From 31 March to 1 April 2023, American Vice President Kamala Harris was in Zambia for the last leg of her week-long visit straddling three African countries (Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia). This visit should not have come as a surprise. Indeed, since August 2021, when incumbent Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema defeated Edgar Lungu, the country has gone through quite a dramatic metamorphosis.
Lungu had alienated the West (that is, the United States and financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank). Hichilema’s close ties with institutions such as Brenthurst Foundation confirmed his West-leaning instincts. In less than two years, he has made headways in restructuring debt service for Zambia, has addressed the European Parliament, and received the American Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, and IMF Managing Director Cristina Georgieva. In February 2023, members of the American Congress also visited Zambia, testifying to the fact that the country is now back in the good books of the West after a six-year hiatus (the full length of Lungu’s presidency).
Harris is the highest-ranking American to visit Zambia in the country’s recent history. Many expected that she would speak on at least two issues that were as topical as America’s recent interest in Zambia: China and the LGBTQ question. She addressed none of these issues.
A few days after US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen visited Africa in January 2023, she met her Chinese counterpart Liu He in Zurich. Yellen reported that she and Liu “exchanged views on macroeconomic developments and global financial issues in our efforts to deepen communication between the U.S. and China.” The two avoided contentious issues that the Trump administration had ramped up. When she came to Africa shortly after the Zurich meeting, Yellen seemed to have summoned up the criticism she could not muster in Zurich. She told a Senegalese audience that “Countries need to be wary of shiny deals that may be opaque and ultimately fail to actually benefit the people they were purportedly designed to help in the first place.” In an indirect attack on China’s non-interference formula in foreign policy, Yellen said America’s formula, which she admitted was “exacting” but not “transactional”, still “delivers lasting results.” This combative tenor is what she took with her to Zambia, a country that had amassed a massive quantum of foreign debt with a considerable fraction of it owed to China. With Harris coming to town, a lot of Zambians and interested observers expected that Harris would touch on China. She did not. “We’re not here for China, we’re here to foster our relationship with Zambia,” Harris proclaimed. This was surprising, considering America’s known readiness to pontificate about China, especially to an African audience. A few reasons could explain this, and I will mention three.
Harris’s visit coincided with the Summit for Democracy, which Zambia co-hosted with America, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and the Republic of Korea. Bringing up an issue that has been belaboured the way the Zambia-China debt equation has been could have detracted from the Summit and caused ructions from China. This is not unfounded, as China had reacted angrily to Yellen’s remarks in January 2023, stating that America should mind its “own debt” and “stop sabotaging other sovereign countries’ active efforts to solve their debt issues”. The second possible reason is that Yellen had already traversed the China issue about two months prior and hence there was no need to bring it up again. Anyone who has been following America’s attitude towards China’s relationship with Africa should be under no illusion about where the country stands. Thirdly, maybe the United States has started to listen to mainly African voices asserting that Africa should not be presumed to be blindly pursuing debt from China in acts of reckless economic and political suicide. This is a more reassuring reason and, should it be confirmed by America, could significantly change how Africa takes America’s pronouncements and demeanour on international affairs. Thus far, America’s condemnations of China come across as preachy and tone-deaf, thus alienating the African audience whose favour it is trying to court.
The LGBTQ question
Another issue that has hitherto caused friction between America and Africa is the LGBTQ question which, surprisingly, Kamara Harris did not address during her Zambian sojourn. The LGBTQ question played out in dramatic fashion in 2019 when the Zambian government imposed a 15-year sentence on Japhet Chataba and Steven Sambo who were found guilty of engaging in sexual acts “against the order of nature.” Daniel Foote, former American Ambassador to Zambia, said the stiff punishment did “untold damage to Zambia’s international reputation by demonstrating that human rights in Zambia is [sic] not a universal guarantee.” Despite the rank corruption in the country, intemperate hedonism (through excessive alcohol intake and sexual decadence), and alarming numbers of child marriages (especially in rural Zambia), Zambia always boasts a veneer of Christian conservatism. For such a sensibility, Foote had gone too far with his open support for the hapless gay couple, which might have been responsible for why he was shortly afterwards withdrawn from his post. “Even animals don’t do it, why should we be forced to do it because we want to be seen to be smart, to be civilised and advanced”, the then President Lungu told Sky News special correspondent Alex Crawford during an interview in 2019.
There was an expectation that Harris would address this vexatious issue, taking advantage of the fact that in Hichilema, she had a president who professes a commitment to the liberal definition of democracy and human rights and who, from the US perspective, appears amenable to persuasion. While this is the case, on the LGBT question, this hope does not apply. Hichilema might be a different politician from Lungu, but on the LGBTQ issue, he is as hostile as his predecessor. Apart from being ill-informed about the issue – he once said that any non-heterosexual activity is a choice – he also knows that supporting the LGBTQ community is almost tantamount to political masochism. In the same month that Harris visited, the Zambian police had arrested leaders of the Sistah Sistah Foundation, accusing them of promoting gay rights during an International Women’s Day march on 4 March 2023. In addition and elsewhere on the continent, on 21 March 2023 the Ugandan parliament passed a wide-reaching bill that criminalized the LGBTQ community and recommended stiff punishment for those promoting LGBTQ rights and those accused of aggressive homosexuality. Responding to the bill, John Kirby, the Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council in the Biden White House warned that America “would have to take a look if there might be repercussions that we would have to take, perhaps in an economic way should this law get passed and enacted.”
Understandably, there was palpable concern that Harris would address this contentious issue. The Patriotic Front (PF), Zambia’s former ruling party, even planned to picket during Harris’s visit just in case she had the cheek to promote LGBTQ rights. The PF’s planned march was stillborn, as Harris did not address what many considered the proverbial elephant in the room. It was clear that Harris was deliberate in avoiding issues that might cause discomfiture for her host.
Furthermore, while countries such as Zambia usually react with antipathy and indifference towards the LGBTQ issue, Western proselytization on the matter, which is often accompanied by threats of economic punishment often comes across as blackmail and laden with a sinister agenda. It took the West, and America in particular, centuries to understand and accommodate certain liberties such as suffrage for women and people of colour, as well as the protection of gay rights. It is noteworthy that same-sex relationships are still proscribed in some American states, testifying to the fact that some confusion or lack of understanding of this complexity is widespread. Not talking about the LGBTQ issue pre-empted the PF’s showmanship and the former ruling party was left with a proverbial egg on its face – resorting to a forlorn hope that Harris would nevertheless grant it an audience. That, too, did not happen. Thus, while a lot could be said about the significance of Harris’s visit to Zambia, it was refreshing to note that it did not come with hackneyed homilies about what Zambia should and shouldn’t do. Is America becoming more in touch with African realities, and more accommodating of time-honoured protestations by Africans not to be patronized by more powerful global players? One would hope that Harris’s better-than-usual behaviour during her visit, and perhaps future similar events, would confirm that.
Hopefully, American diplomacy has realized the wisdom of modesty and contextual variation in global affairs, expressed in measured tones when promoting American interests. Assuming that America’s mien of a global yardstick and policeman has only worked to alienate it while inadvertently enhancing the allure of other superpowers such as China, their pretensions of being standard bearers would need to be reconsidered.