How the UN Covered Up a Cholera Epidemic in Zimbabwe

A country chief got too close to the Zanu-PF and fired an officer who was trying to stop a deadly disease.
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Cholera patients hold cups of sugar solution as they rest inside a ward Budiriro Polyclinic in Harare on March 18, 2009. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Zimbabwe, a potential economic powerhouse ruined at the hands of one of the most restrictive and longest-tenured dictatorships on earth, is heading for a potential turning point. A mostly peaceful, popular referendum on March 16 approved a relatively progressive constitution that includes a theoretically strong bill of rights, and presidential elections will likely be held later in the year. But the current president is the 89-year-old Robert Mugabe, who took power in 1980 and has shown no subsequent appetite for giving it up. In 2008, his ZANU-PF party unleashed a wave of violent intimidation and repression after Mugabe lost the first round of a presidential election to the Movement for Democratic Change's Morgan Tsvangarai, a crisis that only ended when the opposition agreed to a power-sharing scheme in which Mugabe essentially remained in charge. The upcoming election is another chance for the MDC to score an electoral victory over Mugabe -- but also a chance for ZANU-PF to violently cement its control.

The U.N. tribunal's 104-page ruling reads as a damning survey of misplaced priorities and institutional rot.

The past couple months have seen another, less noted development that adds an additional layer of ambiguity to the country's future. On February 26th, a UN tribunal in Johannesburg determined that Georges Tadonki, the head of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Zimbabwe in 2008, had been wrongfully fired from the UN after he attempted to warn headquarters of an oncoming cholera epidemic, whose severity was compounded by the ongoing electoral violence. He was fired after Agostinho Zacarias, then the UN's country chief in Zimbabwe and currently the UN Development Program's Resident Coordinator in South Africa, decided that his own closeness with ZANU-PF overrode his responsibility to the UN's missions and values. Yet Zacarias was actively abetted by officials in Turtle Bay, who gave into his demands, which included the marginalization and eventual firing of Tadonki, even as conditions inside Zimbabwe deteriorated. The case raises the question of just how the UN will perform in Zimbabwe if the events of 2008 repeat themselves -- or in the event that the country finally experiences its long sought-after democratic transition.

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Tadonki brought a wrongful termination claim against the UN after the organization effectively fired him in early 2009. The UN's bulletproof legal immunity necessitates an unusual system for adjudicating such cases. Because the UN cannot be sued, tribunals convened by the UN itself deal with employment claims, pseudo-courts that don't adhere to several important aspects of accepted U.S. and European legal procedure.

So it's significant the tribunal's 104-page ruling in this case is such a damning survey of misplaced priorities and institutional rot.

The UN-appointed judges found that Tadonki's firing was the result of concentric layers of favoritism and bad faith, tendencies that defined not only the country head's relationship with Mugabe's government, but Turtle Bay's apparently-backward view of the UN's entire mission in Zimbabwe. This case involves more than just a single UN bureaucrat enjoying a disturbingly close relationship with one of the most oppressive governments on earth. The UN system also actively abetted a toxic organizational status quo in Zimbabwe, even when it meant running the career of an employee who the tribunal found to be a talented humanitarian professional and a courageous whistleblower -- and even if it meant putting thousands of Zimbabweans' lives in danger.

According to the tribunal, in addition to upholding the egalitarian values of the UN Charter, Zacarias's job charged him with "speaking out about humanitarian issues and defending humanitarian principles." In these respects, he was a clear failure. He had a tight relationship with members of the ruling party. According to Robert Amsterdam, who was one of Tadonki's lawyers, Zacarias's testimony revealed that he had known various ZANU-PF leaders when what was then an anti-apartheid rebel movement was based in Mozambique. According to the decision, during his posting in Zimbabwe, Zacarias "would spend most of his social time with a Mr. Nicholas Goche, an old ZANU-PF politburo member and former head of the Central Intelligence Organization from 2000 to 2004." This closeness spurred a willful ignorance of the country's deteriorating conditions. In the run-up to the disastrous 2008 vote, "Zacarias seemed to not take cognizance of the fact that there was likely to be widespread and unprecedented violence," despite the mobilization of pro-ZANU-PF paramilitary. Even as pro-Mugabe thugs savaged the opposition MDC and its supporters, Zacarias did his best to shield himself from the ruling party's scrutiny, even if it meant discarding commonly-held humanitarian protocol:

According to the Applicant, the United Nations could not use the term Internally Displaced People (IDPs) as is the international practice. They were called "mobile and vulnerable population" in order to "protect" RC/HC Zacarias because he had the job of dealing with the government, and the government did not want to hear certain things. It did not want to hear that there were forcibly displaced Zimbabweans and such language mentioned in a report would embarrass RC/HC Zacarias. The Applicant said that there were about two million IDPs in the region of Murabantsvina...The use of "mobile and vulnerable population" would make it easier for Mr. Zacarias.

"The bottom line," the tribunal concludes, "is that the political agenda that RC/HC Zacarias was engaged in with the Government of Zimbabwe far outweighed any humanitarian concerns that OCHA [Tadonki's office] may have had." There were tangible costs attached to Zacarias's accommodation of Mugabe's government. In the report's most scathing section, the judges explain that Zacarias's closeness to the ZANU-PF made it impossible for Tadonki to carry out his duties as the head of OCHA -- a stance which had deep consequences for Zimbabweans counting on the UN's assistance in the midst of a cholera epidemic and political emergency:

There was a humanitarian drama unfolding and people were dying. Part of the population had been abandoned and subjected to repression. The issue between [Tadonki] and the HC [Zacarias] was to what extent these humanitarian concerns should be exposed and addressed and the risk that there was of infuriating the Mugabe government. Matters started to sour when the Applicant started doing his job. RC/HC Zacarias preferred that the Applicant remain quiet. If he remained quiet, OCHA at headquarters would say he was not doing his job. Therefore while silence would bring him trouble from OCHA, noise would infuriate the RC/HC. When the Applicant started organizing a forum made up of the NGOs, the United Nations and the donors to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe with the approval of RC/HC Zacarias and to achieve a common understanding of the humanitarian situation, the RC/HC became angry.

Tadonki didn't stay silent -- he "had the courage to inform the OCHA Headquarters in New York that Zimbabwe was on the brink of a humanitarian crisis while RC/HC Zacarias was pretending to the contrary." Zacarias had undermined Tadonki at other points during the OCHA head's brief yet eventful stint in Zimbabwe, most notably by convincing the Zimbabwean government not to approve residency accreditation for Tadonki's wife and children, who were living in South Africa during his period of employment (covered in paragraph 163 of the ruling). But Tadonki paid an additional and even deeper price for his willingness to warn Turtle Bay about Zimbabwe's humanitarian plight -- he was fired in January of 2009, after he had warned of the potential ravages of the looming cholera outbreak, which was worsened by the electoral chaos and eventually killed over 4,000 people.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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