BSR Special: WHO’s spectacular disaster over Mugabe


The World Health Organisation (WHO) found itself on a sticky wicket this weekend. The UN agency appointed Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe as a Goodwill Ambassador. The decision drew protests from many Zimbabweans and broad condemnation across the world.

After promising to re-think the decision in the wake of public pressure, the newly appointed Director General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom, an Ethiopian national, announced the decision to rescind the appointment on Sunday 22nd October 2017. It was a massive climbdown in the face of public pressure, the bulk of which came from ordinary Zimbabweans who expressed their disgust largely through social media. And with that, Mugabe became the shortest serving Goodwill Ambassador for WHO and probably any other UN agency in history.

The decision to appoint Mugabe as WHO’s Goodwill Ambassador was described by many protesting Zimbabweans as absurd and ridiculous. The international community joined in the condemnation, but the primary source of pressure came from Zimbabweans themselves. The ridiculousness of WHO’s decision was so obvious it hard to understand how the organisation’s leadership could have arrived at it in the first place. Although he has led the country for 37 years, Mugabe does not use the country’s health system. Instead, as ordinary Zimbabweans have known for years, Mugabe goes to Singapore every time he has a problem. When his daughter gave birth in 2016, she chose an overseas hospital ahead of Zimbabwe’s health centres. Many Zimbabweans noted that that even his own daughter didn’t trust the health system. When his wife injured her ankle a few months ago, Mugabe announced that she had gone to neighbouring South Africa for treatment.

How then, Zimbabweans asked, could their leader be appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the global health organisation when he himself and his family do not use or trust the Zimbabwean health system over which he presides? It was that absurdity and hypocrisy that drove Zimbabweans to condemn and ridicule WHO’s decision.

Zimbabweans from all walks of life told stories of how they or members of their families have suffered at the hands of the decrepit health system that Mugabe has presided over for the past 37 years. It defied all sense that their leader could be appointed as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador when he has overseen the decline of a health system which was once one of the most advanced and progressive on the continent.

For most Zimbabweans, it demonstrated how WHO is generally out of touch with reality. For them, it was an insult to ordinary people who have had to endure a weak system authored by Mugabe’s rule. It also demonstrated how they often clash with fellow Africans who revere Mugabe without having to shoulder the burdens caused by his inept leadership. Zimbabweans are tired of Africans and others who hold Mugabe as a hero when they conveniently ignore the problems that they have had to carry on account of his misrule. The WHO director is an Ethiopian national and he too might have been dazzled by the myth of Mugabe’s heroism which many suffering Zimbabweans cannot relate to.

Incredibly, some of Mugabe’s fawning loyalists in Zimbabwe chose to ignore the complaints of their fellow citizens and instead put the pressure down to Western pressure. The appointment of Mugabe was described by Zimbabwe’s state media as a victory and endorsement of Mugabe’s rule. This, ordinary Zimbabweans saw as a direct insult by WHO. The Zimbabwean health system is an utter mess. Patients die premature deaths simply because the system is incapable of looking after their basic needs. The national constitution guarantees the right to heath care, but the facilities are in a parlous state. The staff that remain are underpaid, overworked and under-appreciated. Basic drugs are unavailable.  With an economy in dire straits, many can’t afford what is available. Even if they cared, the staff are not in a position to give patients what they need.

But things were not always this bad. At independence, Zimbabwe’s health system was advanced and sophisticated. True, like other areas, the health sector was segregated during the colonial period. However, even then, there were health facilities that were designed to cater for the black majority. The early years of independence were not bad. Racial segregation was removed. There was some improvement in the provision of public goods, such as education and health to the black majority. The government ran a campaign, called “Health for all by the year 2000”. It was an unfulfilled dream. Neo-liberal reforms under the IMF-led structural adjustment programmes led to cuts in social services, including health. The elites looked after themselves and forgot the masses. But by the time 2000 arrived, it was health for just a few – the elites.

But even then, the elites had already become health tourists, flying to neighbouring South Africa or overseas for basic treatment. Mugabe’s favoured choice is Singapore. If it hadn’t been for travel sanctions against Mugabe and his family, there is every chance that his destination of choice would be the UK, as is the case for his African peers. Mugabe spends millions of dollars in travel and treatment overseas, which could be used to buy basic drugs and equipment for ordinary Zimbabweans. Rural people use ox-drawn ambulances while Mugabe’s ministers cruise in Range Rovers. How then does Mugabe qualify as a Goodwill Ambassador for the global health organisation, ordinary Zimbabweans have asked.

Apologists for the Mugabe regime want to blame the West for the rescission of WHO’s appointment. But this is typical of a regime that has always ignored the concerns and pleas of its own people. They claim to fight for the independence and dignity of African people, but they always find a Western hand whenever the same Africans raise legitimate concerns. The fact that Zimbabweans have led this campaign of protest against Mugabe’s absurd appointment is swept under the carpet. For them, Africans can’t think for themselves. There has to be someone who is pushing them. It’s utterly disrespectful.

The Western press is partly to blame. In this particular case, newspaper headlines proclaimed that the UK had led the campaign against the appointment. This was not a correct representation of events. These headlines ignored the fact that it was Zimbabweans who had led the campaign. In the process, they unwittingly fed into Mugabe’s propaganda campaign that his troubles over the ridiculous appointment are a Western conspiracy. The propaganda machine has already started blaming the rescission on the West. No, it is ordinary Zimbabweans who, through the medium of social media, have expressed their disgust at the WHO’s decision. But now Mugabe’s propaganda machine will run with the argument that the WHO succumbed to Western pressure, when in fact, the pressure has come from ordinary Zimbabweans. There are lessons to be learnt here for Western media.  It gives manna to dictators while ignoring that Africans, in this case Zimbabweans have agency and they have been at the forefront of the campaign against the WHO’s ridiculous decision.

But privately the Mugabe regime will not forget that social media has been influential in this campaign. Mugabe is a sensitive character who hates public humiliation. The WHO debacle will hurt him badly and he will probably react with a heavy hand. And this means, apart from the usual bashing of the West, there is likely to be serious repercussions for social media in and around Zimbabwe. The foundation for that backlash is already in place. In his latest reshuffle, Mugabe appointed a Minister for Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation. Its mandate is to clamp down on the internet and social media activity. The Minister is a former Attorney General and as Justice Minister during the Fast Track Land Reform Programme, he executed his role with a great amount of zeal. Mugabe’s humiliating defeat over the WHO saga will only provide more justification and greater impetus for a heavy handed response against social media. Mugabe’s regime is close to China and North Korea, regimes that have tough laws on use of the internet and social media. No doubt, they will be drawing lessons from those regimes in order to exert tough controls on the internet and social media. Already, there have been numerous arrests for offences ranging from insulting Mugabe to undermining his office. The world can expect to see more of this in the wake of this humiliation.

As Zimbabwe prepares for a tough election next year, one can only expect more stringent controls and clampdowns on the internet and social media. Previous responses to defeats give an indication as to the likely response to this latest set-back. In 2000 after losing a constitutional referendum, the Mugabe regime came down heavily against the people. In 2008, after losing to Morgan Tsvangirai, there was a heavy bout of egregious violence against the people. This time around, there is likely to be further repression, especially aimed at social media. In this regard, the Mugabe regime is a replica of the colonial regime which typically responded with a heavy hand whenever it was threatened by forces agitating for freedom in the sixties and seventies. The irony is that Mugabe and his contemporaries in the nationalist struggle were the targets and victims of such colonial laws and strategies. Now they are the authors of repression.

For the WHO, this is must be one of its lowest moments. The new DG was probably honouring an African leader who was one of his staunchest supporters in his bid to become the first African to head the organisation. But the decision was ill-judged. It has attracted unnecessary controversy and brought the organisation’s name into disrepute. The only saving grace is that at least he listened to the complaints and made amends, which few leaders are prepared to do. He could have been arrogant and suborn about it. That he has rescinded it is a faint light in a period of extreme darkness.

For Walter Mzembi, Mugabe’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, what must have appeared like a diplomatic coup is now a diplomatic nightmare. It couldn’t have been a worse start to life as the country’s chief diplomat. It has brought the nearly forgotten Zimbabwean tragedy into the media spotlight once again. For the generality of Zimbabweans, the rescission of Mugabe’s appointment is a small but not insignificant victory in the greater scheme of things. They have had to endure an electoral system which, for 37 years, has been heavily tilted in favour of Mugabe. Any moment when Mugabe is disappointed, for whatever reason, is a moment of celebration. But there are bigger battles ahead. The WHO may have reshuffled Mugabe, but Zimbabweans have their own chance to vote him out next year. First, though, they must register to vote in their numbers, a process that is currently underway. Perhaps this moment will remind people that however difficult it seems, there remains a small window of opportunity.