The World Health Organization cancelled its appointment of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in response to international outrage.
While Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, previously praised Mugabe for improving the public health system in Zimbabwe, critics, however, say that the system has collapsed due to the failure of the Zimbabwean economy since 2000.
Staff are routinely unpaid, and many medical supplies are lacking. Though Mugabe spent the first two decades of his presidency expanding the country’s public health system, he now travels abroad for medical treatment.
In a statement, Tedros said that he consulted the Zimbabwean government and decided that removing Mugabe from the role was “in the best interests of the World Health Organization.”
Though the role of goodwill ambassador is largely ceremonial, Mugabe’s appointment was criticized by western governments and human rights groups. One US official told Reuters that Tedros “has to remember where his funding comes from.”
Zimbabwean Foreign Minister Walter Muzembi said in a statement that the WHO has benefitted greatly from appointing Mugabe and the media attention that followed, and that his government respects Tedros’ decision. BBC reporter Andrew Harding reported, however, that many of Mugabe’s supporters will view the cancellation as western governments meddling in their affairs.
Mugabe came to power in 1980 after fighting against white minority rule in the state of Rhodesia. Since independence, his worldview has remained the same. Mugabe’s socialist government is critical of western powers, with Mugabe blaming Zimbabwe’s economic problems on a plot by western countries in retaliation for his seizure of white-owned farms.
Critics within Zimbabwe and abroad place the blame solely on him, saying Mugabe does not understand modern economics. In 2000, Mugabe seized white-owned farms to intimidate political opposition, and in doing so ruined Zimbabwe’s then-prosperous economy.
Opposition to his rule has been met with deadly violence. Although Mugabe spent the early years of his presidency expanding the right to vote and public education, he is now unwilling to relinquish power to the politically mobilized and informed opposition he helped create.
These factors make Mugabe an unlikely candidate for WHO goodwill ambassador. Some have suggested that Tedros’ appointment was influenced by the fact that Mugabe was head of the African Union when the group endorsed Tedros, despite competition from other qualified candidates in the region.
Tedros wrote in a statement on the subject, “It is my aim to build a worldwide movement for global health. This movement must work for everyone and include everyone.” He has said he hoped his appointment of Mugabe would influence other leaders in the region.
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