By Prince Kurupati
The US State Department recently recalled the US Ambassador to Zambia. The decision came after an exchange of words between the ambassador and the Zambian government mainly over the issue of gay rights.
Daniel Foote who served as the US Ambassador to Zambia for over two years made some critical remarks regarding a court decision which jailed two men for having consensual sexual intercourse. The Zambian High Court sentenced Steven Samba and Japhet Chataba to 15 years in jail; this came after the court heard that the two had booked into a lodge in 2017 and were seen having sex by a worker who peeped through an open window. Foote in a heavily worded letter said that the court’s decision undermined human rights.
The highly conservative Zambian government which criminalizes acts of homosexuality was not pleased at all with Foote’s remarks and quickly through the Foreign Minister Joseph Malanji issued a statement saying, “You (Foote) cannot ask a government to make a decision at gun point – ‘because we are giving you aid, we want you to do this’ – you can’t.”
The response by the Zambian government led Foote to defend himself saying his statement regarding the sentencing of the two men was simply his belief and that belief is that the sentence was harsh. Foote went further to state that the relationship between his country and Zambia was ‘decaying’ as the Zambian government only prefers to deal with diplomats “with open pocketbooks and closed mouths.”
Aside from the issue of the gay rights, Foote also weighed in on the issue of donor aid which has been misappropriated by the Zambian government. Zambia as stated by Foote is one of the largest per-capita recipients of US aid, getting about $500 million annually. However, despite the massive aid inflows the country receives, there is very little work on the ground that suggests that the aid is being put to good use. According to Foote, this is as a result of funds misappropriation by top government officials who channel the funds for their personal use.
The ‘direct’ words uttered by Foote in relation to the gay rights issue and the misappropriation of donor aid forced the Zambian President Edgar Lungu to speak out saying, “Even animals don’t do it, so why should we be forced to do it?…because we want to be seen to be smart, civilized and advanced and so on.” The Zambia President proceeded to send a protest letter to Washington over Foote’s remarks calling for the US Ambassador to be withdrawn stating his position is untenable.
Washington’s response was to recall Foote. Tibor Nagy, the Assistant US Secretary of State for African Affairs in a Tweet stated that “Dismayed by the Zambian government’s decision requiring our Ambassador Foote’s departure from the country.”
US embassy sources who spoke to the New York Post said that Washington’s decision was taken solely on the basis that it was difficult for the Ambassador to conduct his duties in a country that no longer wanted him. “Since Lungu says he does not want to work with Foote, there was no point of him remaining. Also don’t forget that there are security issues so Washington wants their man back.” “The US cannot be paying a salary to someone who cannot work because the hosts don’t want him,” another source said.
Though the US government took the decision to recall its Ambassador, the statement issued by the State Department spokesperson clearly shows that Washington took the side of its Ambassador. “The United States firmly opposed abuses against LGBTI persons; Governments have an obligation to ensure that all people can freely enjoy the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled.”
Though Washington backed its man, some Americans were not pleased with the decision taken to recall the Ambassador. Writing for CNN, Jill Filipovic said the move taken by Washington was a cowardly move which aptly shows the Trump administration’s penchant for siding with shady actors over US interests. Jill Filipovic likened the decision to Trump administration’s decision to continue friendly relations with Saudi Arabia despite the country’s atrocious human rights record. Filipovic states that Foote said nothing but the truth in lambasting the Zambian government for its stance on gay rights and government corruption. “Foote’s claims were true…there is not a question that the country does indeed jail people for homosexuality. Various watchdog groups have repeatedly noted Zambia’s corruption, and an assortment of European governments suspended aid to the country in 2018 because of embezzlement schemes.”
Filipovic went on to state that Foote’s claims are in line with the American values, the values that ambassadors are supposed to promote abroad. As such, recalling a man who was upholding and promoting American values shows the errors with the Trump administration. The decision taken by the Trump administration according to Filipovic proves to the corrupt and bigoted world leaders that they have a friend in America. To Americans, the decision proves that they might not have a friend. Filipovic believes the government should have backed their ambassador, making clear that American diplomats will indeed have the space to voice American values – basic things like “don’t put gay people in jail” and “don’t steal aid money” – even when inconvenient for a host country.
Writing for the BBC, Kennedy Gondwe said the US Ambassador’s recall is a victory for the Zambian government as it is rare to hear of an African country forcing a superpower to recall its ambassador. Though this is the case, the big question is, will be victory last. America may retaliate by cutting aid especially after Foote’s remarks concerning the misappropriation of donor funds. If such happens, then Zambia might lose big time as it depends heavily on donor aid especially when it comes to combating diseases which include HIV/AIDS.