Internal emails reveal WHO knew of sex abuse claims in Congo
The World Health Organization has been facing widespread public allegations of systemic abuse of women by unnamed staffers.
BENI, Congo — When Shekinah was working as a nurse’s aide in northeastern Congo in January 2019, she said, a World Health Organization doctor offered her a job investigating Ebola cases at double her previous salary — with a catch.
“When he asked me to sleep with him, given the financial difficulties of my family …. I accepted,” said Shekinah, 25, who asked that only her first name be used for fear of repercussions. She added that the doctor, Boubacar Diallo, who often bragged about his connections to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also offered several of her friends jobs in return for sex.
A WHO staffer and three Ebola experts working in Congo during the outbreak separately told management about general sex abuse concerns around Diallo, The Associated Press has learned. They said they were told not to take the matter further.
WHO has been facing widespread public allegations of systemic abuse of women by unnamed staffers, to which Tedros declared outrage and emergencies director Dr. Michael Ryan said, “We have no more information than you have.” But an AP investigation has now found that despite its public denial of knowledge, senior WHO management was not only informed of alleged sexual misconduct in 2019 but was asked how to handle it.
The AP has also for the first time tracked down the names of two doctors accused of sexual misconduct, Diallo and Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu, both of whom were reported to WHO.
Ngandu was accused by a young woman of impregnating her. In a notarized contract obtained by the AP, two WHO staffers, including a manager, signed as witnesses to an agreement for Ngandu to pay the young woman, cover her health costs and buy her land. The deal was made “to protect the integrity and reputation” of WHO, Ngandu said.
When reached by the AP, both Diallo and Ngandu denied wrongdoing. The investigation was based on interviews with dozens of WHO staffers, Ebola officials in Congo, private emails, legal documents and recordings of internal meetings obtained by the AP.
A senior manager, Dr. Michel Yao, received emailed complaints about both men. Yao didn’t fire Ngandu despite the reported misconduct. Yao didn’t have the power to terminate Diallo, a Canadian, who was on a different kind of contract, but neither he nor any other WHO managers put Diallo on administrative leave.
The AP was unable to ascertain whether Yao forwarded either complaint to his superiors or the agency’s internal investigators, as required by WHO protocol. Yao has since been promoted to be director of Geneva’s Strategic Health Operations Department.
Eight top officials privately acknowledged that WHO had failed to effectively tackle sexual exploitation during the Ebola outbreak and that the problem was systemic, recordings of internal meetings show. The revelations come at a time when the U.N. health agency is winding down its response two recent Ebola epidemics in Congo and Guinea, and is already under pressure for its management of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHO declined to comment on specific sex abuse allegations, and none of the 12 WHO officials contacted responded to repeated requests for comment. Spokeswoman Marcia Poole noted that Tedros announced an independent investigation of sex abuse in Congo after media reports came out in October. Findings are due at earliest in August, investigators have said.
“Once we have these, we will review them carefully and take appropriate additional actions,” Poole said. “We are aware that more work is needed to achieve our vision of emergency operations that serve the vulnerable while protecting them from all forms of abuse.”
WHO’s code of conduct for staffers says they are “never to engage in acts of sexual exploitation” and to “avoid any action that could be perceived as an abuse of privileges,” reflecting the unequal power dynamic between visiting doctors and economically vulnerable women. But an internal WHO audit last year found some aid workers weren’t required to complete the agency’s training on sex abuse prevention before starting work during Ebola.
“All of us may have been suspecting for as long as the Ebola response was taking (place) that something like this would be possible,” said Andreas Mlitzke, director of WHO’s office of compliance, risk management and ethics, during an internal meeting in November. Mlitzke likened WHO officials in Congo to “an invading force” and said, “Things like this have historically happened in wartime.”
Mlitzke said during the meeting that WHO typically “takes the passive approach” in its investigations, and that it couldn’t be expected to uncover wrongdoing among staffers.
“What prevents us from doing something proactive is our own psychology,” he said.
Ryan, meanwhile, said the sexual harassment incidents were unlikely to be exceptional.
“You can’t just pin this and say you have one field operation that went badly wrong,” he told his colleagues in an internal meeting. “It does reflect a culture as well … This is in some sense the tip of an iceberg.”
Internal emails from November 2019 show WHO directors were alarmed enough by the abuse complaints that they drafted a strategy to prevent sexual exploitation and appointed two “focal points” to liaise with colleagues in Congo and elsewhere. Directors also ordered confidential probes into sexual abuse problems more broadly and U.N training on how to prevent sexual harassment, along with the independent investigation announced last year.
But staffers remain concerned that not enough has been done. At a WHO meeting in January to address sex abuse, Dr. Renee Van de Weerdt, chief of emergency management and support, told colleagues that the risk “remains high across our operations” and that “more robust supervision” was needed.
Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, head of WHO’s learning and capacity development, said at an internal WHO discussion on sex abuse that “the impunity with which we have operated is leading to this.” She warned, “Training is not going to solve this problem.”
Shortly after Ebola was identified in eastern Congo in 2018, WHO’s Swiss headquarters gave the outbreak its most serious emergency designation, allowing Geneva to take control from its Africa office. WHO chief Tedros traveled to Congo 14 times during the epidemic to personally oversee the response, and his emergencies chief, Ryan, made at least seven visits.
Over 2018 and 2019, three Ebola experts, including two who worked for WHO at the time, told the AP they raised concerns about sex abuse in general, and Diallo in particular, with senior managers. But they said they were told that controlling the Ebola outbreak was more important, and two said Diallo was considered “untouchable” because of his relationship with Tedros.
Complaints about Diallo were also raised with emergency operations manager Yao, who was responsible for leading WHO’s overall Ebola response in Congo, with hundreds of staff, under Ryan’s supervision. On Feb. 22, 2019, Yao received an email from the WHO outbreak team leader in North Kivu with the subject line, “Private. Chat.”
“Chief, please let’s have a Private chat tomorrow,” the staffer emailed, saying he wanted to discuss Diallo, then an outbreak manager in North Kivu. The staffer didn’t want to be identified by the AP for fear of losing his job.
“We cannot afford to have people tarnishing the sweat and effort of individuals sacrificing themselves thru (sic) inappropriate sexual harassment and bullying,” the staffer wrote. “I will fill you in (in) private.”
Yao responded the next morning: “Ok we shall talk.” The staffer said that Yao told him the matter would be handled, but he didn’t believe his concerns were taken seriously and was very upset. He added that he was sidelined for complaining about Diallo.
Two WHO officials with knowledge of the situation said the agency investigated complaints that Diallo acted unprofessionally, including an alleged sexual assault, and there was insufficient evidence to corroborate the charges. But investigators failed to interview any of the women involved or the whistleblowers who flagged the harassment claims, according to a senior WHO official who didn’t want to be identified for fear of losing his job. Diallo continued to work for WHO months after concerns were raised about him.
Diallo was described as a charismatic, outgoing leader with connections to some of WHO’s top managers, including Tedros. In a speech in January 2019, Tedros singled out Diallo among the Ebola responders working under heavy gunfire in Beni.
On WHO’s website, Diallo, Tedros and Yao are pictured smiling and bumping elbows during Tedros’ June 2019 trip to Congo. On Diallo’s Facebook page, he appears in more than a dozen photos with Tedros.
Several months after Tedros’ visit, Diallo met Anifa, a young Congolese woman working in an Ebola treatment center in Beni. She said Diallo told her: “How can a beautiful girl like you work here, testing people’s temperatures and washing their hands? That’s terrible.” She said he offered her another job at five times more than her current salary where “the conditions were very simple,” according to him.
“He wanted me to sleep with him,” she told the AP, noting that Diallo frequently wore a badge with “VIP” inscribed in red, attached to his dark blue WHO vest. Anifa declined to share her full name, fearing it could harm her future job prospects. The AP doesn’t identify victims of sexual abuse.
“I told him I studied hard to be employed by the treatment center,” Anifa said. She rejected Diallo’s offer, saying that “if he hires me after sleeping with him ... I would be a sex slave, not a WHO employee.”
Diallo denied the claims outright.
“I have never offered a woman a job in exchange for sex and I have never sexually harassed a woman in my life,” he told the AP in an email. He said he was never informed of any complaints about his behavior at WHO or disciplined for misconduct, and his relationship with Tedros was “purely professional.”
Diallo said his contract for WHO finished at the end of July and he hasn’t worked for the agency since.
The same manager, Yao, was also told of alleged sexual misconduct by the other doctor, Ngandu, in an email obtained by the AP dated April 23, 2019, with the subject line, “Urgent need for your guidance.” Outbreak manager Mory Keita wrote in French: “I hereby inform you that we have a colleague who has impregnated a girl from Beni.”
Keita told Yao that a young woman and her aunt had come to the Hotel Okapi in Beni with two armed police officers, looking for senior WHO staff. They said the young woman had been having an affair with Ngandu, and the hospital had confirmed she was now pregnant. Ngandu was avoiding them, the aunt said, so they went to the police to find him.
Keita told Yao that when confronted, Ngandu acknowledged a relationship with the girl but said it was only for two weeks. The woman’s aunt, however, said her niece first spent the night with him about a month and a half ago, and at the time he gave her $100, “a detail that Ngandu could not deny,” the email noted.
The two women demanded payment for all medications and hospital treatment during pregnancy and the purchase of land for the child, “given that Dr. Jean-Paul will abandon the girl and she will be obliged to raise her child alone.”
“We have asked Jean-Paul to honor the request from the family of the girl and the aunt and try to find some common ground,” Keita said. “(Ngandu) suggested that we manage the situation here at our level here in Beni and not inform the hierarchy, but I felt ... you should be informed so that you would tell us your directions for how to better manage this problem.”
Less than one week later, Ngandu and the young woman signed a notarized contract in which he agreed to pay her $100 a month until her baby was delivered, to provide all necessary health care, and to buy her a plot of land in Beni. Four witnesses signed the document, including two from WHO, Keita and Achile Mboko, a human resources officer. Keita didn’t respond to requests for comment, and Mboko acknowledged his signature and presence.
Two handwritten contracts signed by the young woman and Ngandu confirmed he paid $2,800 for land with a house in a Beni neighborhood and transferred ownership rights to her in August 2019.
“This was a private matter and did not implicate WHO,” Ngandu told the AP. Ngandu said he wasn’t the father of the baby and that he agreed to the settlement after WHO colleagues, including Keita, “advised me to settle out of court to avoid sullying the reputation of the organization and myself.”
Ngandu, who is from Congo, said he wasn’t disciplined by WHO and continued to work until his contract ended in June 2019. Ngandu is now based in Namibia and said he is in talks with WHO for potential future employment. The young woman declined to talk to the AP.
Paula Donovan, co-director of the Code Blue Campaign, which is campaigning to end sexual exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers, said WHO’s attempt to effectively silence the victim was “beyond concerning.”
“It’s a perversion of justice that WHO thinks they could take the law into their own hands and resolve a case without going to the proper authorities,” Donovan said. “If this is how they treated one case, how are they treating all the others?”
In May 2019, Yao was told of yet another unrelated sexual harassment complaint in Bunia, roughly 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Beni. Two women told the World Bank they were refused jobs at WHO because they declined to sleep with the recruiting officer, in an email seen by an Ebola aid worker. The aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told the AP that the World Bank alerted Yao, but nothing was done.
Throughout the summer, Yao was praised for his leadership of the Ebola response. He was named in a July 17 tweet from Ebba Kalondo, a spokesperson for the African Union, as one of WHO’s “exceptional men” and was pictured alongside colleagues, including Diallo. Kalondo urged her followers: “Know their names. Write about them.”
Two months later, a young Congolese woman named Reby, then 20, met Diallo when he came into the Vodacom shop where she was working. He gave her $100 for “transport costs” to meet him at a hotel and asked her how much she made in the telecommunications job, she told the AP.
“My God, a beautiful girl like you who gets $60 a month is not enough,” he said, according to Reby. “If you sleep with me, you are going to be a high-ranking member of the Ebola response in Beni and you are going to receive around $800 a month.”
Reby declined to use her full name for fear of retribution. She said she refused Diallo’s offer, but continued to see him when he came into her shop. “From that day on, he always called me the difficult girl,” she said.
In a confidential slide presentation in January 2020, WHO officials reported that an internal U.N. review of the Ebola response in Congo had found a need for “safe-guarding mechanisms for preventing sexual exploitation.” All staff were to complete training on harassment and other issues.
The publication of general sex abuse allegations in Congo in the media last fall set off a flurry of responses from WHO.
Yao said in an internal meeting in September that despite U.N. protocols to prevent sexual abuse, “it looks like this system is not working at the grassroots level.” He added that a recent U.N. assessment hadn’t revealed any problems, “so we were surprised about a case happening.”
WHO director-general Tedros called the allegations a “shocking” betrayal in an email to staff and promised “serious consequences,” including immediate dismissal and referral to local authorities.
At a town hall meeting in November, emergencies chief Ryan said sexual abuse issues had been “neglected” for years and apologized to his staff.
“There are behaviors here that are not acceptable,” he said.
WHO staffers, especially women, were unconvinced.
“Quite frankly, I think this is not good enough,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, at the same meeting. “We know in every situation we go in, we’re at risk.”
Staffers also worried that problems persisted in the agency’s response to another Ebola outbreak in Congo last year.
“We still do not have a robust (sexual abuse prevention) program in place,” Geneva-based project officer Jessica Kolmer said during a meeting in November. She said donors told them their new measures, including posting flyers in their offices and establishing a sexual abuse prevention committee, were “not sufficient.”
Back in Congo, Anifa said she was deeply disturbed that WHO staffers hadn’t been disciplined for their treatment of women.
“I condemn WHO for not sanctioning Dr. Boubacar Diallo because I know already they have complaints against him,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘Why did the people who came to help us, to fight Ebola here at home, why do they want to destroy our lives?’”
Shekinah said she “couldn’t count how many times” she slept with Diallo. She said she knew about a dozen other women in Beni whom he had similarly victimized.
“I wanted to quit,” she said. “But because of my financial problems, I endured it.”
Shekinah said she was often paid in cash or mobile credit, with little paperwork. Even after she and Diallo separated, she said, he continued to ask for nude pictures or video calls while she was naked.
Diallo should be punished “for his sexual abuse of all those girls in Beni as a lesson to these international organizations that this should not happen again,” she said. “I would like justice to be done.”
Maria Cheng reported from London. Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.