Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Mugabe’s goodwill ambassador role cancelled as WHO suffers public-relations disaster

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe attends the 2nd Session of the South Africa-Zimbabwe Bi-National Commission in Pretoria, South Africa, on Oct. 3, 2017.

Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

The news broke as Zimbabwean activists were planning their protest march to the local headquarters of the World Health Organization. Their fury was swiftly replaced by jubilation: the WHO had cancelled Robert Mugabe's much-ridiculed appointment as a "goodwill ambassador."

The astonishing accolade for the Zimbabwean autocrat had triggered worldwide outrage, including a blast of mockery from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. "I thought it was a bad April Fool's joke," Mr. Trudeau said on Saturday. "It is absolutely unacceptable and absolutely inconceivable that this individual would have a role as a goodwill ambassador for any organization, much less the World Health Organization."

But the anger was most keenly felt in Zimbabwe itself, where Mr. Mugabe's refusal to accept medical treatment from Zimbabwe's cash-starved hospitals – and his preference for foreign hospitals – is widely known and resented.

Story continues below advertisement

After four days of protests and criticism, the WHO rescinded the appointment on Sunday. But the public-relations disaster has inflicted heavy damage on the WHO and its first African director-general, with many experts still struggling to understand why Mr. Mugabe had been awarded the appointment in the first place.

"He runs away from his own medical facilities and travels thousands of miles to Singapore and Malaysia to get health care, while our own hospitals can't even afford to buy painkillers," said Sten Zvorwadza, one of the activists who had planned to march to the WHO headquarters in Harare.

Zimbabwe's Mugabe removed as WHO goodwill ambassador (Reuters)

"People are dying prematurely here, yet the WHO names such a man as a goodwill ambassador," he told The Globe and Mail on Sunday. "I was shocked. I felt that the WHO was an enemy of the citizens of Zimbabwe."

That's the kind of political wound that the world health agency will have to repair as it shifts into damage-control mode. The questions are unlikely to disappear in the days to come, with donors and governments questioning what went wrong.

Less than four months ago, the WHO was accepting praise for its decision to give its top job to an African for the first time. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian health minister, was elected as WHO's director-general in May and took office in July.

Many critics, however, had lobbied against his appointment, noting that Dr. Tedros was a senior member of Ethiopia's authoritarian regime, which has brutally suppressed dissent for many years.

Last week, Dr. Tedros announced that he had chosen Mr. Mugabe as a WHO goodwill ambassador to tackle non-communicable diseases in Africa. He lavished praise on Zimbabwe, calling it "a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies." He said Mr. Mugabe could "influence his peers" on health issues.

Story continues below advertisement

The 93-year-old Zimbabwean president has ruled his country for 37 years, presiding over economic decline, political turmoil and an increasingly shambolic health system. His security agencies have arrested and tortured dissidents, while he routinely launches vitriolic attacks on homosexuality and Western morals. His health has deteriorated in recent years and he often falls asleep in meetings, but he seems intent on running for re-election again next year.

Zimbabwe's state-run media had boasted that the WHO appointment was a "feather in the cap" for Mr. Mugabe. But on Sunday, after the appointment was cancelled, his allies were sputtering with rage.

Jonathan Moyo, a member of Mr. Mugabe's cabinet, alleged that the WHO director-general had reversed his decision because he was "blackmailed by global bullies." The editor-in-chief of the state-run Herald newspaper said the WHO was targeted by "Western bullies."

The first hints of a reversal had come on Saturday, when Dr. Tedros admitted he was reconsidering the Mugabe appointment. In a tweet, he questioned whether the appointment fit with "WHO values."

Meanwhile, the protests mounted. The British government said the Mugabe appointment was "surprising and disappointing." The U.S. government said Mr. Mugabe had committed crimes against his own people, and his appointment was a clear contradiction of the "ideals of respect for human rights and human dignity."

A statement by 28 international health organizations said they were "shocked and deeply concerned" by the appointment, noting Mr. Mugabe's "long track record of human rights violations."

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Tedros finally cancelled the appointment on Sunday, but did not apologize or explain the error. "I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns," he said in a vague statement.

While his decision was widely welcomed, many people continued to question why Dr. Tedros had ever considered Mr. Mugabe as a worthy recipient of the appointment.

"And this ever seemed like a reasonable choice why?" asked Sandra McCardell, the Canadian high commissioner to South Africa, in a tweet on Sunday.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨