The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Sunday reversed his decision to name Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador following widespread uproar against the appointment.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian health minister who took charge of the UN agency in July, had earlier this week given Mugabe the honorary role to help combat non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Africa.
But activists, public health experts and key WHO donors like Britain, Canada and the United States condemned the move, saying Zimbabwe’s healthcare system has collapsed under Mugabe’s 37-year authoritarian 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,” Tedros said in a statement.
“I have listened carefully to all who have expressed their concerns,” he added.
“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 Organization.”
In Zimbabwe, Foreign Minister Walter Mzembi said that “the inordinate noise around the designation… does not assist the cause in the first place,” according to state-run broadcaster ZBC.
“So on the balance, it is wiser to let go, and help WHO focus on its mandate,” he added.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s office tweeted that it welcomed WHO’s “decision to rescind President Mugabe’s appointment & pleased @DrTedros heard concerns”.
Canada’s foreign ministry also applauded the decision, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he thought the nomination was “a bad April fool’s joke” when he first learned of it.
– ‘An insult’ –
In announcing the appointment, Tedros had hailed Zimbabwe as “a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all”.
That claim was widely blasted by critics, who noted that the 93-year-old and increasingly frail Mugabe travels abroad for his own medical needs, calling that a sign of the devastation he has wrought on Zimbabwe’s health system.
Zimbabwe’s main opposition MDC party had called the appointment “laughable” and “an insult”.
– ‘Damage is done’ –
While the WHO boss’s climbdown was met with immediate approval, the Mugabe storm raised questions about Tedros’s leadership of an agency still emerging from a crisis that led some to question its long-term viability.
In an email to AFP shortly before the announcement of the reversal, the director of the Global Health Institute at Harvard University, Ashish K. Jha, said Tedros faces a massive task in restoring WHO’s credibility and that episodes like the Mugabe affair are not helpful.
“WHO went through an existential crisis with its disastrous handling of the Ebola crisis (in West Africa). Dr Tedros’s election is a chance to reset that narrative,” Jha said.
“The Mugabe appointment, coming at the end of (Tedros’s) first 100 days, was a misstep,” he added, while predicting that the reversal would “actually be a strong sign that the leadership listens and is willing to be responsive to views of the global public.”
Before the withdrawal was announced, the US ambassador to the United Nations during Barack Obama’s administration, Samantha Power, tweeted: “Tedros will surely revoke terrible apptmt of Mugabe as goodwill ambassador, but damage is done.”
– Investigation needed? –
Tedros’s election as the first African director general of WHO was billed as a key moment for the continent, where much of organisation’s work is based.
Tedros is not the first African statesman to be put in a bind over apparent loyalties to Mugabe.
The leaders of South Africa’s government, who counted on Mugabe’s support in the battle to end apartheid, have previously been criticised over their hesitation to condemn human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, including brutal and violent crackdowns on the opposition.
UN Watch, a Geneva-based monitor, called for an investigation into the “absurd” Mugabe appointment.
“There must be more to the story,” UN Watch chief Hillel Neuer said in a statement.
“How could Dr Tedros, a sophisticated political figure, have chosen to honour a man who has brutalised human rights activists, crushed democracy dissidents, and turned the breadbasket of Africa and its health system into a basket-case?”