AS Zimbabwe approaches crucial general elections after holding a relatively peaceful recent referendum albeit under a shadow of resurging political repression and violence, the United Nations (UN) — whose focal point for electoral assistance mission is soon expected in the country to assess the political and security situation to see if it could help fund the polls — will be under close scrutiny following revelations its Harare office in 2008 ignored internal cholera warnings months before its outbreak exploded into a full-blown epidemic.
The Atlantic/Staff Writer
A recent UN tribunal 104-page ruling reveals how former United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) chief in Harare, Agostinho Zacarias, who had close links with President Robert Mugabe’s previous Zanu PF regime, was unable or unwilling to take measures to combat cholera — which eventually affected about 100 000 and killed at least 4 000 people.
Zimbabwe, a potential economic powerhouse which critics say has been ruined under Mugabe’s rule, 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 general elections are likely be held later in the year.
But the past couple of months have also seen another, less noted development that adds an additional layer of ambiguity to the country’s future.
On February 26, a UN tribunal in Johannesburg determined that Georges Tadonki, the head of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) in Zimbabwe in 2008, had been wrongfully fired from the UN after he attempted to warn UN headquarters of an oncoming cholera epidemic, whose severity was compounded by the on-going political violence.
He was fired after Zacarias, then the UN’s country chief in Harare and currently the UNDP resident co-ordinator in South Africa, decided that his own closeness to Zanu PF overrode his responsibilities to the UN’s missions and values.
Yet Zacarias was actively abetted by officials at the UN headquarters in Turtle Bay, a New York neighbourhood around Manhattan, who gave in to his demands, which included the marginalisation 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.
Tadonki filed a wrongful termination claim against the UN after the organisation 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 do not adhere to several important aspects of accepted US and European legal procedure.
The UN-appointed judges found that Tadonki’s firing was the result of concentric layers of favouritism 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.
According to the tribunal, in addition to upholding the egalitarian values of the UN Charter, Zacarias’ 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 Mugabe’s then Zanu PF ruling party.
According to Robert Amsterdam, who was one of Tadonki’s lawyers, Zacarias’ testimony revealed that he had known various Zanu PF leaders when they were based in Mozambique during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle in the 1970s.
According to the decision, during his posting in Zimbabwe, Zacarias “would spend most of his social time with Nicholas Goche, a Zanu PF politburo member and current Transport minister. This closeness spurred a wilful ignorance of the country’s deteriorating conditions”.
In the run-up to the bloody 2008 elections, “Zacarias seemed to not take cognisance of the fact that there was likely to be widespread and unprecedented violence”, despite the mobilisation of pro-Zanu PF paramilitary forces.
Even as pro-Mugabe militants 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.
“The bottom line,” the tribunal concludes, “is that the political agenda that Zacarias was engaged in with the government of Zimbabwe far outweighed any humanitarian concerns that Ocha (Tadonki’s office) may have had.”
In the report’s most scathing section, the judges explain that Zacarias’ closeness to 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 Zacarias was to what extent these humanitarian concerns should be exposed and addressed and the risk that there was of infuriating the Mugabe government,” reads part of the report.
Zanu PF links
“Matters started to sour when Tadonki started doing his job. Zacarias preferred that he remain quiet. But if he remained quiet, Ocha at (the UN) headquarters would say he was not doing his job. Therefore, while silence would bring him trouble from Ocha, noise would infuriate Zacarias.
“When the applicant started organising a forum made up of the NGOs, the United Nations and the donors to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe with the approval of Zacarias and to achieve a common understanding of the humanitarian situation, Zacarias became angry.”
Tadonki did not stay silent however; he “had the courage to inform the Ocha headquarters in New York that Zimbabwe was on the brink of a humanitarian crisis while 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.
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 2009, after he had warned of the potential ravages of the looming cholera outbreak. Tadonki was investigated by a UN bureaucrat at Zacarias’ behest, even when there was no proof of professional malfeasance.
“Part of the reason nobody could take on Zacarias was that his role was unassailable,” explains Amsterdam. UN headquarters was convinced that in terms of their Zimbabwe operations, “Zacarias was the absolutely critical pivot, and everything could be sacrificed to him.”
Tadonki’s two predecessors were also fired after brief and tumultuous postings to Harare, and Amsterdam believes that the UN knowingly sent his client into an extremely hostile work environment.
“That they could have put anybody into the situation after Zacarias had savaged the prior two occupants of that post was just inhumane. It was like they were setting him up for exactly what transpired,” said Amsterdam.
Still, the UN has stated that it is appealing its own tribunal’s decision.
For Amsterdam, the decision to appeal reveals just how little the UN has learned from the Tadonki affair.
“If you had a normal organisation, heads would roll,” he says. “Structures would change. But clearly this is not a normal organisation. This is an organisation that’s pathological in its respect for its employees.”
The events in the Tadonki case mostly happened in 2008, but they are less distant than they seem — and not just because of the UN’s plans to appeal.
In a plausible worst-case scenario, this year might bear a similarity to the crisis of 2008. With elections planned for an as-yet-unannounced date later in the year, the country could be heading towards another inflection point, or even another explosion — situations in which international organisations must take on heavy humanitarian and moral responsibilities.
“The UN was being asked, and will be asked in the future, to play a key role in the transition in Zimbabwe, and they have been completely contaminated by their behaviour,” says Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, and an official in the US State Department’s African Affairs office during the 2008 election crisis.
“It comes down to trust. Who is the UN supposed to be working for?
The signals were pretty clear that parts of the UN office in Harare were working very closely with Zanu PF,” he said.
The successful constitutional referendum raises the possibility of elections that are at least procedurally sound.
In addition, Zimbabwe and Zambia are co-hosting the UN World Tourism Organisation’s general assembly in August, raising hopes that some within Zanu PF genuinely want to re-integrate the country with the rest of the region and the international community more generally. A clean vote would be an ideal place to start.
But Moss sees little reason to believe that the party’s brutal electoral calculus has changed.
“There’s no prospect of an opposition victory as long as Mugabe is alive,” he says.
There is evidence that Zanu PF is already going after opposition and civil society organisations in the run-up to elections.
Police have of late targeted civil society groups and activists, including human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, while the MDC parties are complaining of resurgent violence.
“There’s an impressive level of political direction and assertiveness by ordinary citizens, human rights defenders, and civil society,” says Jeff Smith, an advocacy officer for the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights. “What’s worrying is that the Zanu PF regime has really been able to keep these social forces in check.”
This year’s vote could be no more legitimate than 2008’s. The question however is still whether Mugabe will allow the opposition to win — and whether it is possible to have any kind of democratic process in a country where the government is so determined to hold onto power.