Tension between Zambia and the United States has deepened following the sentencing of a homosexual couple to 15 years in prison by a central district court.
Amid choice words being exchanged between the US ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote and Zambia’s Foreign minister Joseph Malanji, the envoy described the relations between the two countries as “decaying.”
"Let us stop the facade 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," Mr Foote said.
The sentencing of the couple, which Mr Foote called “harsh and barbaric”, appeared to be the trigger for undiplomatic release of frustrations including over access to President Edgar Lungu and implementation of a US-led reform of the country’s energy sector.
"Discriminatory and homophobic laws, under the false flags of Christianity and culture, continue to kill innocent Zambians, many of whom were born with the virus. Your citizens are terrified of being outed as HIV-positive, because of the inaccurate and archaic associations between HIV and homosexuality," Mr Foote said. He added he had been threatened over his stance without disclosing by who.
Mr Malanji said Lusaka had complained to Washington over what it viewed as the envoy’s interference in its internal affairs.
Amid threats of severance of ties by the US, President Lungu told Sky News that his government was ready to forfeit aid if it was tied to acceptance of homosexuality in a predominantly Christian nation. The US says it has spent more than $4 billion in the last 15 years in HIV/Aids support.
More than one million Zambians are on anti-retroviral medicine.
Mr Foote appeared to threaten a US aid cut as he complained about corruption. "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."
He accused critics of his and the US position on homosexuality of hiding behind Christian values.
“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."
He said Zambia’s Constitution protected the fundamental rights of all Zambians regardless of their sexual orientation, and criticised the government for high handedness in dealing with dissent.
He blamed “domestic politics” for delays in implementing energy sector reforms jointly developed by Zambia and US energy experts by 2018 that would have ensured better access to electricity.
“This plan has been dormant for over a year, because of domestic politics," said Mr Foote. Zambia is undergoing lengthy power rationing after a prolonged drought that has seen the Kariba Dam, which it shares with Zimbabwe, shut in favour of imports from Mozambique.
He said he had, after much struggle, only managed to meet President Edgar Lungu five times during his two years in Lusaka as appointments kept being rescheduled.