said, making the case for his re-election.
The re-election comes two years into the world’s battle against the coronavirus pandemic. More than 350 million cases and over 5.5 million deaths have been reported – ” and the numbers are an underestimate”, according to Tedros.
Mukesh Kapila, professor emeritus in global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester, writing for the Australia-based website The Conversation, said “Ethiopia’s endorsement is not needed to re-elect Tedros as his first-term performance stands on its own merits, and no candidates oppose him”.
Nevertheless, “Ethiopia is determined to embarrass him, as a distracting political manoeuvre on the global stage”, said Kapila.
He said Addis Ababa was acutely embarrassed when Tedros drew attention to the catastrophic health and humanitarian situation in Tigray, calling it a “hell” that is an “insult to humanity”.
Astonishingly, Ethiopia’s government is leaving no stone unturned to block Tedros’s re-election, according to Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha University in Japan.
“It is as though the government is eager to clip the wings of one of its most successful citizens,” Adem, an Ethiopian, said.
“Tedros may be, for obvious reasons, sympathetic to the TPLF. And there can be question marks, too, on his record when he served as Ethiopia’s minister of health.”
But Adem questioned whether this disqualified him from continuing to serve as an African face on the global stage.
“In any case, has Prime Minister Abiy not asked the Ethiopian people for forgiveness on behalf of the ruling party in 2018 for the dismal record of the previous government?”
On whether Beijing would support Tedros’s re-election, Adem said: “It is going to be a hard choice for China.”
On the one hand, Tedros is a China-friendly director of the WHO, and, on the other, China’s relationship with Ethiopia is strong, according to Adem.
“I think from China’s point of view, at the end supporting Dr Tedros’s re-election would be logical, both in terms of consequence and appropriateness,” he said.
Still, Tedros’ time at the WHO has not been plain sailing. Before he was appointed director general, there were allegations of cover-ups of cholera epidemics in Ethiopia.
And when the coronavirus struck, he came under heavy fire from the United States for defending China’s handling of the pandemic.
In early 2020, the US accused the UN agency of “failing to obtain crucial information” from China about Covid-19, and for allegedly “colluding” with China in the early days of the pandemic.