In January, 2016, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom was nominated as Africa’s candidate for director general of the UN World Health Organization.
Just this past week, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was named global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) by the WHO, a position in which he will serve under whoever is ultimately appointed as the WHO’s director general. While Bloomberg, with his impeccable record of public health advocacy and international philanthropy, is clearly over-qualified for this role, what frightens me is the potential appointment of Adhanom as his superior. A rudimentary comparison of these two men’s records highlights the latter’s extreme unfitness for the office he seeks to assume and the absurdity of his even being considered.
During his unprecedented three-term tenure, mayor Bloomberg took direct control of the troubled New York City school system and oversaw a marked increase in children’s test scores; he banned smoking in restaurants, bars, parks and other indoor and outdoor public arenas; he partnered with and empowered citizens of the city by calling upon them to notify authorities of suspicious happenings they observed; he established a comprehensive information hotline that provides vital factual data to city dwellers and visitors in more than 170 languages; he banned trans-fats and mandated the posting of calorie counts in New York restaurants, measures that have since been adopted in major cities throughout the nation toward combating rising obesity rates in both adults and children; he used his own private funds to pay for a Super Bowl ad promoting stricter gun control.
And this is a mere sampling of his contributions to the quality of life of the people he governed. Now that his terms as mayor have ended, he has expanded his health, well-being and justice initiatives to the broader global community and continues to work tirelessly, and to donate generously, to promote causes at the core of human flourishing.
No model of leadership could be more divergent from Bloomberg’s than the one Ethiopian Foreign Minister Adhanom, along with his political associates, represents. The current Ethiopian government is widely recognized as a criminally organized group with high rates of human rights abuses. According to The New York Times and Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters against the government have been incarcerated, and over 700 have been killed, in recent months. The Ethiopian athlete Feyisa Lilesa made a powerful public gesture in solidarity with his oppressed countrymen at the Summer Olympics in Rio last month and was warned not to return home afterward.
The International Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Ethiopia is among Africa’s leading jailers of journalists and has destroyed its own independent civil society. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has requested an independent evaluation of the deaths of hundreds of peaceful civilian protesters in recent months at the hands of the Ethiopian army. However, Foreign Minister Adhanom and his government have refused external evaluation of human rights abuses complained of by large numbers of citizens.
THE LOCAL independent Ethiopian citizens’ news agencies are reporting outside the country that there is a huge popular mobilization against the government.
The local citizens are demonstrating peacefully, with the following complaints: that the government is killing them indiscriminately and robbing the country of power and economic resources, which are being funneled to one small, elite tribal group (known as the Tgria Peoples Liberation Front), and that their land is being sold to the Tgrian tribe, or that this tribe is selling their land to foreign investors.
On the day that the athlete Lilesa showed his support at the Olympics in Rio, there was a demonstration planned in the capital city of Addis Ababa, but the government deployed military force to put down the peaceful citizens who organized it. Only Lilesa could make his statement, safely insulated, for the moment, from the army’s threatened violence, by a couple thousand miles.
His fellow citizens at home were not so fortunate. Just this past week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced on national television that all military personnel would be ordered to open fire on peaceful demonstrators, which, on the first day following, resulted in dozens of civilian deaths.
Britain Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond recently warned, in a meeting with Adhanom, that Ethiopia’s “repeated failure to deliver on our basic requests” regarding an Ethiopian-born English citizen being held on death row simply because he is the opposition party leader had led him be begin “looking carefully at the bilateral relationship” between the two nations. This is yet another example of the current Ethiopian government’s pervasive corruption and lawlessness.
As a chief agent of this depraved, bloody government body, how can Adhanom be considered as a prospective director general of the WHO? How does his candidacy reflect on the WHO itself, or, more broadly, the UN’s role as the world’s moral anchor and arbiter? Clearly, there is no just way forward but for the UN to investigate the current Ethiopian government’s reported abuses and to renounce the candidacy of its foreign minister for the position he seeks at the WHO.
It is perhaps in the values that underlie the actions of Bloomberg and Adhanom, respectively, that the starkest contrast between these two men might be drawn. Bloomberg has often been quoted as saying, “The thing about great wealth is that you can’t take it with you,” by way of explaining why he is choosing to give so much of his private fortune away – a total of $4.3 billion thus far, including $510 million distributed by his philanthropies in 2015 alone. Adhanom, on the other hand, is a prominent member of the Ethiopian government whose former leader, Meles Zenawi (the man who appointed Adhanom to his position), had a reported net worth of over $3b., having amassed this amount entirely during his years in office.
He took power in 1991 with an officially listed salary of $220 per month, and had no private financial resources to his name at that point. Today, all the top leaders of the TPLF are billionaires, though their nation remains an impoverished member of the Third World. Sadly, the source of these leaders’ newfound wealth is not too hard to surmise.
I have lived, for years, under the governance of both mayor Bloomberg and Finance Minister Adhanom and can thus attest, on a personal level, to the disparate impact of their leadership on the people they’ve ruled. I know, first hand, what it has been like to live under the policies of Bloomberg’s and Adhanom’s administrations, and how each has affected the daily life of his constituency.
More than all the facts and figures I have cited above, these real-life, on-the-ground experiences have shaped my conviction that Adhanom and his cronies must go if my native land is ever to prosper as my adopted city has in the past few decades. The WHO’s recent appointments, within the broader context of rising unrest in Ethiopia, where my family resides, and my own relatively secure life in New York, have brought this realization home to me as never before. I can only hope that the world will begin to see things in kind.
The author, a social activist on behalf of the Ethiopian Jewish community, served in the Israel Police. He holds a master’s degree in community leadership and philanthropy from Hebrew University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership and administration, while studying for rabbinic ordination.