By Abebe Gellaw
Executive director of Ethiopian Satellite Television & Radio (ESAT) 2016-2019.
Could a new historical novel about Ethiopia’s former dictatorship be the final straw that forces the World Health Organization’s beleaguered Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gebhreyesus to resign?
Money, Blood and Conscience tells the story of a Hollywood television producer who stages a rock concert for Ethiopian famine victims and finds himself embroiled with that dictatorship, a formerly Marxist-Leninist coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF. Why does a work of fiction stir such unease in Geneva that the WHO’s Director-General, its Office of Compliance, Risk Management and Ethics, and its Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee refused to comment on it?
The EPRDF, controlled by a tribal faction called the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was a major human rights violator. In 2018, the coalition jettisoned its TPLF partner and appointed Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed as a reformist prime minister to fend off a democracy revolution.
Dr. Tedros, who goes by his forename, is another prominent EPRDF survivor. As foreign minister and an influential member of the TPLF politburo, he was Ethiopia’s third-highest official from 2012 to 2016, before his election as WHO chief.
Money, Blood and Conscience combines investigative journalism and fiction to describe an agonised Ethiopia under TPLF rule. However, its author, David Steinman, a retired American adviser to Ethiopia’s democracy revolution, puts storytelling aside in a nonfiction afterword to demand TPLF leaders be held accountable for crimes against humanity.
The afterword also contends that Dr. Tedros shares responsibility for some of these atrocities, that his involvement disqualifies him for his present position, and that his hidden past helps explain his actions during the COVID-19 outbreak.
News of Steinman’s accusation is beginning to spread. The influential conservative magazine National Review aired it in late June. More media outlets are also planning stories based on his disclosures.
Steinman is a Wharton-trained economist who, as a consulting expert to the U.S. National Security Council during the Reagan administration, played an instrumental role in the overthrow of Haiti’s notorious “Baby Doc” Duvalier and helped shape U.S. democracy promotion strategy to include right wing dictators. In addition to co-planning the Ethiopian rebellion, Steinman also exposed the TPLF’s human rights violations and corruption in the Washington Post, Forbes, and New York Times.
I reached Steinman in Los Angeles for an interview to explore his charges against the WHO’s director-general. Our discussion ranged from Ethiopian history to the current Ethiopian-Egyptian Nile waters dispute.
ABEBE GELLAW (AG): What exactly do you assert in your book’s afterword that Dr. Tedros did wrong?
DAVID STEINMAN (DS): Tedros under-reported Ethiopia’s poverty rates by promoting fake statistics. The EPRDF which he co-led tried to hide the extent of a 2015 famine by warning NGOs not to use the word “famine” when speaking to the press. Those misrepresentations delayed relief aid and cost lives.
Tedros arranged kidnappings of Ethiopian dissidents in Yemen, tried to whitewash a 2016 massacre of nonviolent protesters by state security forces, and looked the other way while the TPLF tortured children, sent them to concentration camps, and its Somali proxy put political prisoners in cells with lions, leopards and hyenas.
AG: Dr. Tedros’ fans say he couldn’t have been involved with such wrongdoing which must have been done by others in the EPRDF.
DS: The conventional narrative is that Tedros heroically saved lives under the EPRDF despite the evil all around him. The truth is that he was an active supporter and enabler of that evil—a leader of it, in fact—who contributed to the death and injury of thousands of Ethiopians whose lives his advocates prefer to sweep under the rug. Besides the cynical UN members and naïve public health experts who voted for him despite his callous record, those advocates include clueless celebrities like Lady Gaga who publicly called Tedros a “superstar.”
AG: Where’s the proof?
DS: Tedros’ misleading 2014 claim that only 29% of Ethiopians lived in poverty under the EPRDF is on tape. So is a 2015 CNN interview in which he tries to gloss over and defend the EPRDF’s indefensible human rights record. His attempt to whitewash the 2016 massacre is on his own blog.
The biggest proofs are hiding in plain sight. EPRDF horrors were widely reported. Yet Tedros, despite his undeniable knowledge of them, publicly defended, represented, advised, and helped guide the regime. He was an integral part of the machinery of death. That meets the evidentiary standard used to convict Ribbentrop at Nuremberg.
The fact that Abiy Ahmed ended most of the abuses soon after taking over also shows that Tedros’ TPLF, which had an even tighter grip on the security forces, could have stopped them too but chose not to.
AG: Weren’t the human rights violations just the growing pains of a fledgling democracy as Dr. Tedros maintains?
DS: Ethiopia under Tedros was a monstrous tyranny, not a “fledgling democracy.” Take, for example, just a few cases documented by Amnesty International of the type of TPLF barbarity for which he shares liability: A teacher was stabbed in the eye with a bayonet during torture in detention because he refused to teach propaganda about the TPLF to his students. A young girl had hot coals poured on her stomach because her father was suspected of supporting an opposition group. A student was tied in contorted positions and suspended from the wall by one wrist because a business plan he prepared for a university competition was considered to be underpinned by political motivations. Former prisoners from the Tedros era tell of beatings, electric shocks, mock executions, burning with heated metal or molten plastic and gang rape. Terms like “human rights violations” are so clinical. Remember the human suffering behind them.
AG: What does this have to do with the COVID crisis as you allege?
DS: The degree to which Tedros is willing to let others be hurt to protect powerful patrons, and the depravity of which he’s capable, must be properly understood before the probability of a betrayal by him for China’s benefit can be assessed. Viewed through that lens, the probability accords with the most disparaging estimates. Obviously, the risk of another betrayal is intolerable.
AG: What do you say to those who argue that the middle of a pandemic is not the time to change WHO leadership?
DS: The trustworthiness of those on whom billions of lives depend must be unquestionable for public safety and to encourage compliance with WHO directives. Instead, the world’s most important public health agency is run by someone whose character would be impeached in any courtroom.
AG: What’s the bottom line here?
DS: If Tedros really cares about the WHO and its mission, he should prove it by resigning in favor of a new leader who can restore the agency’s reputation and relationship with the United States. Those on both sides of the WHO’s American funding cut debate should compromise by conditioning resumed financial aid on Tedros’ resignation.
Lastly, the Swiss should prosecute Tedros under international law for his Ethiopian human rights violations. Switzerland has in persona jurisdiction over Tedros since he resides there. He’s not protected by diplomatic immunity for those kinds of crimes. Ethiopian lives matter.