Burundi expels top WHO official ahead of presidential vote

Burundi expels the national chief of the World Health Organization (WHO) and three members of his team during a presidential election campaign which continued despite the health risks of the coronavirus pandemic.

The government confirmed on Thursday that a May 12 letter from the Foreign Ministry had been sent to the WHO country chief, Walter Kazadi Mulombo, and three other UN health experts, commanding officers here Friday.

A successor to President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose government has been repeatedly accused of rights abuses and has previously expelled other representatives of international organizations, is scheduled to vote on May 20.

Bernard Ntahiraja, the deputy foreign minister, confirmed that WHO officials had been declared “persona non grata” but did not give reasons.

The head of a regional disease control agency, John Nkengasong, called the evictions “unfortunate” and criticized the decision to hold elections during a health crisis.

“We must collectively deny the virus any space for transmission,” said Nkengasong, head of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is a branch of the African Union bloc.

“It will be extremely difficult for the country to defeat the virus. Cases have increased in countries that have advanced and held elections,” he added at a press conference in Ethiopia.

During Burundi’s election campaign, large crowds gathered despite strict restrictions and rules of social distance elsewhere in Africa and around the world.

WHO did not respond officially to the evictions, but an official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the four appeared to be “victims of mismanagement” of Covid-19 disease in Burundi .

WHO recommendations ignored

The UN Commission of Inquiry into Burundi said in a statement that it “deeply regrets the recent decision by the government to declare persona non grata the representative of the country of WHO and three of its experts”.

Investigators, tasked by the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate allegations of violations and abuse in the country since 2015, also raised concerns about the authorities’ decision not to implement the recommendations WHO on physical distances “to prevent the spread of coronavirus during the election campaign”.

Burundi has so far reported a relatively low workload of Covid-19 disease: 27 infections and one death. But it is suspected that the real situation could be worse.

Léonce Ngendakumana, candidate for the presidency of the opposition party FRODEBU, regretted the expulsion of the WHO team. “The country cannot contain the pandemic on its own,” he told Reuters.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, has been in power since the end of a civil war in 2005 that killed 300,000 people in the East African nation of 11 million people.

His ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, dispatches Evariste Ndayishimiye, a retired army general who heads the presidential military office and is the big favorite to win.

His main opponent is the CNL opposition party candidate, Agathon Rwasa, a vice-president of the National Assembly and another former rebel leader.

The other three WHO officials expelled were field epidemiologist Jean Pierre Mulunda Nkata, health sector coordinator Ruhana Mirindi Bisimwa and Daniel Tarzy.

In 2018, Burundiexpelled UNinvestigators investigate allegations of rights violations. The UN previously accused security personnel and a ruling party militia of orchestrating gang rapes, torture and murder.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)