Internal emails reveal WHO knew of sex abuse claims in Congo
BENI, Congo (AP) — When Shekinah was working as a nurse’s aide in northeastern Congo in January 2019, she said, she was offered a job from a World Health Organization doctor at double her salary — in exchange for sex.
“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 said the Canadian doctor, Boubacar Diallo, who often bragged about his connections to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made the same proposition to several of her friends.
When a staffer and three Ebola experts working in Congo informed WHO management about sex abuse concerns regarding Diallo, they were told not to take the matter further, The Associated Press has found.
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.” However, an AP investigation has now found that despite its public denial of knowledge, senior WHO management wasn’t 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.
Eight top officials privately acknowledged WHO failed to effectively tackle sex abuse during the Ebola outbreak, emails, recordings of internal meetings, legal documents and interviews with dozens of aid workers and WHO staffers show. WHO declined to comment on any specific sex abuse allegations or how they were managed and said it had taken steps to address the problem.
“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 spokeswoman Marcia Poole said in an email.
WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan acknowledged in internal meetings that sexual abuse problems during the agency’s outbreak responses were unlikely to be exceptional.
“You can’t just pin this and say you have one field operation that went badly wrong,” he said. “This is in some sense the tip of an iceberg.”
As WHO struggled to control spiraling Ebola cases in Congo in early 2019, emergency operations manager Dr. Michel Yao received an email with the subject line: “Private. Chat.”
“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, saying he was concerned about Diallo.
Yao responded that the matter would be handled, but the staffer said his concerns were dismissed. An internal WHO investigation failed to corroborate the charges, but those who complained about Diallo were not interviewed.
Diallo was described as a charismatic manager with connections to WHO’s senior leaders, including director-general Tedros. On WHO’s website, Tedros, Yao and Diallo are pictured smiling and bumping elbows during one of Tedros’ 14 trips to Congo during the outbreak.
Diallo rejected claims of sexual misconduct.
“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 April 2019, Yao received another email detailing more alleged sexual misconduct, this time about the other doctor the AP tracked down, Ngandu.
“I hereby inform you that we have a colleague who has impregnated a girl from Beni,” outbreak manager Mory Keita wrote to Yao. Keita told Yao a young woman and her aunt had come to Beni’s Hotel Okapi looking for WHO managers, with two armed police officers. The woman’s aunt said the young woman had been having an affair with Ngandu and was now pregnant.
They asked WHO to cover the cost of the woman’s medical costs and for money to buy land, “given that Dr. Jean-Paul will abandon the girl and she will be obliged to raise her child alone.”
Keita said he felt that Yao should be informed “so that you would give us your directions for how to better manage this problem.”
One week after the email was sent, Ngandu signed a notarized contract confirming he would pay the young woman $100 a month until her baby was born, cover her pregnancy costs and buy her a plot of land. Keita and Achile Mboko, a WHO human resources staffer, signed as witnesses.
Ngandu said he wasn’t the father of the baby and the deal was a “private matter.” He said he agreed to it after his WHO colleagues, including Keita, “advised me to settle out of court to avoid sullying the reputation of the organization and myself.” The young woman declined to talk to the AP.
It is unclear if Yao reported the abuse allegations to his superiors, as required by WHO protocol. He has since been promoted to be director of WHO Geneva’s Strategic Health Operations Department.
On Oct. 15, Tedros appointed an independent panel to investigate sex abuse during the Ebola outbreak in Congo; no findings are expected until the end of August. At a town hall meeting in November, Ryan acknowledged sex abuse issues had been “neglected” for years.
Many WHO staffers, especially women, were unconvinced.
“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.”
Back in Congo, Shekinah said she “couldn’t count how many times” she had slept with WHO’s Diallo after accepting a job for which she was not qualified.
“I wanted to quit. But because of my financial problems, I endured it,” she said. Even after they separated, Shekinah said he continued to message her, asking her to send him nude pictures.
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.