Questions about tobacco, torture, oppression and party politics for Dr Tedros Adanhom, Ethiopia’s contender for WHO Director General, 2017

A poor 5-year-old girl sells cigarettes and chewing gum for her mother on a busy roadside in Addis Ababa Ethiopia, January 2017.

Dr Tedros Adanhom, until recently Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister (2012-2016) and previously Ethiopia’s Health Minister (2005-2012), is one of the final three contenders for the 2017 Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The current Director General of WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, has spoken out loudly and clearly about her views on the tobacco industry and its terrible global health impact. In particular, on many occasions Dr Chan has expressed her concerns about governments cooperating with tobacco companies and working against tobacco control policies in their own countries.

In 2016, the Ethiopian government sold 40% of shares in Ethiopia’s government-owned tobacco monopoly, National Tobacco Enterprise (NTE), for a horrifying $510 million to Japan Tobacco International (JTI), one of the world’s wealthiest transnational tobacco companies. Japan Tobacco International prides itself in its investments in smokers in “emerging markets,” a euphemism it uses for “developing countries.”

Even before this devastatingly unethical and unhealthy tobacco deal between the Ethiopian government and Japan Tobacco International, I wrote, in 2014, a letter to the medical journal, the Lancet, expressing my concerns about tobacco in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government had made a deal with British American Tobacco to break its own laws of tobacco advertising, allowing hundreds of posters advertising BAT’s Rothmans cigarettes to appear all over Addis Ababa. I asked the editor of the Lancet to keep my identity anonymous at the time, because I was a professor at Addis Ababa University, and feared criticizing the oppressive Ethiopian regime. Dr Tedros Adanhom was an important cabinet member at the time, and was very much involved in the government’s policy decisions.

The editor of the Lancet published an article (using my photos and observations), called, “A plague rises in Ethiopia.” You can read it here:

You can also watch this TV interview in which I discuss the tobacco dealings of the Ethiopian government, and give reasons why I do not believe that Dr Tedros Adanhom is a suitable candidate for the upcoming WHO Director General job:

You can also read more about the Ethiopian government’s complicity with cigarette deals, and with advertising British American Tobacco’s cigarettes on posters in Ethiopia several years ago, in which the government knowingly broke its own laws on tobacco advertising:

The Japan Tobacco International/ Ethiopian government deal will be devastating for the health of Ethiopians, who already have enough health and other problems to handle, including drought and food insecurity, malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, childhood pneumonias and diarrhea, to name a few, as well as poverty and political oppression, worsened by the recent state-of-emergency imposed by the Ethiopian government.

The Ethiopian government/ Japan Tobacco International deal also contravenes the laws of the WHO FCTC tobacco treaty (Article 5.3), which the Ethiopian government ratified in 2014.

That’s right, the government that Dr Tedros Adanhom was a prominent member of, broke the laws of WHO, the very organization of which he hopes to become Director General!

How can Dr Tedros Adanhom, as Director General of WHO, speak out against tobacco issues in the same concerned way that Dr Margaret Chan has, when he has not even spoken out against his own government’s unethical and unhealthy dealings with the tobacco industry?

In addition, as Foreign Minister in January, 2013, and very soon after he switched from being Health Minister to Foreign Minister, Dr Tedros Adanhom held a meeting with the British Foreign Minister, William Haigh, and representatives from about 30 British companies. The aim was to encourage investment of these companies in Ethiopia. One of them was British American Tobacco. The link below provides the source of this meeting:

I do not see how a man who wishes to be Director General of the WHO can justify his support for investment of tobacco in Ethiopia, where the WHO has predicted there will be a serious increase in smoking prevalence in the coming years.

Several people have argued with me, saying that Dr Tedros was one of “many ministers” and was Foreign Minister at the time of this deal, so he can be excused for not speaking out. However, Ethiopia has only about 30 ministers- don’t they sit together and communicate with each other? We are dealing here with a minister who was, after all, Minister of Health from 2005 to 2012. And, as Foreign Minister, he was a prominent member of the Ethiopian government at the time of the tobacco deal, so he should have known about the deal.

img_20170109_111437     img_20170110_074100

Left: a man buys a single cigarette from a street vendor in Addis Ababa. Right: Sales of cigarettes by street vendors are widespread in Ethiopia. While sales of single cigarettes, and sales to minors and by minors under 18 are illegal, these laws are not enforced. Both photos were taken in January 2017.

Because Dr Tedros Adanhom is aiming to be WHO Director General and, if he is to represent and defend good global health policies, he should certainly be concerned about serious health issues, such as this tobacco deal, in his own country. He should speak out loudly and clearly against it!

Also, if many of the medical students that I taught, and to whom I presented a course on tobacco, were aware of, and concerned about, this unhealthy deal, surely a minister who aims to be Director General of WHO should be well aware of the deal and very concerned about it?


A tray of chewing gum, candy and cigarettes, including single cigarettes, sold by a young boy on the streets of Addis Ababa, January 2017.

Dr Tedros Adanhom, health extension workers, party politics and denial of food aid and medical care for opposition party supporters.

Another major issue that should trigger very loud alarm bells and concerns over Dr Tedros Adanhom’s candidacy for WHO Director General, is his major claim to fame as one of the instigators of the health extension worker (HEW) system of health care in Ethiopia.

To give him credit, Dr Tedros Adanhom was involved in developing Ethiopia’s HEW system, which allows people in remote small Ethiopian towns and villages to access basic medical care, including, for example, vaccinations, HIV screening and prevention advice and sanitation education.

HEWs are “handpicked” from high school at age 15-16 and trained for a year in health care issues, then they go off to work in various villages and towns around the country to give basic medical care and advice.

However, during my four years as a professor in Ethiopia, when I travelled and did research projects with students in the countryside, I discovered that HEWs have a more sinister role added to their role in basic preventive health care …

It is common knowledge that HEWs not only are trained in health care, but that they also attend classes designed to indoctrinate them in government party politics. They are trained to be government party “informants” and help the Ethiopian regime maintain its control and oppression over its citizens.

Not only were villagers aware of this, but also I met numerous health extension workers personally, and several of them told me that they frequently attended classes to indoctrinate them in the regime’s party politics. Some were even opposed to the government’s politics, but felt they had no option other than to become party members, or they feared they would lose their jobs.

As one HEW said to me, “I hate the government, but what can I do? I have to pay for food for my children to survive.” Another person I met had been a HEW but gave up her job because “I could not use my work to help the government oppress my friends.”

If you doubt my words, Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected human rights organization, has documented and reported the use of HEWs as Ethiopian government “spies.” This unethical use of HEWs is not only happening today, but it also happened whilst Dr Tedros Adanhom was, as Minister of Health, directly involved in the programme, so he undoubtedly knew about it. Human Rights Watch produced a report in 2010, while he was Minister of Health:

In this report, you will find documented reports of unethical use of HEWs for political oppression. I can personally corroborate similar findings.

Horrifyingly, people, including babies, are denied food aid and medical care if they are opposition party supporters.

Here are some excerpts from that HRW document:

“A woman from Boricha said that Ministry of Health extension workers who weighed her child told her that the child was entitled to assistance, but that the kebele chairman denied the “pink slip” necessary to attend the feeding distribution.”

A farmer and opposition leader from another woreda in the southern region told a similar story of women and children being required to pay for “pink” slips. They [HEWs] did measurements of the women and children; then those that could not pay or the opposition party members were left out. Those who are doing the assessment are government workers, working in cooperation with GOAL [an NGO] since March 2009. The poor ones have another chance to get it, next time, if they can pay, but the opposition members cannot get it at all…. There are many children whose bellies are swelling.

I was told that HEWs often spy on villagers as government “informers” and also that they are instructed to choose specific party-loyal villagers to serve as “spies” in their communities and to be “informers” against other villagers who speak out against the government. Several people I met also told me of their personal experience, or that of their friends and family members, in which they had been denied proper health care and food aid because HEWs had informed local government officials about their opposition to the ruling party.

Another major ethical argument against Dr Tedros Adanhom’s candidacy for WHO Director General relates to his being a minister, and therefore a prominent member, of an oppressive government that was not democratically elected. He is a party member and was an integral component (minister!) of the government of Ethiopia, which, during its 26 years of being in power, has progressively stifled human rights and freedom and increased its grip of oppression of its citizens.

Tribute to Fidel Castro (Addis Ababa, January 2017).

Human rights organizations have documented gross abuse of power by the Ethiopian government, including indiscriminate killing, jailing and torturing of its political opponents.

Numerous proclamations have stifled constitutional and human rights of Ethiopians, banning foreign NGOs from supporting the human rights of children, women and the disabled, and effectively reducing the funding of local NGOs, preventing them from standing up effectively for the rights of women, children and the disabled.

So called “anti-terrorism” laws that stifle freedom of press have resulted in incarceration of numerous journalists. As a minister in this government’s cabinet, Dr Tedros Adanhom undoubtedly supported its oppression and abuse of Ethiopian citizens’ rights.

There is so much fear of saying anything against the government in Ethiopia, especially following the recent declaration of a state-of-emergency, that neither medical students nor anyone else will dare to speak out. I speak out here only because I am no longer in Ethiopia.

Please click on the link below and sign the petition to stop tobacco farm extension and increased cigarette production in Ethiopia. Give your voice to Ethiopians who cannot even access the petition due to lack of internet access and oppression:

4 thoughts on “Questions about tobacco, torture, oppression and party politics for Dr Tedros Adanhom, Ethiopia’s contender for WHO Director General, 2017

Add yours

  1. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Poverty level does not represent the absence of natural resources. Instead, it represents the absence of democracy and regard for human rights. Building modern hospitals and caring for the sick require enormous resources. In countries like Ethiopia where poverty and human right violations are the norm, the best possible public health action supposed to be promoting human rights and preventing diseases. Respect for human rights improves access to the health determinants of health. I have been researching public health conditions in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government social policies are contrary to the principles public health. Instead of creating healthy social policies creates conflicts, kills, imprisons, tortures and forces people to flee as refugees.

    When Dr Tedros Adanhom was a foreign minister, he routinely defended the Ethiopian government human right records. When he was a Minister of health, publicly funded hospitals were routinely falsified the cause of deaths. For example, in the case of a young man named Biyansa who died resulted from torture, to protect the image of the Ethiopian government, the hospital reported the cause of death as cancer.

    Protecting human rights, human dignity is part promoting the social well-being of people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. Thank you. Ethiopians who have witnessed the horrors of oppression should speak out here so readers don’t just think I’m exaggerating. I saw the oppression myself and even was a victim of it while I was a professor there. Most Ethiopians will not dare speak out unless they are diaspora, out of fear. Much of what is going on in Ethiopia stays in Ethiopia because people are silenced by the oppression or don’t have access to social media/ internet to voice their opinions, and the media is state-controlled.


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