Earlier this week, the United States recalled its ambassador to Zambia after he angered government officials by criticizing a 15-year prison sentence given to a gay couple convicted of violating the country’s anti-sodomy laws and accused authorities of stealing millions of dollars in public funds.
Zambian President Edgar Lungu had waged a campaign against former Ambassador Daniel Foote after Foote said he was “personally horrified” by the treatment of the gay couple and urged the country to reconsider its harsh penalties for same-sex relations.
Lungu, playing to popular sentiment in the African nation — whose laws criminalizing homosexuality trace back to British colonial rule — demanded Foote’s removal, saying his comments were offensive and amounted to meddling in the country’s affairs.
But The New York Times notes that Zambian officials had also taken umbrage at Foote’s decision to call out corruption in the African nation, accusing officials of misappropriating millions of dollars. The government has previously been criticized as corrupt, and a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency recently alleged that the president, his daughter, and two ministers were central figures in a “cartel” trafficking endangered mukula rosewood trees, which are on the verge of extinction due to the demand for rosewood furniture, especially in China.
In a public statement, Foote said that the Zambian government “wants foreign diplomats to be compliant, with open pocketbooks and closed mouths,” and noted that he had trouble getting an audience with Lungu, even though the United States gives about $500 million annually to Zambia.
“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,” Foote wrote.
Whatever the underlying reason, whether it was Foote’s comments on homosexuality or corruption, Lungu and other government officials publicly demanded that the ambassador be removed from his post, even threatening to forego U.S. aid if necessary.
The State Department said in a statement that it was dismayed that the Zambian government had declared Foote’s position as ambassador was “no longer tenable.”
The popular Zambian musician and political activist Fumba Chama, also known as “Pilato,” says Foote was effectively punished for calling out corruption, although government officials brought up his comments on LGBTQ rights as a pretext to gain sympathy with the public.
“They brought up the LGBT thing because they knew if they brought it to the fore, the public would side with them,” Chama told the Times.
Zambia is one of nearly 70 nations across the globe with laws criminalizing homosexuality. Under the Trump administration, the United States has launched an ongoing global initiative aimed at encouraging those countries to repeal or amend such laws. But such efforts have met resistance, both from local authorities, as well as American evangelicals sympathetic to their socially conservative beliefs, who have accused the United States of violating the religious freedom of countries that do not wish to embrace secular values.
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