HARARE – Foreign Affairs minister Walter Mzembi says he has no regrets about his decision to lobby for the role of World Health Organisation (WHO) goodwill envoy for President Robert Mugabe and shall not be deterred from marketing the veteran leader by angry hecklers.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily News yesterday, Mzembi denied he had made any mistakes in his lobby which saw the WHO removing the Zimbabwean president as a goodwill ambassador following outrage among donors and rights groups over his appointment, a decision that opened deep rifts in government.
WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who made the appointment at a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Uruguay last week on Wednesday, said in a statement on Sunday that he had listened to those expressing concerns.
Apparently, Mzembi had written a motivational letter to Ghebreyesus, persuading him to give Mugabe the ambassadorial role as soon as he learnt that the United Nations agency had decided to create a special NCDs office for Africa.
Mzembi told the Daily News that African delegates to the conference, among them Angola, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia and Zimbabwe had requested him to engage the WHO on their behalf and seek the appointment of Mugabe as the goodwill ambassador for Africa.
“I must applaud the WHO director-general, . . . Ghebreyesus, for the initial bravery which led him after his own internal consultations, to accede to the request which he communicated to the minister of Health (David Parirenyatwa) and myself before the commencement of the High-Level Forum that he would be announcing the designation of the president to this honorary role,” Mzembi said.
“With all good intentions, we informed the president (Mugabe) accordingly. Thereafter . . . Ghebreyesus proudly announced and justified the appointment of the president with the attendant citation.
“What we perhaps underestimated was the backlash. Little did we know that there were other constituencies with other convictions concerning this issue. The rest is now water under the bridge.”
The WHO boss had faced withering pressure to rescind the decision, including from some of the leading voices in global public health.
Britain slammed Mugabe’s appointment as “surprising and disappointing” and that it risked overshadowing the WHO’s global work.
The United States, which has slapped Mugabe with sanctions over rights abuses and electoral fraud, said it was “disappointed”.
The United States administration of President Donald Trump, which is already questioning financial support for some programmes of UN agencies, is WHO’s largest single donor.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those who had criticised the appointment, saying it was “absolutely unacceptable and inconceivable”.
Asked if he felt he was justified to lobby for Mugabe to be WHO ambassador, Mzembi told the Daily News: “I was approached by the African constituency at the meeting, and for me, it made sense then and now, and there are no regrets.
“The president does not require to be bestowed an honour in the pursuit of his principles and convictions.
“He successfully advocated, lobbied and resource mobilised for the Ebola affected countries in West Africa at the UN in 2015 without this designation.
“As I speak, he will carry on with his agenda on NCDs on behalf of Africa notwithstanding. It was not about the honour, it was about saving lives in line with SDG Goal 3, target 3.4, which implores us to reduce, by one third, premature mortality from NCDs through prevention and treatment and promoting mental health and wellbeing.”
Asked if this was a government position or his own initiative and whether he took the Zimbabwe delegation into his confidence on the issue, Mzembi retorted: “I am part of government and any action by my ministry is within the context of a collegiate.”
He denied there was a fall-out.
Asked if he thought he did the right thing, Mzembi said: “Absolutely, any perceived fall-out is imaginary.”
Presidential spokesperson George Charamba has said Mugabe would have rejected the role of WHO goodwill envoy if he was formally asked.
“Had anything been put to the president … (he) would have found such a request to be an awkward one,” Charamba told State TV.
“The WHO cannot take back what it never gave in the first place, and as far as he is concerned, all this hullabaloo over a non-appointment is in fact a non-event.”
Charamba said Zimbabwe was a major tobacco producer and exporter, and could not spearhead WHO’s agenda against a crop that is a major foreign currency earner.
Zimbabwe is the largest producer of tobacco leaf in Africa and the world’s fourth-largest producer of flue-cured tobacco, after China, Brazil and the US.
Zimbabwe rakes in an average $800 million annually from tobacco, according to the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board.
“To be seen to be playing goodwill ambassador in respect of an agency which has a well-defined stance on tobacco growing and tobacco selling, that would have been a contradiction,” Charamba said.
“In other words, he (Mugabe) was not going to oblige the invitation had it come his way anyway.”
Charamba seemed to be sharply contradict Mzembi, but the Foreign minister told the Daily News: “I am not aware of any contradictions. . . . Charamba was part of our delegation and in fact his media team was responsible for information dissemination from Uruguay which is a matter of public record.”
Asked if it was government policy to continue producing tobacco because of its foreign currency earning power even though tobacco is killing 7 000 Zimbabweans through NCDs such as cancer every year, Mzembi said: “Zimbabwe is a signatory to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and its economy is transitioning to alternatives.
“However, in the interim, we will continue to strictly observe the set guidelines in the production and trading of tobacco. FCTC does not abruptly stop production and trade in tobacco, but puts guidelines for countries like Zimbabwe for which tobacco is part of its economic mainstay.” – Daily News