”I am honoured to be joined by President Mugabe, of Zimbabwe, a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all. Today I am also honoured to announce that President Mugabe has agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on NCDs for Africa to influence his peers in his region to prioritize NCDs,” were the exact words of the World Health Organisation head, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus a few days ago.
The State owned Zimbabwean Herald had a very forceful headline, “New feather in President’s cap…appointed WHO goodwill ambassador” not knowing the eagle that giveth feathers takes them away just as swiftly. Now, just four days after the announcement, Ghebreyesus has come out again with another statement, this time rescinding the appointment of Mugabe as goodwill ambassador.
He said, “Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment H.E. President Robert Mugabe as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for NCDs in Africa. As a result, I have decided to rescind the appointment.”
Some people are celebrating but the rest are confused. Had such a respected organisation not done due diligence before the appointment or did it bow to Western pressure? What is going on at WHO?
The Zimbabwean government predictably jumped to the Mugabe’s defence saying WHO is the biggest loser after the latest WHO decision. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Walter Mzembi said, “The inordinate noise around the designation of the President as WHO Global Ambassador for Africa does not assist the cause in the first place. If anything, it is WHO that has benefited tremendously from its decision in nominating President Mugabe to lead the fight against NCDs through media amplification of WHO itself, and curiosity by the general public on what really are NCDs, by tagging the name Mugabe to the debate. On a name recognition scale, this name beats them all, but it is our business to protect its brand equity from unnecessary besmirching.”
The short-lived appointment was criticised world over with the loudest critics coming from the West. Britain described Mugabe’s selection as “surprising and disappointing” while Human Rights Watch program director, Iain Levine said the decision embarrassed WHO and Tedros. The United States of America State Department said, “This appointment clearly contradicts the United Nations ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity.”
Ireland would not be left out with its health minister calling the appointment “offensive” and “bizarre”. Washington Post says two dozen organisations including the World Heart Federation and Cancer Research U.K. released a statement saying they were “shocked and deeply concerned” by his appointment. But this is just the West, right? Wrong.
In Zimbabwe, the decision was criticised and ridiculed with the major point raised being that the President himself does not use local hospitals but instead regularly flies to Singapore for medication. In short, a lot of noise was made over the appointment and the WHO head was clearly under a lot of pressure. However, it is unclear how Dr Ghebreyesus thought this situation would play out in the global arena. One struggles to imagine if he had cared to do any sort of research on Mugabe’s standing in world politics. Mugabe might have people who love and respect him but those are largely found in Africa. Attempting to give him a title that forces his down the throats of the whole world was bound to backfire.
Was this some pan-African point Ghebreyesus was trying to make on the sly? While President Mugabe might be known for pan-Africanism, when did he become the poster boy in issues of health and non-communicable diseases in particular? It is difficult to make head or tail of this decision, but no one should pretend to be surprised that President Mugabe’s tenure as goodwill ambassador was short-lived. This was an uncalculated move by the WHO head and now it has not only embarrassed him but also President Mugabe. If he wanted to show his respect for President Mugabe, he should have found another way of going about it without creating a public relations mess.