The 93-year-old president of Zimbabwe – who oversaw plummeting life expectancy in his own country – will supposedly co-ordinate the United Nations organisation’s battle against heart disease, cancer and diabetes across Africa.
The role – which comes with the title of ‘WHO goodwill ambassador’ – will be to encourage African governments to introduce policies to reduce smoking and drinking, improve diets and increase exercise.
Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe‘s foreign affairs minister, said the appointment was a ‘major diplomacy coup’ for the country and claimed Mugabe is ‘very passionate about non-communicable diseases’.
He told Zimbabwe’s Daily News: ‘President Mugabe has in the past acquitted himself in health diplomacy.’
Mugabe took power in Zimbabwe in 1980, overseeing the worst episode of hyperinflation and economic collapse ever seen anywhere in the world.
Life expectancy in Zimbabwe dropped from 61 in 1985 to 44 in 2003, according to World Bank figures, largely down to the nation’s crumbling economy and widespread poverty. Life expectancy has since recovered – but is still not as high as it was in the mid-1980s.
Mugabe is widely seen as creating the crisis by breaking up the farms that had provided the back-bone of Zimbabwe’s economy, seizing the land from white farm owners and redistributing it to gain political support.
At the height of the crisis in 2009, the UN was feeding seven million Zimbabweans, more than two-thirds of the population.
Yet Mugabe has pledged never to give up the presidency.
He told African Union last year: ‘I will be there until God says come, but as long as I am alive I will head the country, forward ever, backwards never.’
Despite his longevity, Mugabe has suffered several health scares.
He repeatedly flies to Singapore and the Middle East for medical treatment – rather than relying on hospitals in his own country.
In 2008 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer – an illness his wife Grace, 52, attributed to ‘poor diet advised by enemies within the security department’.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said: ‘I am honoured to announce that President Mugabe has agreed to serve as a goodwill ambassador on non-communicable diseases for Africa to influence his peers in his region.’
He said: ‘Zimbabwe [is] a country that places universal health coverage and health promotion at the centre of its policies to provide health care to all.’
WHO ambassadors are appointed for an initial period of two years and are unpaid.
The British Government immediately complained to the WHO about the decision, warning the appointment could ‘overshadow’ the organisation’s efforts to tackle global health.
The decision is all the more bizarre because the United Nations imposes trade embargoes on arms deals against Zimbabwe.
The UK and EU also have separate financial sanctions against the country, which they say will not be lifted until ‘progress has been made on democracy, human rights and the rule of law’.
A Government spokesman said last night: ‘President Mugabe’s appointment is surprising and disappointing, particularly in light of the current US and EU sanctions against him.
‘We have registered our concerns with WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Although Mugabe will not have an executive role, his appointment risks overshadowing the work undertaken globally by the WHO on non-communicable diseases.’
The appointment additionally drew condemnation from 24 international health organisations including Cancer Research UK, the World Heart Federation and Action Against Smoking. They said they were ‘shocked and deeply concerned’ by the decision, citing Mugabe’s ‘long track record of human rights violations’.
Human Rights Watch added that the dictator’s regime ‘continues to violate human rights [and] has intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protest human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation’.