Ethiopia’s Tedros Ghebreyesus Becomes First African Elected As World Health Organization Chief

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian health minister, has been chosen to head the World Health Organization (WHO) and is the first African to do so since the creation of the United Nations agency in 1948. Tedros becomes the first African to hold the seat.

For the first time, the WHO head was chosen through a secret ballot process where all the 194 member states, from big countries like India and China to the smallest ones like Vanuatu and Vatican, could push their choice of candidate through a one-country, one-vote process.

However, countries that have not paid their dues to WHO — including Central African Republic, Comoros, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, and Ukraine — were ineligible to vote.

Ghebreyesus defeated British candidate and former Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Ebola David Nabarro and Pakistani former health minister Sania Nishtar at the Palais des Nations in Geneva where nations have gathered to deliberate on global health issues as well as choose the next director-general (DG) for the ongoing 70th session of the World Health Assembly (WHA).

The six original candidates who had applied for the post were winnowed down to three by the WHO’s executive board (EB) in January 2017 after two sessions of interaction between the candidates and governments.

In the first round of contest between the three final candidates, Ghebreyesus garnered 95 votes, while Nabarro got 52 votes and Nishtar had 38 votes. Since Ghebreyesus did not get a clear two-thirds majority, the two candidates with the highest votes got pushed to the second round.

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In the second round, Ghebreyesus got 121 votes — just one vote short of the clear two-third majority required — while Nabarro got 62 votes, pushing the contest to the third round which required only a simple majority to win the elections. Tedros got 133 votes — though only 98 was required — finally defeating Nabarro.

Ghebreyesus’ campaign was marred by widespread media attention including by The New York Times, which said that Ghebreyesus had covered up cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia by reporting them to the WHO as “acute watery diarrhoea”. Ghebreyesus has denied this charge. During the opening plenary, a freak incident of a man shouting slogans against Ghebreyesus startled the audience.

All roads should lead to universal health coverage — it should be the centre of gravity,” Ghebreyesus said in a speech before the elections.

“As you have heard before, while WHO has never had a director-general from Africa, no one should elect me because I am from Africa but if you agree there is real value in electing a leader who has worked in one of the toughest environments and transformed the health system, who can bring a fresh perspective, an angle with which the world has never seen before,” he added.

Ghebreyesus, 52, is credited with cutting down on deaths due to malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis when he served as his country’s health chief.

Margret Chan steps down after ten years as the WHO chief with her tenure having seen its fair share of controversies and unexpected health emergencies like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa apart from a spike in humanitarian needs accruing from wars in Syria and Yemen.

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