HARARE – Newly-appointed Foreign Affairs minister Walter Mzembi could be ruing his attempts to ingratiate himself with President Robert Mugabe after masterminding his short-lived appointment as the first ever World Health Organisation (WHO) African ambassador for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo last week.
The Daily News can reveal that Mzembi, who has the gift of the garb, actually wanted Mugabe to occupy a much higher position of WHO global ambassador for NCDs, a position previously held by former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
For his efforts, the United Nations agency with offices in more than 150 countries, felt Mugabe was more suitable to headline its efforts in fighting NCDs, which include strokes and heart diseases, in Africa — home to about 1,2 billion people.
The decision backfired within hours of making the announcement.
WHO has been forced to revoke the appointment just over 48 hours after Mugabe had been honoured in Uruguay.
This has left Mugabe with an egg on his face, with critics re-examining Zimbabwe’s questionable human rights record and how his administration has mismanaged the country’s health delivery system, which was once rated among the finest in the world.
Focus has since shifted to Mzembi’s pedigree as Foreign Affairs minister, with analysts expressing reservations over his ability to make sound judgments in the heat of the moment given that he is still a rookie in diplomatic circles.
Mzembi was appointed the country’s foreign secretary a fortnight ago in a shock Cabinet reshuffle by Mugabe that whittled Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s influence in Cabinet.
The Montevideo trip became Mzembi’s inaugural sojourn as secretary of state.
Thrown at the deep-end in his first trip as Foreign Affairs minister, Mzembi penned a motivational letter to under-fire WHO director-general, Tedros Ghebreyesus, persuading him to give Mugabe the ambassadorial role.
This was after the Zimbabwean minister had learnt that the UN agency had decided to create a special NCDs office for Africa. This happened during WHO’s technical meeting on NCDs where Mugabe was the only African head of State in attendance.
The host president, Tabaré Vázquez, was also in attendance.
In the letter, Mzembi described Mugabe in glorious terms.
“I watched you proudly during the official opening segment. It was good. Incidentally, I am now the minister of Foreign Affairs for Zimbabwe appointed in the last two weeks, so I am here accompanying President Mugabe and my brother, the minister of Health, Dr David Parirenyatwa,” reads part of the letter.
Mzembi went on to say after listening to presentations made that morning, he could not help but think and conclude that Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian and WHO’s first African director-general, needed an African champion at the highest level as WHO global ambassador on NCDs given their importance.
He observed that the lack of attention to NCDs under the global development agenda, and miniscule funding under overseas development assistance to health – a mere 1,2 percent equivalent to $377 million out of the $38 billion parcel – was unfortunate.
“I have spent the last week talking nothing but NCDs and I can see he has the passion and intellect at this conceptual stage to drive African advocacy on NCDs. I have just shared my thoughts with David (Parirenyatwa) and apparently the African group in the room are eager to meet you too to lobby for this designation for the president,” wrote Mzembi.
“He acquitted himself very well on Ebola in 2015 as chairperson of the African Union and his resource mobilisation efforts at the UN at the time for Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. I would be happy to meet you at your convenience,” the letter further reads.
Persuaded by Mzembi’s arguments, the WHO director-general decided to honour Mugabe by appointing him WHO African ambassador for NCDs.
In making the appointment, Ghebreyesus, had said Mugabe would use his role to ensure other leaders make NCDs a priority.
“Zimbabwe … places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all,” he said on Wednesday last week.
The appointment stirred a hornet’s nest amid a deafening global outcry from foreign governments, WHO affiliate organisations and other stakeholders in the health services sector.
This forced Ghebreyesus to rescind his decision saying “Over the last few days, I have reflected on my appointment … As a result, I have decided to rescind the appointment… I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised.”
Contacted for comment, Mzembi said his letter to Ghebreyesus was leaked by a Zimbabwe delegation member.
“There is only one person in the delegation who got access to that motivation letter. Unless if you are not very close to that person then you can quote it, to me it’s okay but certainly not to your source.
“If you proceed, you would be throwing your source under the bus,” Mzembi said.
Presidential spokesperson, George Charamba declined to comment on the issue saying: “I don’t know how that information came to you because I did not witness it.”
Political analyst, Vivid Gwede, said Mzembi has been trying to sell many things, including himself, to the global community but he should be aware by now that the problems facing the country are centred around his boss and Zimbabwe’s current image on the globe.
He said what Mzembi should be doing is not to put lipstick and mascara on a face that has not yet been washed, but fixing Zimbabwe’s foreign policies and encouraging Mugabe to embrace domestic governance reforms.
“Putting the cart before the horse will only mean that he will go nowhere. At this rate, Mzembi might be in for further gaffes and disappointments,” said Gwede.
Political activist, Tabani Moyo, said Mzembi was still learning the ropes as the country’s public relations manager with responsibility to spruce up Mugabe’s rag-tag image globally.
Moyo said the embarrassment suffered by Mugabe has emerged as a millennium scandal which has attracted international scrutiny that will trail the Zanu PF leader for some time to come.
“When you want to clean up your reputation, you firstly repent and start leading a clean life which will be noticed firstly and externally as people start celebrating new narratives. Believing in a way that you could maintain the same heinous path and bag a global accolade is dream walking into self-reputation destruction. In this regard, Mzembi’s role is to advise the president accordingly that such an award/appointment would cause controversy is accepted,” opined Moyo.
“The minister’s role is to fully brief the president of the state of relations globally and managing them on behalf of the country,” he added.
Political analyst, Maxwell Saungweme, said the appointment lobbying shows too much ambition on Mzembi’s part.
He said being a goodwill ambassador means one has acted and worked for that particular issue, in this case the cause for NCDs, and there has to be achievements to that effect to show for it.
“But with a collapsed health system heavily dependent on WHO and NGOs, it’s ridiculous, political and diplomatic folly for a new over excited minister to have lobbied for that role. That Mzembi failed to read clearly what that means against the track record of his principal who seeks medical help abroad shows how incompetent Mzembi is in that role,” said Saungweme.
“If it were in other countries, he would resign for miscalculation, poor judgment and humiliating his president. Mzembi is one of the zeros shuffles recently by Mugabe and this debacle is clear testament that shuffling political zeros and expect a different political permutation is political insanity,” he added.
Social commentator, Rashweat Mukundu, said the challenge with the WHO fiasco was that it exposes Zimbabwe’s foreign policy as too weak.
Mukundu said foreign policy was formulated on the basis of national interest and actions by the country’s foreign policy leaders.
It must therefore be in support of the needs and interests of Zimbabwe.
“Unfortunately, Mzembi seems to have taken his new role as a PR manager yet PR is just but part of the bolts and nuts of foreign policy. And his overzealousness has obviously resulted in the WHO humiliation,” said Mukundu.