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.