Johannesburg — The agency's aid into Tigray has been suspended since an internal investigation - due to deliver its findings any day - was launched in May.
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 and his deputy, Jennifer Bitonde, tendered their resignations 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, suspended in May, 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. More resignations are expected in the coming weeks as the Ethiopian country team is overhauled, they told The New Humanitarian, again speaking on condition of anonymity.
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.
Edited by Andrew Gully.
Obi Anyadike, Senior editor, Africa