THE United States says Zambia’s approach to its assistance has been unappreciative and arrogant.
Addressing the media at the embassy yesterday, US Ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote said its relationship with Zambia is strained.
“In my two years, I have strived to improve the US-Zambia partnership, with minimal success. Let us stop the façade that our governments enjoy ‘warm and cordial’ relations. The current government of Zambia wants foreign diplomats to be compliant, with open pocketbooks and closed mouths,” he said. “…It’s time to advocate for a real voice for all Zambians and uphold a person’s right to freedom of conscience and belief. I have consistently pledged that it’s not my place to tell Zambia what to do, but that I would always be honest and frank. The exceptional yearly assistance from American to Zambian citizens, and the constitution of Zambia, should enable all of us to express our opinions without acrimonious accusations or actions. I hope the government of Zambia commits to improve its decaying relationship with the United States, but that is a decision for it to make.”
Ambassador Foote said the Zambian government would be happy to receive assistance without being held accountable.
Last week, the Lusaka High Court sentenced a gay couple to 15 years.
Ambassador Foote criticised the sentencing and urged the Zambian government to consider changing what he termed outdated laws.
His statement has not gone well with the government.
Ambassador Foote said he was not happy with the way the government was treating its bilateral friends.
“The overall Zambian government’s approach to US assistance has been incredibly unappreciative and arrogant. And that is not the way you treat your bilateral friends,’’ he said. “And I know that they are not gonna be happy to hear this. But I told you that I will be frank and honest. And I fear that they worry that the United States is gonna tell them what to do, we’re not gonna tell them what to do. But we’re gonna hold them accountable for a real partnership. And we’re gonna express our opinions when we see things that are inappropriate, either to their responsibilities over this partnership or to Zambia’s own Constitution.”
Ambassador Foote said his government was simply demanding accountability over the relationship between the two countries.
He said American interests were about promoting good health worldwide.
“I think they thought that I would be compliant, open pocketbook, closed mouth; and that would be the end of it. But the United States is a nation that provides assistance to many developing countries in the world. And we do that, first for US interests,” Ambassador Foote said. “If Zambian people are healthy, people in the region are healthy, and diseases such as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis tend not to get imported in the United States, we share values there. If Zambia is a stable and secure country, then we tend to have stability and security in the region. If Zambia enjoys economic growth and inclusive progress, then that affects the whole world, including the Unites States. So, we have a lot of shared interests. But the level of cooperation from the government of Zambia during my two years has been less than acceptable.”
Responding to a question on how he would describe the current Zambia-US relations, Ambassador Foote responded: ‘’Strained! And I will elaborate all of it. Since I have been here, it’s been a one-way street. The government of Zambia is happy for us to come in and pay for the majority of the health sector in Zambia, to do our work on economic development, prosperity, conservation; support Zambia’s great work with refugees and peace-keeping, et cetera. The Zambian government is happy [for us] to do that… And let me be on the record to say that I have excellent relationships with a number of ministers, particularly the Minister of Health [Dr Chitalu Chilufya] and others; and they have been wonderfully appreciative.”
He complained that instead of sorting out the differences over his opinion, the Zambian government, through foreign affairs minister Joe Malanji, chose to ‘fight’ him publicly.
“So, we have had these other bilateral relations churning over the past many months, and we tried to solve them and we could have solved them in closed doors. But the government of Zambia chose not to do so,” he explained.
“Minister Malanji chose to have a public fight about my comments, my opinion. And so, now is time to advocate for truth, openness, freedom here in Zambia if nobody else is gonna do it and we will do it; whatever the consequences might be.”
Ambassador Foote argued that the Zambian Constitution guaranteed several rights, including the right to conscience.
He said he had never disrespected the Zambian laws.
“I tried so hard understanding the controversy of the same sex issue in Zambia. Not to make this a signature issue, since July President [Edgar] Lungu at every opportunity has come out strongly against the rights of people of the same sex to love and be with each other, and I’ve ignored it, I’ve ignored it, I’ve ignored it,” Ambassador Lungu said. “And then last week in both state [news]papers, the banner headlines were something like: Gays sentenced to 15 years… I saw this giant headline Gays sentenced to 15 years as the government kind of pushing its chest to say: ‘you see we don’t allow this’. And intimidating the 10 per cent of your population that was born homosexual.”
He said Zambia was one of the largest per-capita recipients of US assistance in the world, at $500 million a year.
Ambassador Foote said America had provided more than $4 billion in HIV/AIDS support in the last 15 years.
“Despite $500 million in annual American, debt-free support to the Zambian people, I have been granted exclusive bilateral audience with the President only five times in two years, usually with delays of months upon my request, and little action of mutual interest has been taken by State House. Last week, we rearranged my schedule – and I’m somewhat busy administering a half-a-billion dollars in annual programmes here – to meet with the President on Friday. On Friday, State House told me to come Saturday, a day already filled with rescheduled meetings. That’s not mutual respect. 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,” he said. “The Foreign Minister accused me of interfering with Zambia’s internal affairs, as he has done each time any foreign diplomat accredited to Zambia offers an opinion different to that of the current Zambian government, and of ‘questioning the Zambian Constitution’. I just re-read Zambia’s entire Constitution, which I believe is an admirable document, and there is no reference to ‘having sex against the order of nature’, or of homosexuality for that matter. Your Constitution does declare, however, to uphold ‘a person’s right to freedom of conscience, belief or religion; the human rights and fundamental freedoms of every person to ‘respect the diversity of the different communities of Zambia’; and to ‘promote and protect the rights and freedoms of a person’. It is up to Zambian citizens and the courts to decide if your laws correspond to your Constitution, but your Constitution itself provides every person the right to freedom and expression of conscience and belief. I expressed my belief about a law and a harsh sentencing I don’t agree with. I didn’t interfere in internal affairs. When considering the status of Zambia’s ‘very independent’ judiciary, I note the President’s strong, recurring statements in July through yesterday rejecting homosexual rights and gayism. I wonder if that could have any impact on the courts. Again, this is a matter for the Zambian people to decide, but the Zambian people deserve transparency and truth.”
On Malanji’s denials over his comments about government officials stealing millions of dollars of public funds, Ambassador Foote said the government always requests “evidence” of such misdeeds.
“Is that really the role of the international community? In recent history, numerous donor partners have carried out investigations, with the cooperation of the Zambian government, concluding that many millions of dollars have been misappropriated in the Ministries of Community Development and Social Welfare, Education, and Health. In most cases, the Zambian government assumed responsibility and quietly made restitution to the donating organisations from public funds,” he said. “However, like the lack of public information made available on Zambia’s debt acquired over the past few years, the government has chosen not to share this vital data with its citizens, nor have we seen assertive corruption prosecutions. If this happened with funds from a handful of donors in a few ministries, what could be happening on a broader basis? Hundreds, maybe thousands, of Zambian citizens have expressed despair to me about sharing conflicting opinions, fearing intimidation, imprisonment, physical assault, closure of media houses, etc.; examples of which are well documented in recent years. These dissenting opinions are certainly not shared by state-controlled media such as ZNBC, Zambia Daily Mail, and Times of Zambia.”
Asked if the US would cut assistance to Zambia in view of the strained relationship, Ambassador Foote promised to change assistance levels.
He said the US government was also not happy when Zambia denied asylum to Zimbabwean opposition leader Tendai Biti, describing it as an abrogation of international conventions.
Ambassador Foote said since then, the US has been reviewing her assistance to Zambia.
“At that time, I was advised by policy makers in Washington that we would review US assistance to Zambia; that review is ongoing. I don’t wanna talk today about foreign assistance but obviously, over time if we are in a country and we’ve done things together in Zambia, and Zambians and Americans should be all proud of what we’ve done, particularly in the health sector,” he said. “But I want to give the government of Zambia the opportunity to renew and rejuvenate its partnership with the United States. However, over time, and it’s been two years for me, if you see that someone is not cooperating, I think the natural inclination would be that assistance levels could change.”
Meanwhile, Ambassador Foote disclosed that from the time he rendered his opinion on the judgment, he had received threats from both the government and individual citizens.
He, however, pledged to continue working.
“I read with interest Honourable Minister Malanji’s reaction to my opinion regarding the harsh sentencing of a homosexual couple, and the hundreds of other comments made by Zambian citizens on social media. I was shocked at the venom and hate directed at me and my country, largely in the name of ‘Christian’ values, by a small minority of Zambians,” Ambassador Foote said. “I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that Christianity meant trying to live like our Lord, Jesus Christ. I am not qualified to sermonise, but I cannot imagine Jesus would have used bestiality comparisons or referred to his fellow human beings as ‘dogs’, or ‘worse than animals’; allusions made repeatedly by your countrymen and women about homosexuals. Targeting and marginalising minorities, especially homosexuals, has been a warning signal of future atrocities by governments in many countries. In my heart, I know that real Zambian values don’t merit your country’s inclusion on that list, ever.”
Ambassador Foote, nevertheless, said he would not attend today’s World AIDS Day commemorations.
“And we’ve learned over the years to take all threats seriously. I don’t think the Zambian people wanna harm me, but there could be crazy people out there. So, tomorrow doesn’t give us the opportunity and the venue to ensure my security,” said Ambassador Foote. “But I will continue to do my job in Zambia, I’m not gonna hide in that armoured building or armoured car. But given the short time frame and the inappropriate threats that we have to track down and run down, that’s not gonna affect my desire to do my job.”
Meanwhile, police officers disclosed that PF cadres were planning to walk to the US embassy in protest against the ambassador’s remarks.