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EXCLUSIVE: WFP leadership in Ethiopia resigns amid aid diversion probe

The agency’s aid into Tigray has been suspended since an internal investigation – due to deliver its findings any day – was launched in May.

This is a picture of six labourers resting on top of  bags of grain that they've offloaded as part of relief food that was sent from Ukraine at the World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in Adama town, Ethiopia, September 8, 2022. Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Labourers rest as they offload bags of grain at the WFP warehouse in Adama, Ethiopia, on 8 September 2022.

The senior leadership of the World Food Programme in Ethiopia has resigned, shortly before the findings of a probe into the misappropriation of food aid in the country are due to be made public, according to several sources who witnessed the resignations.

The exact link between the resignations and the probe weren’t immediately clear, but neither the WFP nor its aid partners in Ethiopia responded to several requests for comment in time for publication.

WFP country director Claude Jibidar *announced his resignation at an all-staff meeting on 2 June, sources present at Friday’s “emotional” gathering told The New Humanitarian, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.

The move followed an internal investigation launched last month over reports that significant amounts of food meant for hungry people in Ethiopia’s war-affected northern Tigray region had been sold on the commercial market.

Both WFP and USAID suspended food distributions in Tigray – where millions are dependent on relief – pending the results of the internal inquiry. WFP said it needed to “ensure that vital aid will reach its intended recipients”. Food deliveries, believed to have been suspended in April, are yet to resume.

WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain, who took the helm of the UN agency in April, said last month that those “found responsible must be held accountable” for food theft.

Both the Ethiopian federal government and the interim regional government in Tigray vowed to cooperate with WFP’s probe.

“We briefed [a US government] delegation on the progress in the investigation into allegations of aid diversion,” Getachew Reda, the head of the interim government in Tigray, tweeted today. “We have shared highlights of findings & reassured them that we will make the findings public & hold those responsible to account very soon.”

An aid worker in Ethiopia, who asked for anonymity so they could speak freely, told The New Humanitarian the pause in food distribution has caused “immense suffering” after two years of war, especially as Tigray enters the lean season ahead of the next harvest.

“There have always been delays in food deliveries, and diversions,” the aid worker said.  “Clearly the system is broken.”

Jibidar, only appointed last year, announced his resignation “with immediate effect” at last week’s meeting, multiple WFP sources said. They told The New Humanitarian that numbers in need had allegedly “been inflated”.

The initial findings of the internal probe suggest that food aid diversion goes beyond Tigray and includes the drought-affected Somali region, WFP insiders said. Again speaking on condition of anonymity, they said they were told at the 2 June meeting that more resignations, including Jibidar’s deputy, Jennifer Bitonde, are expected in the coming weeks as the Ethiopian country team is overhauled.

More than 20 million people in Ethiopia are affected by conflict, violence, and natural disasters, including 13 million people suffering the consequences of severe drought in the south and east of the country.

(*An earlier version of this story said both Jibidar and Bitonde tendered their resignations at the 2 June meeting. Sources later clarified that Jibidar announced his resignation, while WFP management explained that more resignations, including Bitonde, would follow. This clarification was published on 9 June. The earlier version also said food aid in Tigray was suspended in May. Although WFP and USAID officially announced the suspensions in May, media reports suggest that suspensions began in April, or even, perhaps, in March. This was amended on 6 June.)

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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