by Stu Lucy

What with the circulation of fake news becoming increasingly more prevalent, sometimes you read an article and feel the need to double check its authenticity. But this one came from the BBC, and The New York Post were running it too. The Independent. Newsweek. CNN. So it must be true. I am of course talking about the news that Robert Mugabe, the authoritarian nonagenarian head of state of Zimbabwe, had recently been appointed goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation (WHO). Mugabe, really?

The decision was announced by Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first African to be a pointed head of the organisation, shortly after passing his 100th day in office. The Ethiopian publicly declared he was “honoured’ in making the announcement and praised Zimbabwe for being “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide healthcare to all”.

The WHO and other UN bodies such as the UNHCR, UNICEF and Unesco regularly appoint goodwill ambassadors in order to create publicity surrounding certain important issues of the moment. These well-known and influential people are an important part of the public relations arm of these organisations, spreading a positive and inspiring message wherever they go. So, I ask again, Mugabe?

( Robert Mugabe – public domain )

If one were required to example corrupt, authoritarian, and dictatorial African heads of state, chances are Mugabe wouldn’t be far from your top three. Though technically not a dictator, Mugabe has remained in power since 1980 through a multitude of dubious acts such as violent oppression of his political opposition as well as the electorate themselves, not to mention total disregard for the nation’s judiciary, all to ensure his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front, consistently remained in power.

Mugabe has overseen farm and business invasions, land seizures, the exile of white farmers and businessmen, as well as catastrophic economic decline within the country. Zimbabwe’s fiscal situation became so dire that it led to a serious decline in the country’s already fragile health infrastructure; in 2014 public hospitals were allocated $25 million for the year while already owing $33 million to suppliers, alongside a widespread shortage of nurses, drugs beds, and equipment. The system is in such a severe state of disrepair that the President himself, outliving the average citizen already by three decades, travels abroad to receive his own healthcare.

Though technically not a dictator, Mugabe has remained in power since 1980 through a multitude of dubious acts

Unsurprisingly then, there was uproar from both the MDC, the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, alongside multiple people and institutions across the global community. Obert Gutu, a spokesman for the MDC called the appointment “laughable“. while Justin Trudeau, the Canadian PM thought the appointment “was a bad April fool’s joke“. UN Watch, the organisation responsible for monitoring the activities of the UN and its subsidiaries went as far as to call the decision “sickening“.

Consequently, only four days after his appointment Mr Mugabe found himself relieved of the position. In a statement Tedros declared “I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns” and his decision was “in the best interests of” the WHO. Evidently after criticism from the UK government, the American State Department, the Canadian prime minister, the Wellcome Trust, the NCD Alliance, UN Watch, the World Heart Federation, Action Against Smoking and multiple Zimbabwean lawyers and social media users, Mr Tedros realised that perhaps he may have made a mistake.

( Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus CC BY-SA 2.0 Russell Watkins/Department for International Development )

One has to wonder how such a stupendous public relations error could have been made, especially in light of the WHO’s recent attempts in enacting structural and procedural reform following varied criticism concerning its impact and efficiency. The situation would invite laughter if not for the gravity of the man’s crimes. This decision cannot have been made overnight, the fact that at some point between the decision and the announcement, nobody thought to mention the absurdity of such a choice to Tedros certainly speaks volumes about the power dynamic within the WHO. Unless of course they did, and  he just wasn’t listening.

Perhaps then we should be asking a difficult but serious question: Was Tedros paying off debts to those that helped him in the past? When running for WHO Director-General Tedros gained the unanimous backing of the 55-member African Union. This endorsement came as a result of a vote by the Union’s executive council, chaired by none other than, you guessed it, Mr Robert Mugabe. After successfully securing the position, Tedros – at a WHO regional committee for Africa in Zimbabwe earlier this year – used his acceptance speech to heavily praise Mr Mugabe and his “strong commitment to health”.

Was Tedros paying off debts to those that helped him in the past?

Although there is no hard proof that this appointment was a kickback to Mr Mugabe for his hand in ensuring the endorsement of the African Union’s executive committee, one has to concede it smells a little fishy. The fact that such an antithesis of effective provision of universal healthcare, and goodwill for that matter, was chosen for this role surely means we can at least entertain the notion, not least because of the track record of WHO Directors rewarding countries that supported their application.

So, until Tedros and the WHO itself provide a justifiable reason for such a calamitous choice for this important position, one is well within their rights to assume that the newly appointed Director-General was simply maintaining the well-established, nepotistic traditions of the WHO leaders that preceded him.

Featured image CC BY 2.0 US Mission Geneva


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