In Depth

Mugabe: from brutal dictator to WHO goodwill ambassador - and back again

In Depth: UN health agency rescinds ‘ridiculous’ appointment of Zimbabwean President

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Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe may hold the world record for shortest stint as a goodwill ambassador - an appointment as improbable as Wonder Woman and her gold bustier becoming an honorary UN ambassador to empower girls. 

The 93-year-old dictator, who has presided over the collapse of Zimbabwe’s healthcare system, was given the role by the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week and tasked to tackle non-communicable diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who leads the UN's health agency, which has a $2bn (£1.5bn) budget, said he hoped Mugabe would use the role to “influence his peers in the region”.

Surprise, outrage and scorn quickly followed.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the appointment as “unacceptable”, adding: “Quite frankly, I thought it was a bad April Fool’s joke.”

The UK “slammed” the appointment and warned WHO it risked undercutting the organisation’s good work, reported the Evening Standard in London. 

Five days after the appointment, WHO unceremoniously rescinded Mugabe's role. However, questions linger about how Mugabe was selected in the first place, and what led to Tedros's unprecedented blunder.

“What was the WHO doing appointing a tin pot dictator like Mugabe in the first place?” said Zimbabwe opposition politician Tendai Biti. “There is no water at our main hospital today, let alone drugs for patients. We have had 37 horrible years with Mugabe in power.”

Mugabe’s rise to power

Born in 1924, just months after Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) became a British Crown colony, Mugabe served as prime minister in the 1980s and has been President since 1987.

He has ruled during a period of widespread poverty and an almost total collapse of Zimbabwe’s national health service. Staff often work without pay, medicine is in short supply and Mugabe himself travels abroad for medical treatment, the BBC said.

Mugabe was head of the African Union when the bloc endorsed Tedros - the 52-year-old former health and foreign minister of Ethiopia - for the WHO post “without any real regional contest or debate,” The Guardian reported.

Tedros reportedly won with a margin of 133 of 185 votes cast in a third-round, secret ballot, “handily defeating the eminently qualified British candidate” David Nabarro, the Conservative-leaning magazine National Review said. 

Tedros, who has a PhD in community health, is WHO's first non-medical director general and the first African to lead the agency, which helps set health priorities worldwide. According to WHO's website, he can appoint goodwill ambassadors at his sole discretion.

An error of judgment?

WHO goodwill ambassadors are largely ceremonial public figures appointed for two years to raise awareness of global health issues. Previous appointees include the former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, who was global ambassador for non-communicable diseases last year.

The Mugabe decision seems likely to have been made weeks ago, reports the BBC, “and at no point did Mr Tedros seem aware that appointing as goodwill ambassador a man who has been accused of human rights abuses, and of neglecting to the point of collapse his own country's health service, might be controversial”.

According to WHO’s own statistics, there are only 1.6 physicians and 7.2 nurses available for every 10,000 people in Zimbabwe. Life expectancy at birth has fallen from 63 years in 1988 to 43.

Nevertheless, Tedros last week described Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide healthcare to all”.

Kerry Cullinan, writing in South Africa's Daily Maverick, said Mugabe's appointment showed WHO's director general was “part of Africa’s old men’s club that values politicking over people”.

A PR disaster

Rescinding Mugabe’s appointment last Sunday, Tedros said he had “listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns, and heard the different issues that they have raised”.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, praised the decision, calling the director general a “brave leader” who has showed he was “willing to listen, rethink and overturn bad decisions”.

Some aren't convinced, however.

“The episode has raised questions about the new director-general’s judgment and what damage this lapse could inflict on the WHO, which faces major challenges during his tenure,” writes Helen Branswell of STAT news.

The Daily Mail said Tedros is facing calls - mainly from the public - to resign over the saga, although this motion has not been backed by any officials.

In any event, the Mugabe announcement was a setback.

“The agency has stumbled in recent years, most notably in its error-prone response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. All three candidates had vowed to overhaul the agency to restore credibility,” The Associated Press reported in May.

Tedros's appointment was to mark a turning point. The WHO was supposed to be embarking on a new era of reform. Instead, the organisation is now mired in a public relations disaster, the BBC said.

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