HARARE – The World Health Organisation (WHO) has rescinded an honour it had bestowed on President Robert Mugabe last Thursday in the wake of a deafening global outcry from affiliate organisations and stakeholders in the health services sector, the Daily News can report.
In a move befitting an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, Mugabe bows out as the first ever WHO goodwill ambassador for Africa on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) just over 48 hours after his appointment.
WHO director-general, Tedros Ghebreyesus, brought the curtain down on his short-lived tenure before even celebrations for his appointment had died down in Harare:
In a statement released yesterday, Tedros said he made the decision in the best interests of the United Nations’ healthcare division.
This is despite the fact that he had previously praised Mugabe for his “commitment” to public health notwithstanding criticism that Zimbabwe’s healthcare system had collapsed under the Zanu PF leader’s 37-year rule.
“Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment of H.E. President Robert Mugabe as WHO goodwill ambassador for NCDs in Africa. As a result, I have decided to rescind the appointment,” said Tedros.
“I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised. I have also consulted with the Government of Zimbabwe and we have concluded that this decision is in the best interests of the World Health Organisation. It is my aim to build a worldwide movement for global health. This movement must work for everyone and include everyone.
“For me, what is important is to build political leadership and create unity around bringing health to all, based on WHO’s core values. I remain firmly committed to working with all countries and their leaders to ensure that everyone has access to the health care they need.
“We must build bridges that bring us together and help us move forward in our quest to achieve universal health coverage.
“I thank everyone who has voiced their concerns and shared their thoughts. I depend on constructive debate to help and inform the work I have been elected to do,” he further said.
Earlier in the day, Tedros had indicated that he was buckling under pressure from global health stakeholders to rescind the appointment.
“I’m listening. I hear your concerns. Rethinking the approach in light of WHO values. I will issue a statement as soon as possible,” he had written on his twitter account.
Mugabe’s press secretary, George Charamba, declined to comment on the matter saying the WHO decision was yet to be communicated to his office.
“We don’t know about that decision. It hasn’t been communicated to us officially,” he said.
Foreign Affairs minister Walter Mzembi, however, said they respect the WHO decision as much as they respected their initial decision to honour Mugabe.
“So on the balance it’s wiser to let go, and help WHO focus on its mandate while we focus Zimbabwe on its membership obligations,” said Mzembi.
He added that the inordinate noise around the designation of the president does not assist the cause in the first place.
“If anything, it is WHO that has benefited tremendously from its decision in nominating the president 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.”
“That notwithstanding the president will carry on with his passion for NCDs which are killing over 40 million people per annum with 80 percent of them from the developing world.
“That more than the global ambassadorship was the motivation, saving lives and answering SDG goal 3,4 and that is to cut premature deaths from NCDs by a third going forward to 2030,” said the minister.
The WHO appointed Mugabe to be its ambassador for Africa on NCDs at its conference in Uruguay last Thursday.
The appointment had meant that Mugabe should have been spearheading the fight against the deadly NCDs that claim millions of lives around the world every year.
But foreign governments had joined global health organisations in condemning the appointment.
The British government had described the appointment as “disappointing”.
“President Mugabe’s appointment is surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current United States and European Union sanctions against him,” a United Kingdom government spokesperson said on Saturday.
The United States State department had weighed in, saying the appointment contradicted the United Nations’ ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity.
“Although he will not have an executive role, his appointment risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the WHO on non-communicable diseases,” said the US State department.
At least 30 health-based organisations, including the World Heart Federation and Cancer Research UK, Healthy Caribbean Coalition, Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance and the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases, had released a joint statement slamming Mugabe’s appointment.
The statement said health officials were “shocked and deeply concerned” by the appointment, citing Mugabe’s “long track record of human rights violations”.
“Members of the NCDs civil society movement present at the conference are shocked and deeply concerned to hear of this appointment, given president Mugabe’s long track record of human rights violations and undermining the dignity of human beings,” read part of the statement.
“Given these systematic abuses and his approach to NCDs and tobacco control in the past, NCDs civil society present in Montevideo believe that president Mugabe’s appointment as WHO goodwill ambassador for NCDs cannot be justified”.
The groups had raised its concerns with Tedros on the sidelines of the conference in Uruguay.
“We have raised these concerns with WHO DG Tedros during a meeting with civil society on the sidelines of the Montevideo conference. While we support WHO and Tedros in their ambition to drive the NCD agenda forward, we are unable to recognise Mugabe as a champion for NCDs,” the statement further reads.
MDC spokesperson Obert gutu said in the very first place, WHO wasn’t supposed to appoint Mugabe as a Goodwill Ambassador for NCDs.
“Mugabe has trashed Zimbabwe’s public health delivery system and it was totally undeserved for him to be accorded that prestigious honour in the first place.
“WHO have done the right thing by promptly rescinding that thoroughly ill-deserved appointment. Whoever had recommended Mugabe’s appointment must be immediately investigated for gross dereliction of duty bordering on naked corruption,” said Gutu.
Critics had also taken turns to condemn the appointment, pointing out that most of the NCDs, such as cancer and diabetes, cannot be treated in Zimbabwean hospitals as they do not have cash to import drugs while the country’s citizens have to either seek medication outside the country or perish.
Mugabe himself seeks medical treatment in Singapore and even flew his daughter there last year to give birth.
He has for long been criticised at home and abroad for travelling overseas for basic medical treatment, which Zimbabwe’s crumbling health system is now struggling to offer.
The UN and its agencies normally elect celebrities and other prominent people as their ambassadors to draw attention to global issues of concern.
Major examples are film star Angelina Jolie who was appointed ambassador of refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, football supertaster Lionel Messi who is ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund and Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, who is ambassador for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
The choices are not subject to approval and the ambassadors hold little actual power.
The move is the latest in a string of global embarrassments suffered by the ageing Zimbabwean leader in recent years.
In 2008, Mugabe was stripped of his honorary knighthood after the Queen of England approved the rare step of taking away the award, which had been given to him 14 years earlier after the Crown expressed anger at his administration’s human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.
On the academic front, Mugabe has been stripped of some of his many honorary degrees by universities around the world.
For example, in June 2007, he became the first international figure to be stripped of an honorary degree by a British university when Edinburgh withdrew one it had awarded to him in 1984.
The following year, the University of Massachusetts revoked a law degree it had awarded him in 1986.
A year later, in September 2008, the Michigan State University cancelled a law degree it had granted to Mugabe in 1990.
Zanu PF reacted angrily to the decision yesterday with its propagandists saying it reflected badly on the WHO by exposing its lack of independence.
Former Zanu PF deputy director of information Psychology Maziwisa said, if anything, the decision indicates that the fight against imperialism was far from over.
“It’s obviously a very disappointing development but it’s not an unexpected one. The World Health Organisation is funded by the very people who imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, the very people with vested economic and political interests in Zimbabwe,” he said.
“The good thing, though, is that it doesn’t change who president Mugabe is. It certainly doesn’t change the fact that he is a great leader who has done an enormous amount (of work) for his people and for the people of Africa. If anything, this serves to further prove that the fight against imperialism is far from over. We must remain ever vigilant and ready to defend our president and everything that he stands for, and 2018 provides us with a golden opportunity to do just that,” he said.
Earlier, Zanu PF politburo member Jonathan Moyo had said if the WHO were to go on and depose Mugabe, it would indicate the lack of independency at the global health institution.
“This is the position of the silent majority who are silent. A reversal will indeed mean that WHO had a sinister plot in the first place,” he wrote on his official twitter account.
“So why did WHO make the appointment if it is inconsistent with WHO values? Fact is WHO will lose credibility if it allows this bullying.
“You can rethink the approach and make adjustments for the future but you cannot rethink the decision without losing all respect and goodwill.
“If Dr Tedros wasn’t part of a sinister plot in the first place, and if his decision was professional and with goodwill, then he must stick to it.”