Comments made by US Ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote in response to the harsh sentencing of a gay couple in that nation prompted backlash from the Zambian government and led to threats that Foote said prevented him from attending World AIDS Day events there out of fear for his safety.
And while the tension centers on the unfair imprisonment of a gay couple, the bickering unearthed themes similar to the ones already at the forefront of current-day American politics: the demand for favorable treatment in the face of international aid.
Foote, who grew up near Buffalo upstate and spent decades in the State Department before getting appointed to his current role in 2017, first encouraged the Zambian government to carry out a review of anti-LGBTQ laws, according to BBC News, after 38-year-old Japhet Chataba and 30-year-old Stephen Sambo were sentenced to 15 years in prison for violating the penal code’s ban on same-sex relations. The Lusaka Times, a local newspaper, reported extensively on that case.
As in many African nations, Zambia’s anti-LGBTQ laws stem from colonial era measures that were imposed by the British and remained on the books after the country gained independence in 1964.
Chataba and Sambo were staying at a lodge when an employee peeped through a window in their hotel room and allegedly saw them having sex. The men were subsequently forced to undergo intrusive anal examinations as part of an effort by local officials to determine whether they had sex. The doctor who performed the examinations said the court findings were “inconsistent” with his findings but still said his conclusions did not rule out the possibility they had sex.
Zambian news reports about the case reflected the nation’s reactionary attitudes toward LGBTQ people. The Zambian Observer published a brief news story about the sentencing and classified the online article under the categories “Court” and “Bizarre,” while hundreds of homophobic comments were posted in the comments section of the Lusaka Times piece about the case.
Foote’s disagreement with Zambia blew up into a public uproar when he responded to the two men’s punishment in a written statement to Bloomberg News on November 29, saying he “was personally horrified to read yesterday about the sentencing of two men, who had a consensual relationship, which hurt absolutely no one, to 15 years imprisonment.”
Zambia’s president, Edgar Chagwa Lungu, told Sky News that Foote’s comments were “disrespectful” to Zambia’s culture and values, and that he was interfering with the nation’s sovereignty.
“We know that there could be people who are homosexual in Zambia but we don’t want to promote it,” Lungu continued. “We frown on it… the practice… most of us think it’s wrong… it’s unbiblical and unchristian… and we don’t want it.”
Foote then pushed back in a lengthy written statement, saying he “was shocked at the venom and hate directed at me and my country, largely in the name of ‘Christian’ values…” Foote defended LGBTQ rights throughout his statement but also used the international controversy as an opportunity to address longstanding gripes over his lack of access to Zambia’s president at a time when the United States allocates $500 million in American aid annually to the southern African nation. Foote specifically voiced his frustration with only having secured meetings with the Zambian president five times in two years.
“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.
Foote also charged that the Zambian government “wants foreign diplomats to be compliant, with open pocketbooks and closed mouths.”
Joseph Malanji, Zambia’s foreign affairs minister, said the government is writing to President Donald Trump to formally accuse Foote of meddling in Zambia’s internal affairs.
Notably, the Trump administration has rolled back LGBTQ rights throughout his presidency and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rolled out a new panel earlier this year tasked with re-evaluating America’s approach to human rights issues abroad — a move widely interpreted as a retreat from prioritizing those concerns.
Pompeo’s initiative seemly contracted an administration commitment to lead a global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality — an effort led by out gay US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, who has long been an outspoken, at times inflammatory foreign policy hardliner.
Given Grenell’s history, some observers questioned whether his leading role in the campaign was anything more than window-dressing — a suspicion heightened in February when a reporter asked Trump about the effort, and the president responded, “I don’t know, uh, which report you’re talking about. We have many reports.”
Foote did not mention Trump in his public comments and it is not clear whether he made his statements independently or in coordination with top brass in the Trump administration. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.