Robert Mugabe would have rejected WHO role, says spokesman after group's U-turn

Robert Mugabe addresses a meeting of his ruling ZANU PF party's youth league in Harare, Zimbabwe, Oct 7, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

HARARE (REUTERS) - Robert Mugabe would have rejected the role of World Health Organisation (WHO) goodwill envoy had he been formally asked, his spokesman said on Tuesday (Oct 24), days after state media cheered the Zimbabwean president's appointment.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus named Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador on Wednesday at a conference in Uruguay that both men were attending.

But the appointment was rescinded on Sunday following a backlash from Western donors, rights groups and opposition parties.

Last Friday, the state-owned Herald celebrated the largely ceremonial appointment as a "New feather in President's cap", adding that Mugabe, 93, had accepted the role.

His spokesman told the same newspaper on Tuesday that Zimbabwe's sole leader since independence from Britain in 1980 had heard about the appointment only via the media.

"Had anything been put to the president... (he) would have found such a request to be an awkward one," Charamba was quoted as saying, citing Zimbabwe's role as a tobacco producer.

"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 did not respond to calls seeking further comment.

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Mugabe's critics were outraged by Tedros' announcement, saying he was rewarding a man whose government had presided over the collapse of Zimbabwe's health system.

In Geneva, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing that there were "no fixed guidelines" for appointing WHO goodwill ambassadors, but that the director-general or his deputies had the power to select them.

On Tedros' decision to rescind Mugabe's appointment, he said: "I think in terms of transparency we were pretty good. A, it was tweeted and B, it appeared on the website with the statements immediately."

Charamba said the fact that Zimbabwe was a producer and exporter of tobacco, mostly to China, would have meant Mugabe campaigning against a crop that underpins the economy.

Tobacco is Zimbabwe's single largest foreign currency earner, bringing in an average US$800 million (S$1 billion) annually in the last four years, according to official data.

"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 was not going to oblige the invitation had it come his way anyway."

A Western diplomat in Geneva told Reuters: "It was a mistake, apparently there were no preparations or consultations.

"It seems the idea was cooked up in a small group in Uruguay. He acted quickly to rescind it, some would have waited.

"But it will be interesting to see what the damage is," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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