Reviewing the Mugabe-WHO Debacle

By U.S. Department of State. Cropped by User:Andrew Dalby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

October 22nd, 2017; New York Times

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the newly elected director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the first African to hold the position, may have set a record recently for the fastest rescission of a new appointment, when he reversed his announcement that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe be designated a Noncommunicable Diseases goodwill ambassador. The news followed what Western media portrayed as a “global” outcry, which were really objections by the WHO’s largest funders: the US, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Fewer protests came from African media. Richard Horton does a fine job articulating the outrage that followed the decision, in which “critics in Zimbabwe, and across the world argued his appointment was misplaced considering the near-collapse of the country’s healthcare system under Mugabe’s rule,” according to Arthur Chatora

But, in the spirit of alternative ‘truths’, this situation raises some questions that may not have been (fully) unearthed.

  1. The intrigues of the global political economy notwithstanding, we find it very telling that the loudest opposition to Mugabe’s appointment was not African. Granted, the man cuts a very mixed figure. But in light of news that Togolese president and ECOWAS chairperson, Faure Gnassingbe, is to help keep the peace around that country’s runoff elections this week while his security forces massacre his people, it seems prudent to wonder: are there no moral grounds for Africa(ns) to have resisted Mugabe’s appointment?
  2. Was Mugabe’s appointment a reward, as Reuters suggests—implying that Tedros’ qualifications alone were not sufficient to get him his job—for presiding over Tedros’ own appointment in May this year?
  3. Did Tedros choose Mugabe not negligently or unilaterally as has been advanced, but in a deliberate move to put him on the spot regarding his health record in his home country?
  4. What does it say about the internal processes within the WHO that news of the appointment was such a shock to Dr. Tedros’ colleagues?
  5. It’s curious that the same Mugabe was a convenient accomplice when the US needed a place to hide Ethiopian dictator and famed ‘Butcher of Addis’, Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991…
  6. It seems bizarre that Mugabe, who has shown repeated disdain in the past for the workings of ‘international’ diplomacy, would accept such an offer. Could there be more to this than meets the eye?

The amount of sway that large, wealthy countries hold over international governing bodies and organizations whose work focuses on other, less wealthy countries comes with a responsibility to ask questions about their motives for leadership decisions. Certainly Mugabe, with his terrible human rights track record, his poor stewardship of his country’s economy, and his unwillingness to relinquish power, is a controversial leadership figure at best. But Mugabe’s poor leadership is not an excuse for Western political hegemony in international NGOs.—Titilope Ajayi