Mugabe is not the best loved of leaders and people took to Twitter and Facebook to express their disagreement with the designation, forcing WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to rescind the decision.
It was a vexatious episode for many reasons.
On Sunday, Zimbabwe’s new Foreign Minister, Walter Mzembi, on his first foreign trip after a recent cabinet reshuffle, said there had been consultation before the honour but he accepted the rescission.
On the other hand, on Tuesday, Mugabe’s spokesperson and spin doctor, George Charamba, told the media that WHO had not communicated with Zimbabwe about the appointment to the role.
Charamba said Mugabe would not have accepted the offer anyway because, among other things, the role would have entailed campaigning against tobacco, which is Zimbabwe’s top foreign currency earner.
The noise has died down, but the incident is fraught with lessons for those who are interested in the Zimbabwe question and Mugabe’s 37-year hold on power.
Let’s put the matter into perspective and acknowledge the growing power of social media in holding world institutions and leaders to account.
We have seen that with an active global citizenry ready to voice displeasure at outrages, leaders and global institutions will not be allowed to get away with murder.
Expectedly many Zimbabweans, especially those in the opposition, were also unhappy with the appointment and pointed out that Mugabe had run down Zimbabwe’s health system, violated human rights and frequently sought treatment outside. But there are bigger dynamics at play.
When the news broke of the so-called appointment, Britain and the US raised the first alarm. The two countries are the two biggest financiers of WHO programmes and there are reports that they threatened to withdraw funding if WHO did not rescind the overture.
Britain and America have been locked in a bitter dispute with Zimbabwe stemming from Mugabe’s decision to expropriate land owned by whites of colonial stock.
The West’s convenient accusation against Mugabe is that he violates human rights. It has been trying to remove Mugabe through a policy of sanctions and isolation.
The WHO appointment, seen as a legitimation and “propping up” of Mugabe, would have been a slap in the West’s face.
His demotion was considered right and also had the extra dessert of humiliating Mugabe.
That is where the problem is. The West’s obsession with Mugabe, legitimated by the Zimbabwean opposition, has boomeranged fantastically.
For 27 years, Mugabe has used Western pressures against him to galvanise support in a country that has fresh memories of colonialism. Zimbabwe got its independence from Britain in 1980 and survivors of the war of independence are active in the government and countryside.
In a situation like this, Mugabe simply raises the racist, imperialist card. It has served him well.
(The reader might recall that a couple of months ago when his wife, Grace, allegedly beat a model at a Sandton Hotel, the intervention of AfriForum on behalf of the victim, Gabriella Engels, proved to be a tactical error as Mugabe supporters began seeing a racist political plot in it and a rally was called in Harare to denounce AfriForum and Engels.)
In the latest episode, many Zimbabweans are seeing the humiliation and victimisation of the president.
Even in Africa, sympathy for Mugabe runs deep. It was, not unexpectedly, only Botswanan President Ian Khama who appeared to mock Mugabe about the WHO fiasco.
It does not help that Mugabe was being designated a representative of Africa - and no objection came from the continent - but from the West.
Ghebreyesus is the first African to head WHO and his judgment is being called into question; some have even asked him to resign.
It will be difficult to dismiss the race factor, however lame that might sound to some. But Mugabe typically benefits from such politics.
Zimbabweans are losers in it all. Sanctions by western countries - the US and the EU - affect the poor and vulnerable in society as they hit the country’s productive sectors.
Mugabe and his family don’t go hungry or suffer the consequences of a crumbled economy. Ordinary Zimbabweans are the ones who suffer ill health and a dilapidated health system as Mugabe and other privileged people, including opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has cancer, access treatment elsewhere, including in South Africa.
Which brings the point home. If Mugabe had been made goodwill ambassador, that could have brought benefits to Zimbabwe’s public systems from the WHO, whose regional headquarters is in Zimbabwe anyway. For example, funding for public programmes or a big institution to treat cancer, which has emerged as a rising killer in the country.
Sadly, the obsession with Mugabe clouds better judgment and this has backfired on ordinary Zimbabweans.
* Zindoga is a journalist and author
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent