[By Ruth Maclean]
THE United States recalled its ambassador to Zambia on Monday after he criticised the government for sending a gay couple to prison and accused officials of stealing millions of dollars of public funds.
The Ambassador, Daniel L. Foote, had described the treatment of the gay couple as “horrifying” – setting off outrage in Zambia, a conservative Christian country. But analysts said that the main reason for his departure was that he had repeatedly declared that ministry officials had misappropriated millions.
In an unusually combative public statement for a member of the diplomatic corps, Mr Foote had said that the Zambian government “wants foreign diplomats to be compliant, with open pocketbooks and closed mouths .”
Mr Foote’s comments set off recriminations in Zambia, a copper-producing, landlocked country in southern Africa. Zambia’s president, Edgar Lungu, said he did not want Mr Foote in the country, even if Zambia risked losing its annual $500 million in American aid.
“We don’t want such people in our midst. We want him gone,” President Lungu told the state-owned television channel ZNBC on Sunday.
He later told Sky News: “If that is how you are going to bring your aid, then I’m afraid the West can leave us alone in our poverty. And we’ll continue scrounging and struggling.”
The State Department said in a statement that it was dismayed the Zambian government had declared that Mr Foote’s position as ambassador was “no longer tenable.” The department said that his remarks were “the equivalent of a declaration that the ambassador is persona non grata.”
Mr Foote is a career diplomat who was appointed ambassador to Zambia by President Trump in November 2017. In his statement, released in early December, Mr Foote said that the Zambian foreign minister had accused him of interfering in internal affairs for speaking out about the “harsh sentencing of a homosexual couple.”
Despite all of the aid Zambia receives, the Ambassador wrote, he had found it very difficult to get an audience with the President.
“Both the American taxpayers, and Zambian citizens, deserve a privileged, two-way partnership, not a one-way donation that works out to $200 million per meeting with the head of state,” Mr Foote wrote.
The administration of Mr Lungu, who was elected in 2015 after his predecessor died in office, has been widely criticised as corrupt. One Zambian analyst recently called it “kleptocratic,” saying that grand corruption had become endemic and that the economy was faltering.
A recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international organisation that investigates environmental crime and abuse, described the President, his daughter and two ministers as central figures in a “cartel” that traffics mukula rosewood trees. It said that the trees were on the verge of commercial extinction.
Mr Foote had spoken out about corruption in Zambia before.
“His voice is powerful. He had exposed their hypocrisy and corruption,” said the popular musician Fumba Chama, who has repeatedly criticized government corruption in songs like “Koswe Mumpoto,” which means “Rat in the Pot.”
Mr Chama – whose stage name, Pilato, stands for People In Lyrical Arena Taking Over – has been targeted by the government multiple times. He was last arrested in Livingstone on Saturday while running a workshop on transparency and accountability, charged with unlawful assembly, and released two days later.
He said that the furore over the ambassador’s comments on gay rights was just a pretext and that the real issue was his bold condemnation of corrupt officials.
“They brought up the LGBT thing because they knew if they brought it to the fore, the public would side with them. Zambia is a very religious country,” Chama said.
Gay relationships are against the law in many African countries, but gay people confront a broad range of conditions across the continent. The prosecution of the two Zambian men, for what the government called “crimes against the order of nature,” is not unique on the continent.
In its statement, the State Department said: “The United States firmly opposes 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.”
It quoted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying, “We abhor violations of these rights, whenever and wherever they are encountered.”
However, some State Department officials have said they have seen a rollback in advocacy for gay rights under President Trump and Mr. Pompeo.
Diplomats recently requested permission to fly rainbow flags at the American Embassy and Consulate in Brazil, where the openly anti-gay, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was elected last year, but Washington refused. Mr Pompeo has installed a new human rights panel to review the State Department’s definition of human rights, which some critics say is a move to curtail advocacy for the rights of LGBT people.
Conservative American evangelicals have been accused of promoting opposition to gay rights across Africa. In Zambia, evangelical Christianity is a dominant force in society and the political arena. Many Zambians were introduced to North American evangelism in the 1990s through shows like Pat Robertson’s “700 Club.” – New York Times