As in many African countries Zambia’s penal code prohibits same sex sexual activity deeming it an unnatural offence and classifying it as a felony that carries a jail sentence of up to 14 years. The country vehemently opposes the LGBTQI+ community and can taken steps against it.
In 2006, Home Affairs Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha stated that Zambia would never legalise same-sex marriage, claiming that it is a sin that goes against the country’s ‘Christian status’. Then in February 2010, the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) unanimously agreed to adopt a clause that expressly forbids marriage between people of the same sex.
It is under this climate that the Zambian High Court recently sentenced two men to 15-year imprisonment for engaging in sexual relations “against the order of nature”.
The decision horrified the US ambassador to Zambia, Daniel Foote, who issued a statement criticising the move. Foote said, “I was personally horrified to read yesterday about the sentencing of two men who had a consensual relationship, which hurt absolutely no one… Meanwhile government officials can steal millions of public dollars without prosecution, political cadres can beat innocent civilians for expressing their opinions without consequence or poachers/traffickers can kill numerous elephants, barbarically chainsaw and sell their tusks and face a maximum of only five years imprisonment in Zambia.”
He added that, “Decisions like these oppressive sentencing do untold damage to Zambia’s international reputation by demonstrating that human rights in Zambia is not a universal guarantee.”
Zambian President Edgar Lungu rebuked the Ambassador and his remarks, saying his authorities will complain to the Trump administration.
This outrage was echoed by Zambian International Minister Joseph Malanji, who stated that Mr. Foote’s statement had been “tantamount to questioning the Zambian constitution”.
In fact, the Ambassadors statement received country wide backlash with many Zambians criticising him online. The back and forth continued when Foote responded to the furore in a press statement saying, he had cancelled his scheduled appearances for the World Aids Day commemoration “due to threats made in opposition to me” on social media.
“I used to be shocked on the venom and hate directed at me and my nation, largely within the identify of ‘Christian’ values, by a small minority of Zambians,” Ambassador Foote stated.
#Zambia Diplomatic row between US and Zambia after jailing of gay couple for 15 years. Ambassador suggests US might withhold aid.
He points out that Zambia is one of the largest per-capita recipients of US aid in the world. criticizes State media https://t.co/uJCnOI1CCY pic.twitter.com/j5oXOz88AW
— Zim Media Review (@ZimMediaReview) December 2, 2019
The Ambassador denied accusations that he was attempting to interfere in Zambia’s judiciary and constitutional affairs.
“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,” he said.
“I expressed my belief about a law and a harsh sentencing I don’t agree with. I didn’t interfere in internal affairs.”
The United States has invested more than $4 billion towards HIV response in Zambia and currently helps support more than 1 million Zambians with life-saving HIV treatment. #PEPFARSavesLives pic.twitter.com/f6hgTSt526
— U.S. Embassy Zambia (@usembassyzambia) November 29, 2019
Reports indicate that the Zambian government plans to send a protest letter to Washington over the Ambassador’s remarks.
Additionally, President Lungu said in an interview with Sky News that local laws and culture prohibited homosexuality and that he would not repeal the law. This is despite Zambia being a beneficiary of hundreds of millions of dollars every year in financial support from the United States.
“If you (the U.S.) want to be tying your aid to homosexuality… If that is how you will bring your aid then I am afraid the West can leave us alone in our poverty,” Lungu said.