By Shannielle Thompson
The recent appointment of President Robert Mugabe to the post of “goodwill” ambassador for the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday October 18, 2017 sent shock waves around the world and ultimately resulted in its revocation four days later. According to CNBC, President Mugabe’s appointment was announced at a fully attended conference on non-communicable diseases (NCD) in Uruguay, where Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s newly appointed director and former minister of health and foreign affairs in Ethiopia, “praised Zimbabwe as a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the center of its policies to provide healthcare to all.” In a report by the New York Times, the director went on to express “honor” in being joined by Mugabe on this initiative. The reason being, he explained, was that the leader could use his platform and influence in the African region as a model for other leaders in the promotion of the fight against NCDs, like asthma and heart attacks.
The comments were soon after, met with criticism from donors, various healthcare professionals and the general public via multiple mediums. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, expressed to the press that he thought the appointment was “a bad April Fool’s joke”. NCD Alliance, WHO’s partner on various initiatives concerning NCD’s released an official statement expressing “shock” at the decision while Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch took to Twitter:
“@DrTedros I urge you to cancel your appointment of Mugabe as W.H.O. ‘good-will ambassador’ — he ruined Zimbabwe’s health”.
As pressures mounted and a myriad of calls were noted for the renunciation of his decision, Ghebreyesu sought to both reaffirm his position in making global health an internationally inclusive initiative as well to rescind the appointment. The decision was posted on the organization’s official website on Sunday, October 22, 2017.
From the website, his decision states that “I have listened carefully to all those who have expressed their concerns and heard the different issues that they have raised”. The statement also served as a notice that the move was a mutual agreement between WHO and the government of Zimbabwe as a “decision [that] is in the best interests of the World Health Organization”.
President Mugabe has yet to personally break silence on the issue. However Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Walter Muzembi, accepted the decision, but not before noting the mounting publicity the organization has received since the inclusion of the president in its affairs.
The relationship between the two can be traced back to Ghebreyesus’ campaign for his current position. The Guardian reports that President Mugabe served as the head of the African Union and played a pivotal role in Ghebreyesus’ uncontested election over other African leaders. As a result, Ghebreyesus has become the first African leader to serve in his current capacity as director of the UN World Health Organization.
If his position was to be granted longevity, President Mugabe would have joined the likes of Michael R. Bloomberg, former NYC mayor, Mr. James Chau, writer and recipient of BBC World News award for his show Horizons, Yohei Sasakawa, Chairman of The Nippon Foundation and Peng Liyuan, actress and China’s 2006 Minister of Health Ambassador for HIV/AIDS Prevention, as current Goodwill Ambassadors. People, who all have a noted track record of being “goodwill” health advocates, philanthropists and promoters.
President Mugabe, 93, is now in his 37th year as leader of Zimbabwe. His tenure has since been marred by accusations of his destruction of the economic and healthcare sectors in the country. He has been on the receiving end of US sanctions for “alleged” human rights violations and, according to an Independent report, utilizes foreign health systems over that of his country when it comes to his personal healthcare.