Case Raises Questions About U.N.’s Role in Zimbabwe

A former U.N. official claims his warnings of a coming calamity were stifled by a U.N. bureaucracy intent on keeping good relations with Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In the 11 months between August 2008 and July of last year, nearly 100,000 Zimbabweans came down with cholera in the first countrywide epidemic of the disease in modern history. Previous outbreaks in Zimbabwe, which have occurred annually since 2003, had affected only pockets of the country. This time, cholera was everywhere. Corpses filled the streets and hospital beds. In some districts early in the crisis, half of those infected died.

It was a tragedy in every way — not least because the worst might have been prevented. Months before the initial outbreak exploded into a full-blown epidemic, Georges Tadonki, who headed the United Nations’ humanitarian office in Zimbabwe at the time, says he warned his superiors of the severe risk, suggesting to the U.N. country director, Agostinho Zacarias, that 30,000 cases or more were possible. But Zacarias stifled that warning, Tadonki claims.

"He forced us to put the figure very low," Tadonki told Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview. "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 an independent analyst, Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, confirmed that Tadonki had warned of a catastrophic outbreak.

And indeed, a Nov. 19, 2008, U.N. appeal for aid, issued months after the cholera epidemic began, predicted just 2,000 cholera cases. Just two months later, the death toll alone had already reached that number. In all, more than 4,000 people died between August 2008 and July 2009, and roughly 98,600 people had caught the disease. The true figures might be even higher.

"It was very clear that no action was taken" as the outbreak became apparent, Schenkenberg said. "That is what I would call criminal neglect on the part of the U.N."

Although some facts are in dispute, Tadonki’s story highlights the perils of U.N. engagement in authoritarian states such as Zimbabwe, from the moral choices about engaging with a country in crisis to the pitfalls of navigating "elections" in a place where they are neither free nor fair after three decades of dictatorial rule by Robert Mugabe. In fact, Tadonki says he was at war with his superiors not only about cholera, but also about the United Nations’ preparedness for an election in Zimbabwe that swiftly turned violent.

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 will be heard before a U.N. dispute tribunal in Nairobi, Kenya, on Feb. 23. This FP report is based on more than 200 pages of confidential U.N. documents, including emails and investigations; interviews with nearly a dozen U.N. and government officials, NGOs, and independent analysts; and a lengthy telephone interview with Tadonki.

None of Tadonki’s superiors at the United Nations who were contacted for this article, including Zacarias, would comment on the record. One senior U.N. official, who asked for anonymity because no disclosures could be made to support OCHA while litigation is ongoing, said, "We’re going to just have to take it on the chin." Some U.N. officials contested Tadonki’s allegations, including a former U.N. agency head who told FP 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.


Tadonki, a Cameroonian doctorate-holder with a specialty in mapping and a decade-long history with the United Nations, had arrived in Harare on March 25, 2008, at a fraught moment in Zimbabwe’s history. Once hailed as a model African state, the country had been hurtling toward disaster over the past several years, with an inflation rate rising to the billions of percentage points, food shortages pushing up incidences of malnutrition, and thousands of refugees and migrants spilling across the border into neighboring South Africa.

It was also a particularly challenging time for the U.N. mission there, which included a handful of U.N. agencies, in addition to OCHA, that worked hand in hand with international and local NGOs. Mugabe, who denied his country was in crisis, took issue with OCHA, whose mission was to communicate information about the humanitarian situation. The president and his ruling ZANU-PF party were particularly upset, Tadonki says, because of the agency’s participation in a 2005 U.N. report documenting the forced displacement of an estimated 700,000 Zimbabweans at the government’s behest.

Zacarias, the country director at the time, holds a political science doctorate from the London School of Economics and was once a member of FRELIMO, the former guerrilla movement in Mozambique. He arrived in Zimbabwe three years before Tadonki in March 2005, after two previous U.N. posts, one in Angola and later as special advisor on Africa to the secretary-general.

Tadonki, opposition figures, and some NGO officials raised questions about the proximity of Zacarias to Mugabe’s political party in interviews with FP. "He was certainly perceived as someone who was sympathetic to ZANU-PF," one MDC official told FP. But some U.N. officials said they saw Zacarias as a classic, old-school African diplomat who thought he could achieve more by maintaining good relations and access to the government.

As both humanitarian and country coordinator, Zacarias faced two conflicting mandates: to ensure that humanitarian aid was delivered in a neutral, unpoliticized way, while also working with Mugabe’s regime to coordinate an approach to developing the country. One senior U.N. official summed up the dilemma this way: "The U.N. has to work with the government. Clearly, we work in a lot of countries where the government can make it very challenging. But should we say forget it? Or stay and try to help?… To be the resident coordinator in some of these countries is not an easy task; you have to deal with the consequences of the actions of those regimes, but in a way that those regimes don’t take for granted that you’ll be there to clean up."

Unlike Zacarias, Tadonki was in Zimbabwe entirely in a humanitarian capacity, and the two men soon clashed. A dozen emails exchanged between Tadonki, Zacarias, members of the U.N. country team at the time, and some local NGO leaders, and later seen by FP, make it clear that their conflict was visible and pronounced.

"While my job as Head of OCHA Zimbabwe is not easy, it seems to me that you have made it the most difficult job on Earth," a particularly pointed Sept. 18, 2008, email from Tadonki reads. "It is not clear to me what triggered this astonishing, unexpected and unwarranted outburst," Zacarias responded nine hours later, carefully pushing back against Tadonki’s complaints.

Not long after his March 2008 arrival, Tadonki says, he updated the country’s contingency plan, a document that every country team produces to prepare for crises (released in final form here), to include political risk, a factor that had been excluded before. "The U.N. chief in country had been forcing agencies in Zimbabwe to say that Zimbabwe was on the same footing as Lesotho — telling us that the agriculture is troubling because there is no rain, that the education is failing because of a lack of resources from taxes," Tadonki recalled. In his eyes, however, the causes were political: Land seizures were rendering agriculture unproductive, and repression was hitting every sector hard. (Zacarias’s annual report for 2008 downplays the government’s role in the humanitarian crisis and doesn’t mention that the Mugabe regime refused to acknowledge the cholera epidemic until December.)

Then, on April 7, 2008, Tadonki sent what’s known as an "early warning assessment" to the head of OCHA, U.N. Undersecretary-General John Holmes. The warning was brutally frank. It declared that Zimbabwe’s U.N. country team was "not prepared to face the consequences of an emergency silently in the making" and cited "hesitations of the U.N. in responding to acts of political violence," warning that the coming months would see "dire consequences." Such strong words directed at the country team also represented a direct attack on Zacarias.

Tadonki sent his assessment directly to New York, but tensions escalated in Harare on May 14, 2008, after someone leaked Zacarias a copy of the document. In a meeting of fellow humanitarian workers, Zacarias confronted and admonished him for reporting that the United Nations was unprepared for a calamitous humanitarian situation.

The following week, a joint World Food Program, UNICEF, and OCHA regional mission arrived in Zimbabwe, staying from May 19 to 21. According to a draft of the mission’s report seen by FP, the mission concluded that "the U.N. and NGOs are in a ‘reactive’ mode." It also recommended that Tadonki’s agency be given more freedom to operate.

By then, however, the election violence was well under way. After the disputed first-round poll on March 29, Mugabe’s government denied the MDC’s claims of victory and doubled down on repression. On June 4, the government banned all humanitarian workers from moving throughout the country in the days before the June 27 runoff vote.

Tadonki started receiving reports of desperation. "I have pictures of people with their hands crushed. In Zimbabwe you vote with your finger — [so government thugs] would say, ‘In June, we will see which finger you use to vote against Mugabe,’" he recalled. State-orchestrated violence left "at least 36 dead; hundreds tortured; thousands beaten; and tens of thousands deprived of food or displaced," according to Jon Elliott of Human Rights Watch.

"We are responsible for those deaths," Tadonki said. "If the United Nations had told Mugabe, ‘We know what you are planning,’ we wouldn’t have seen it…. We all sat [in Harare] and knew that in the countryside, 60 percent of Zimbabweans were being killed or raped." No high-level U.N. statements regarding the election violence or the humanitarian ban were made until June, after both were already under way.

One former agency head said that the whole country team, not just OCHA, was well aware of the coming election violence and prepared for "the worst case scenario [of] the possibility of 250,000 to 300,000 people fleeing the violence by crossing the border to neighboring countries," he told FP by email. "A regional contingency plan was established to be able to respond in the event this would happen. Mr Tadonki’s scenarios did not exceed these projections."

On top of the election violence, Zimbabwe had a nascent epidemic on its hands, and the tension between Tadonki and Zacarias continued to build over the summer as the first cholera cases began coming in. Frustrated by his inability to make headway within the U.N. system, Tadonki shared NGO figures on the burgeoning epidemic with the Ministry of Welfare, without the NGOs’ consent, first in June and again in October.

"This led to a crisis of confidence between the NGOs and head of OCHA, of course," said Schenkenberg, who had come to Zimbabwe in 2008 to investigate the cholera situation. But the affair, according to Schenkenberg, also "gave Zacarias a pretext to try to get rid of [Tadonki]." In a letter dated July 7, 2008, two NGO leaders expressed concern about Tadonki, claiming they were losing confidence in his leadership. Schenkenberg’s office, an organization that represents NGOs worldwide, saw the letter and sent him to Harare to investigate. "OCHA was not the smartest in terms of sharing without consultation, but the real problem was the lack of action on part of [Zacarias]," Schenkenberg said.

Over the summer and into the fall, the cholera epidemic exploded, killing Zimbabweans at an alarming clip. Cholera epidemics in Africa have been known to edge up on 2 to 3 percent mortality rates at their worst. But in Zimbabwe, rates rose well over 5 percent — five times the rate cholera epidemics should yield if they are tackled with simple, readily available treatments, according to international guidelines. Meanwhile, the Mugabe government denied there was even a cholera outbreak until December 2008.

Some former U.N. agency heads from Zimbabwe highlighted Zacarias’s accomplishments as an interlocutor with the government. For example, beginning in January 2008, the government imposed a ban on paying partner organizations in dollars at a time when the Zimbabwean currency was essentially worthless due to the massive hyperinflation. This made it near impossible to procure or to pay distributors of aid. But on Nov. 12, 2008, those restrictions at last ended, thanks to "intense negotiations lead by the UN Resident Coordinator [Zacarias], with support from UNICEF," one former agency head noted in an email.

Other NGO and U.N. colleagues of Tadonki defend their response, saying that they found ways to work with the government to bring in medical aid. Custodia Mandlhate, a World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Harare, said in an email that the response had been delayed, but 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, remembers it differently. The WHO, he said, which is supposed to lead the health response, "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.

By January 2009, Tadonki was gone. Assistant U.N. Secretary-General Catherine Bragg, who terminated Tadonki’s contract, cited concerns about a poor performance review and relations with donors in his dismissal notice, according to U.N. internal reports. A November 2008 OCHA mission concluded that Tadonki lacked leadership skills and had polarized the OCHA office.

One donor, however, wrote in a Jan. 19, 2009, email to Bragg, "As a donor, I can tell you that it is not the right time to leave a such important office during this time of humanitarian crisis including cholera, without a head. The gap that this may create while you are looking for someone else will be huge…. I can speak for other donors if I say that since the cholera breakout, we have been receiving regular daily and weekly reports from OCHA which have been very useful." Bragg declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.

Tadonki’s dismissal case will be heard starting Tuesday in Nairobi.

Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.