Mugabe’s brief appointment as WHO ambassador may have been quid pro quo

Kerry Cullinan, managing editor of Health-e News writes that she has been trying to understand why World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appointed the Zimbabwean despot, Robert Mugabe, as a ‘goodwill ambassador’ last Thursday.

Tedros: What a headache. (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

Cullinan writes: “Clearly unprepared for the torrent of protest from organisations and governments, Tedros has ‘rescinded’ the appointment ‘in the best interests of the World Health Organisation’, but stressed that the ‘worldwide movement for global health’ he aims to build ‘must work for everyone and include everyone’.”

Cullinan asks: “What evidence of goodwill has Tedros found in Mugabe that most of the rest of the world has missed?”

She writes: “The ‘goodwill’ Mugabe’s regime extends to anyone who dares to oppose him involves assault, torture, detention without trial, and disappearance. Mugabe also believes gays and lesbians are ‘worse than pigs, goats and birds’.

“The 93-year-old despot, who has been in power since 1980, has had 37 years to perfect his cruelty against the Zimbabwean people and he has evoked many pretexts to oppress his people – ethnicity, race, class, geography, beliefs and sexuality.

“Back in 1983, Mugabe presided over the Matabeleland genocide, in which an estimated 20,000 Ndebeles were murdered by soldiers simply because their ethnic group supported Mugabe’s rival, Joshua Nkomo.

“Mugabe’s ‘land reform’ efforts, intensified from 2000, were a cynical exercise in self-enrichment by ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) politicians who snatched white-owned farms for themselves under the populist guise of land redistribution.

“In 2005, Mugabe’s government troops launched Operation Murambatsvina (‘Remove the Rubbish’), shortly after a disputed election in which the ruling ZANU party lost ground to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Soldiers bulldozed and burnt homes, mainly in urban informal settlements, simply because these were opposition strongholds. Around 700,000 people lost their livelihoods and around 2.4m people were affected, according to the UN.

“Zimbabwe’s currency is now the US dollar, but this is not a gesture of goodwill to the West. It is evidence of an economy so broken that the central bank could not keep up with the devaluation of the Zim dollar and had to abandon it.”

Cullinan says that perhaps Tedros has elevated Mugabe because he has been watching Zimbabwean TV or reading the major newspapers, all of which are government controlled with strict media censorship laws.

She writes: “Maybe that is why he described Zimbabwe as ‘a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all’ when he announced Mugabe’s appointment.

“Yet Zimbabwe’s health services would have collapsed without international aid. Health workers are often unpaid, and medicine is scarce. According to Tedros’s own organisation, the WHO, there is only one MRI machine and one mammogram machine in the entire public health sector.

“At the slightest sniffle, Mugabe and his wife and political heir, Grace, get on a plane to Singapore or South Africa for medical treatment. They know that their own health system is too dysfunctional to heal them.

“Tedros thought Mugabe was fit to be a goodwill ambassador to fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that include mental health and ‘lifestyle’ related diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

“Yet Mugabe’s style of governance is directly to blame for the destruction of his people’s lifestyles and psychological well-being. He has transformed a former African bread-basket into country that has to import basic food, forcing over 1m Zimbabweans to flee their country as they cannot survive at home.

“Sadly, Tedros – a former Ethiopian foreign minister and health minister and the first African to head the WHO – has exposed himself as being part of Africa’s old man’s club that values politicking over people. Zimbabwe supported Tedros’s election to the WHO, and Mugabe’s appointment was the reward. Some speculate that China also played a role both in Tedros’s appointment and Mugabe’s ‘reward’, as Zimbabwe and Ethiopia both have close ties with China.”

Cullinan writes: “We will probably never know what made Tedros commit such a blunder merely four months into his directorship. But what is certain is that this appointment has lost him a lot of goodwill. All his future decisions will need to be watched carefully.”

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