Burundi is expelling the national head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and three members of his team as it prepares for a presidential election that is being held next week despite concern about health risks during the coronavirus pandemic.
The government confirmed on Thursday that a May 12 letter from the foreign ministry was sent to WHO country head Walter Kazadi Mulombo and three others of the U.N. body’s health experts, ordering them out by Friday.
Bernard Ntahiraja, the foreign affairs assistant minister, said the officials had been declared “persona non grata” but did not give reasons.
The vote for a successor to President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose government has repeatedly been accused of rights abuses and has previously expelled other representatives of international bodies, is scheduled for May 20.
The WHO’s Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti called Mulombo an “extremely competent manager”.
“We remain very willing to…support their (Burundi’s) response to COVID-19.” he said at a news conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Burundi has so far reported relatively few cases of the COVID-19 disease: 27 infections and one death. But testing remains very low: the nation of 11 million people has carried out only 527 tests, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The head of that body, John Nkengasong, called the expulsions “unfortunate” and criticised the decision to hold an election during a health crisis.
“We have to collectively deny the virus any space to transmit,” said Nkengasong, whose organisation is a branch of the African Union bloc.
“Cases have increased in countries that went ahead and held elections,” he added at a news conference in Ethiopia.
Large crowds have been gathering during the election campaign in Burundi, which has no lockdown measures in place at all, unlike many other African nations.
Some Burundians say privately they believe COVID-19 infections are higher than officially stated but they say they fear to say so publicly because they could be targeted and punished.
Léonce Ngendakumana, a presidential candidate for the opposition FRODEBU party, called the expulsion regrettable. “The country alone won’t be able to contain the pandemic,” he told Reuters.
Nkurunziza, an ex-rebel leader, has been in power since the end of a civil war in 2005 that killed 300,000 people. His ruling CNDD-FDD party is fielding Evariste Ndayishimiye, a retired army general who heads the military affairs office of the presidency and is a strong favorite to win.
His foremost opponent is opposition party CNL’s candidate Agathon Rwasa, a deputy chairman of the National Assembly and another former rebel leader.
The other three WHO officials ordered to leave are field epidemiologist Jean Pierre Mulunda Nkata, health sector coordinator Ruhana Mirindi Bisimwa, and Daniel Tarzy.
In 2018, Burundi expelled U.N. investigators looking into allegations of rights abuses. The United Nations has previously accused security personnel and a ruling party militia of orchestrating gang rapes, torture and killings.