Lies, Deceit and Aid: New Revelations about the World Food Programme’s conduct and the TPLF
A former director of the UN’s World Food Programme in Ethiopia has quietly put out a book that rips the veil off the politics, racism and deceit surrounding aid shipments to Tigray and confirming how the TPLF lied to the world while denying people food.
The book is titled At the Centre of the World in Ethiopia by Steven Were Omamo of Kenya, who served as the Representative and Country Director of the UN’s World Food Programme in Ethiopia from 2018 until he left the organization in December 2021.
Among his bombshell disclosures:
- Omamo confronted the TPLF official in charge of humanitarian assistance, Atinkut Mezgebu Wubneh, over abuse and assaults, including sexual assaults, of UN staff in rebel-held Amhara territory.
- When Omamo’s team asked for fuel to deliver more aid into Tigray, Atinkut admitted the TPLF had “millions of liters of fuel,” but wouldn’t give any to the WFP and other aid groups because it had “more important strategic priorities” than bringing aid to his own people and those in need in the region.
- When Nick Dyer, Britain’s first Special Envoy for Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Affairs, visited Dessie, he showed no interest afterwards in helping the IDPs that had fled to the camps in the area.
- There never was any famine in Tigray — a Famine Review Committee which “confirmed” the alleged findings of (incomplete) research hadn’t even bothered to visit Ethiopia to check its data.
- The WFP itself is afflicted with widespread racism, an office culture in which whites from North America and Europe are favored for positions in Africa over national candidates already in the hosting country.
- Employees were told to be careful how they examined racial issues as it might embarrass Executive Director David Beasley, a former governor of South Carolina.
According to Omamo, he was part of a “high-level political and humanitarian delegation” to Mekelle in November 2021 around the time that the TPLF — having recaptured the regional capital — was pushing deep into Afar and Amhara. He put several tough questions to a TPLF official (delicately reworded by the head of the delegation), and at the top of the list in Omamo’s book is:
“Why were TF [Tigrayan Forces] troops assaulting and abusing UN staff in Amhara, including sexually? What were the consequences for the perpetrators?”
Omamo’s claim may be the first public mention ever of UN staff suffering such abuse in the Amhara region. Interviewed over Zoom, Omamo would not give more details about how many such assaults or specifically sexual assaults occurred, how many victims there were, when these assaults happened, and what action was taken to ensure the staffers’ safety. “As you know, these cases are handled differently, and there are many confidential parts to it. And I really don’t have anything more to say on that, Jeff, I’m sorry.”
When asked if senior officials were aware of these attacks, Omamo replied, “There’s a process for dealing with these incidents. That process was followed.”
Whatever the process, there are still urgent questions about how WFP dealt with these cases and what action if any was taken to get TPLF personnel to stop preying on UN staff. As reported way back in October of 2021, the UN was willing to ignore TPLF soldiers harassing, beating and detaining UN workers in Tigray, but now it’s clear this conduct, as well as sexual assault, was being perpetrated in other regions.
Ethiopians might want to know as well why the WFP was ready to go public with other incidents, such as Ethiopia detaining 72 of its drivers in November 2021 or how debris from a drone strike hit one of its aid trucks this past September — yet wouldn’t publicly implicate rebels sexually assaulting and violently harming its own workers.
Omamo also wanted to know:
“Why were TF troops looting food from WFP and partner warehouses in Dessie and Kombolcha towns, both of which had recently fallen to TF? What were the consequences for the troops? How could WFP and partners be sure that this would not happen?
“Under what conditions would the TPLF allow the movement of cargo and personnel into Tigray through the Debre Birhan-Kombolcha-Mekelle corridor currently under TF control? This corridor had served as the main humanitarian channel into Tigray prior to the recapture of Mekelle and subsequent TF offensive into Amhara and Afar.
“Under what conditions would the TPLF allow [UN Humanitarian Air Service] flight landings in Kombolcha and Lalibela airports which were now under TF control? When might WFP have access to the Kombolcha airport to conduct an operational and safety assessment?”
In his book, Omamo writes that the TPLF “strenuously denied” the looting while showing no interest — even irritation — at the idea of bringing aid into those corridors and airports that had fallen under its control.
Omamo also writes that the head of the TPLF’s Bureau of Agriculture & Rural Development, Atinkut Mezgebu Wubneh, admitted at the November meeting that the “available fuel in the region stood at millions of liters, but the TPLF’s position was that this fuel would not be provided to WFP and other humanitarian actors because there were other ‘more important strategic priorities’ for the fuel than humanitarian assistance.”
Atinkut then exploded at Omamo: “How dare I speak to him like that about trucks and fuel?” At one point during the tense exchanges, Atinkut told him, “You are not a person. You are just a robot sent here by Abiy Ahmed.”
“It was not an easy discussion,” Omamo said via Zoom.
Omamo’s book confirms that trucks were not being returned to the WFP, and when he pressed Atinkut more on the fuel issue, the bureau head suggested the organization get fuel in Dessie for which they could “pay later.” As for tankers, Atinkut wanted Omamo to go appeal to the Ethiopian government for them.
When Omamo briefed his superiors on the TPLF’s position on the fuel, the “startling preference” of the WFP leadership was to keep lobbying the Abiy government to allow more tankers and fuel to move from Semera to Mekelle.
Omamo’s catalogue of frustration brings new context — and confirmation — for what many Ethiopians already long suspected. Despite even mainstream media reportage in September 2021 that hundreds of trucks weren’t coming back out of Tigray, high ranking UN officials kept favoring the TPLF side, with aid chief Martin Griffiths putting the blame solely on the government that same month.
Omamo claims he was not consulted on Executive Director David Beasley’s tweet displayed below, which “was tone deaf, seemingly ignorant of basic facts on the ground and thus confusing to WFP staff and our partners.”
“The most galling thing,” Omamo writes in his book, “was that our convoys to Tigray had been ‘rolling’ for many weeks and continued to do so. This was being made possible with support and facilitation from the Afar president’s office and several federal authorities.”
Yet when asked about the infamous TPLF theft of fuel in August 2022 and why the WFP seems to have made no follow-up, Omamo insists the situation in November 2021 and the more recent incident shouldn’t be compared. “The context is quite different. There’s a different dynamic in the country… I think one should not necessarily have that straight raw comparison but rather deal with each one in its own right.”
The Famine That Never Was
It wasn’t WFP leadership alone who displayed bias. The attitude extended to officials of other UN agencies. “There seemed to be only one acceptable narrative. Bad-guy government, good guy TPLF, backed by impractical, doctrinaire, and dogmatic reference to abstract humanitarian principles. It was totally unhelpful.”
Omamo describes in his book how in September 2021, Nick Dyer, appointed only a year before as the UK’s first Special Envoy for Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Affairs, had travelled to Mekelle and also — apparently at the WFP’s urging — visited Dessie as well. Omamo writes that he tried to impress upon Dyer to “look beyond Tigray and begin to understand and speak about the food security implications of the [TPLF] offensive into Amhara and Afar and talk about a crisis that was now affecting the whole of northern Ethiopia.”
Dyer, though having visited Dessie and seeing the conditions of the Internally Displaced Persons there, informed a shocked Omamo that “They were not in such bad condition.”
At the time, Dessie was struggling to take care of 500,000 IDPs.
In the Zoom interview, Omamo commented on Dyer, “I think for whatever reason, he was trying to be helpful in his space, I would say, but I think his narrative was already decided before he got there. That was very clear, and [his visit] was just to affirm that narrative. And it was common behavior, if you like, among certain senior people that there was only one story that seemed to have traction.” That is, the TPLF version of things.
While white Western authorities were ready to ignore the plight of millions of people in other regions, they insisted on promoting a crisis that didn’t exist.
In June of 2021, Mark Lowcock, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator at the time, told Reuters, “There is famine now in Tigray.” and “Food is definitely being used as a weapon of war.” Other mainstream media brands rushed to match the copy.
Omamo argues that not only was it not Lowcock’s job to declare a famine, Omamo’s team was aware that Lowcock had no evidence to back up his claim — “on the contrary, experts had just announced that there was no famine in Tigray.”
Omamo concedes there was, of course, deep food insecurity in Tigray, but no evidence at all of famine.
In his book, he meticulously explains the scientific research method of determining famine, what is called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system. For an IPC conducted in 2021, the lack of access meant researchers relied on remote phone surveys and a “limited number” of face-to-face surveys with IDPs. “There was limited information about population movements and community livelihood activities. Assessment teams were unable to physically visit some rural areas in Tigray” due to the war. Western Tigray was not researched at all. Omamo sums it up by writing, “In short, there were huge gaps.”
The Ethiopian government had its own reservations about how the IPC was conducted, pointing out, for instance, that it didn’t factor in 60,000 tons of food brought into Tigray between December 2020 and March 2021.
But a draft version of the incomplete report was leaked with Western media misconstruing what it said.
Omamo points out in his book that the Reuters story quoting Lowcock and put out June 11, 2021 by Giulia Paravicini and Michelle Nichols claimed as a fact that “more than 350,000 of Tigray’s nearly six million people are living in famine conditions…”
But that is not even what the report stated when it was issued: “An IPC analysis update conducted in Tigray and the neighboring zones of Amhara and Afar [emphasis added] concludes that over 350,000 people are in Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) between May and June 2021.”
Omamo claims a so-called Famine Review Committee which confirmed the IPC “results” didn’t review additional data, and it didn’t even bother to visit Ethiopia to investigate the findings. He calls the process a sham.
And when David Beasley tweeted on June 8, 2021, “People are dying of hunger in Tigray. Time is running out,” Beasley hadn’t consulted WFP Ethiopia.
Omamo also writes that the “near famine” narrative of the leaked IPC report started to crack by September of that year when some 400,000 people were supposed to be starving and dying of hunger. “But where were these unfortunate people?” he asks in his book. “Where was this carnage and devastation?”
In his concluding chapter, he writes, “Nobody has admitted that the ‘people are dying of hunger in Tigray’ narrative was total fabrication. There were no consequences.”
At the same time, hard questions remain about other aspects of WFP’s conduct in Ethiopia. During Omamo’s final year as country director in Ethiopia, social media exploded over the photo of Getachew Reda on a satellite phone as WFP’s emergency coordinator Tommy Thompson stood by. Besides outrage over a seeming lack of neutrality, there were even accusations that the WFP might have been used by U.S. intelligence. Amid the furor, Thompson quietly left Ethiopia.
Omamo says, “There’s no way that WFP, Tommy Thompson, anybody would have been in cahoots with” American intelligence. When I asked Omamo if he had worked with Thompson and knows him, his reply was instant: “Yes, yes.” He says Thompson was “caught up in the whole mess.”
“…There aren’t any good Africans…”
As Omamo struggled for his advice to be heard by higher-ups within the WFP, he claims the Regional Director for Eastern Africa Michael Dunford told him, “There is an impression in senior management that you are too close to the government.” Yet Dunford himself apparently traded WhatsApp messages and phone calls on a regular basis with top officials while David Beasley’s special assistant would go for drinks with Ethiopia’s parliamentary Speaker. Omamo also accuses Dunford of making several false allegations against him, apparently with the goal of trying to have him removed as WFP’s representative in Ethiopia.
In fact, while Omamo paints a portrait of a supportive, friendship-and-family-like atmosphere at a team level of WFP in Ethiopia, his book is also an indictment of racism “overtly accepted at the highest level” in the organization.
A staffing survey found that given the levels across the organization, those from Europe and North America dominated slots at the WFP’s headquarters in Rome and its regional bureaus — and they accounted for most of the director positions everywhere, bumped to the front of the line when hired from outside. “Staff from other parts of the world (and especially from Africa) were under-represented in all these areas. Staff patterns in the East Africa Regional Bureau were among the most skewed in the organization.”
Omamo also describes incidents when white candidates tried to “network” their way into jobs in East Africa to boost their careers when they were completely unqualified for the positions. At the same time, the organization favored “international candidates” (Europeans or North Americans) over the qualified Africans in the country who presumably knew the languages, cultures, and political situation far better.
For a meeting to discuss an anti-racism initiative within WFP, one official suggested that those in attendance “needed to proceed carefully so as not to embarrass” WFP Executive Director David Beasley, who used to be the governor of South Carolina.
On a video call with a diversity expert, an assistant executive director said, “There is no racism in WFP. People are just playing the race card to mask poor performance.”
On another occasion, at a regional management team meeting in Nairobi in which workplace racism was discussed, the Chief of Staff at the time, Gresham Barrett, remarked, “The real problem is that there aren’t any good Africans in the pipeline.” Barrett said this in front of African staff members.
It’s worth noting as well that Barrett was a former Congressman from 2003 to 2011 for the third district of South Carolina — Beasley’s home state. He now serves as Beasley’s Senior Advisor.
Despite all these controversies, Omamo says he’s still on good terms with many staffers. “I love WFP as an organization. I hope that comes across” in the book. He says it’s “an organization that has some terrible blind spots around this issue” of racism and “when it’s thrust in front of them, forget the blind spot, it’s not handled right.” He says what he found unacceptable and what prompted him to resign as co-chair of the WFP’s anti-racism task team in June of 2021 was that when racism was “put in front of the leadership — nothing.”
To be clear, he says he wasn’t pushed out of the WFP, but chose to resign and move on in December 2021, now focusing on his work as CEO of New Growth International, a management consulting firm based in Nairobi and Chicago with clients in the agrifood and education industries.
He says there’s been no formal reaction to his book, though “I know many people at WFP are aware of the book, yes.”
WFP did not respond to an email request for comment.