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As US vice-president Harris arrives in Zambia, here is what lies ahead




THE vice-president of the US, Kamala Harris, is this week visiting Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, which will host the second Summit for Democracy. Here are some of the key issues arising from her visit: 

Africa’s lack of a unified strategy for dealing with major powers 

Despite official claims to the contrary, Harris is visiting Africa to counter what the United States considers the growing illiberal influences of China and Russia on the continent, and to secure America’s economic interests, especially in the extractive sector. 

The US – like China, the EU and Russia – knows precisely what it wants from Africa. In contrast, the continent lacks a unified strategy for managing its relationship with these major powers or power blocs. There are three main reasons that help to explain this.   

The first is the lack of a continental agency. Despite the existence of the 55-member African Union, Africa continues to struggle to reach common positions on major issues. Ordinarily, before Harris’s arrival, the leaders of Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia should have canvassed the views of their counterparts within their respective regions or across Africa to develop a unified voice on key issues that affect them or indeed the continent.

It is highly unlikely that presidents Nana Akufo-Addo, Samia Hassan and Hakainde Hichilema consulted their regional colleagues before Harris’s arrival. The trio is more likely to be quietly boasting that the US vice-president is visiting their countries, not their neighbours. 

The result is a situation where major powers find it easy to pit African countries against each other, even on issues where a common position might yield better results. In other words, AU member states prefer to advance individual foreign policy objectives and prioritise bilateral relations with China, Russia, the EU and US rather than presenting a collective position against any of these powers.

Even platforms such as the US-Africa and Sino-Africa summits do not often feature continental positions. Instead, they primarily serve the interests of major powers, especially when it comes to extracting resources from the continent. 

The second reason behind the lack of a unified strategy is the absence of a pan-African leadership that is both visionary and competent. This is not the first time that rival superpowers have been out to draw African countries to their camps. Similar manoeuvres were witnessed during the Cold War.

The key difference this time is the non-existence of bodies like the Non-Aligned Movement, which served as an effective counter to the East-West divide, and pan-Africanist leaders in the mould of Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Kwame Nkrumah, who could help create a similar organisation or come together on common issues.

Such leadership last existed on the continent in the early 2000s, represented most notably by Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo and Meles Zenawi, who attempted to develop an Africa-centred foreign policy.

Today, Africa is saturated with presidents who position themselves to be flattered by Western powers or China and crave the attention and endorsement of the very powers that benefit from the continued disunity and exploitation of the continent. It is hardly possible to look across the continent today without being struck by the calamity of the absence of a single African leader who is a dedicated pan-Africanist. 

The third reason is that individual African countries are heavily dependent on the US, China, the EU and even Russia in relation to aid, trade and external investment. This explains why they find it easier to compete rather than unite and present a shared position on these key issues, much in the same way that these major powers engage the continent. 

African countries conduct more trade with China and the EU than with one another and have shown greater willingness to offer huge incentives to Chinese and Western investors than local businesses. In addition, several countries, endowed with treasured minerals such as platinum, gold, copper, cobalt and diamonds, fail to effectively manage their natural wealth and end up with begging bowls before the same forces. It is impossible to cultivate unity in these conditions.

Would Harris’s visit benefit Zambia and its relationship with the US?

It is important to recognise that Harris is not travelling to Zambia on a state visit but to attend a gathering on democracy in Africa. I do not know how much of this visit is reserved for Zambia, so I have very few expectations. More generally, however, several Zambians expect Harris’s visit will result in increased US support for anti-corruption reform, the strengthening of democratic institutions and the promotion of accountable governance. 

The US has historically supported Zambia in areas such as healthcare delivery but many in Lusaka are hoping there will be a commitment to financing new areas of support, such as infrastructure development. If you asked an average Zambian what the US has done for the country, they would struggle to point to anything. 

But the same person will quickly note that China has in recent years built a top-class international conference centre, a major public hospital and a national stadium — all constructed at no financial cost to Zambia. There are credible reports that a new mine, linked to some prominent Americans including political elites, is about to be opened in the country, and one wonders if this would signal the start of the US’s involvement in non-traditional sectors.

America’s attempt to win back friends on the continent may fail in the absence of tangible benefits such as visible project financing. African countries have woken up to the reality that they can no longer be courted through mere political rhetoric or symbolism. When African leaders attended the last US-Africa Summit, US President Joe Biden announced that there was US$55 billion available for immediate investment in Africa. Many are now asking, “Where is the money?” If Harris comes empty handed, Zambia may not be swayed by her childhood ties to the country. 

It is also hoped that Harris will encourage President Hichilema to accelerate the passage of a law on access to information. Its absence hurts the fight against corruption and risks making the campaign appear a witch-hunt against former officials. Hichilema himself has refused to publish the value of his assets, despite being elected on a platform of accountability and transparency.

The failure to release his net worth is especially concerning given his extensive business interests and it makes it difficult to work out to what extent his economic policies are benefiting companies in which he has a stake. Zambians are hoping that Harris will encourage Hichilema, who appears to pay more attention to Western voices than to those who elected him, to both see the value of releasing his asset declarations and enacting the law.

Debt remains Zambia’s foremost immediate challenge. It is adversely affecting Hichilema’s capacity to fulfil his election promises. Beyond providing support for debt relief through the Creditor Committee for Zambia under the Common Framework for Debt Treatments, the US cannot do more because the leverage largely lies with China – though Eurobond holders also have a huge say. 

However, Harris can do something constructive by encouraging Hichilema to speak directly to the Chinese — who have abandoned the “zero Covid” policy which might have previously prevented the Zambian president from travelling to Beijing for official talks — as opposed to publicly portraying them as being unreasonable with their demands. She can also pledge to talk to the Eurobond holders, who have been an important stumbling block to successful negotiations for debt restructuring, although the US has opportunistically painted China as the only drawback.

How does Zambia see its relationship with the US, particularly in the light of its historic relations with China and increasing attempts by Russia to expand influence on the continent?

Zambia sees the US in the same way it sees China and Russia — as a friend. I do not think Zambia’s relationship with one country or power bloc should be assessed on the strength or weakness of its relationship with another. The country needs the support of everyone to develop – the US, China, Russia, the UK and other countries. None of these can meet Zambia’s aspirations or needs on their own. So, when the country turns to China, Russia or the US for support, this should not be seen as snubbing one major power bloc or the other but as part of a wider effort to lift the living standards of its people. 

It is important for global powers to recognise that it is both counterproductive and unsustainable to lock the country into a dependency path with one major power bloc. Zambia should never be placed in a position where the neglect, or indeed renunciation, of ties with one country becomes a prerequisite for securing friendship with another. The US has a role to play in Zambia, as do other countries, including China and Russia.

Does Harris’s visit point to the revival of Zambia’s democracy?  

Zambia’s democracy has improved markedly under Hichilema, although his delivery of institutional reform has been sporadic. The December 2022 repeal of the colonial-era death penalty and another law that criminalised insults to the president are significant moves that underscore his administration’s commitment to promoting human rights and advancing democracy. 

However, repressive laws that restrict rights to assembly and free speech, and which outlaw homosexuality, remain on the statutes. On the latter, Hichilema has publicly stated that homosexuality is a choice not a sexual orientation, a view that is at best ignorant — and rooted in colonial beliefs of sexuality, as these are, of course, the origin of Zambia’s laws on this topic. Why would anyone “choose” to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in a society where they will probably be subject to state persecution and severe social stigma? 

The lurking issue of LGBTQ rights

Zambia’s political opposition has warned Harris not to raise the issue of the rights of sexual minorities during her visit. This is a sensitive subject that divides opinion in Zambia, one whose cause has not been helped by the West’s patronising attitude when discussing the matter with African leaders.

In recent years, Western governments have been seeking to change the anti-LGBTQ laws in Africa by attaching aid and budgetary support to a country’s willingness to decriminalise such laws. In my view, this approach will not only fail to yield the desired results but is actually counterproductive.

This is because it has overtones of imperial design. What is needed is to encourage each country to have difficult conversations on sexuality so that whatever consensus emerges out of internal discussions and contradictions is owned as a product of local, rather than external, dynamics. After all, it is not just Africans who are homophobic. There are many people, even in so-called advanced Western societies, today who still retain prideful bigotry and prejudices against sexual minorities. 

Attitudes take time to shift but they do shift. And I am glad that, in the case of Zambia, people occasionally find the time to talk about the issue of homosexuality. This conversation, notwithstanding the homophonic language in which it is often conducted, is necessary for the evolution of social attitudes.

It would get people to ask themselves difficult questions, such as, “What harm do I, as a third party, suffer as a result of private, consensual sex or a relationship between two adults of the same sex?” Or, “How does the sexual orientation of another person adversely affect me as an individual?” I believe that it is only through many conversations that we can reconsider our positions, challenge our assumptions, question our convictions and come to appreciate our own ignorance.

Changing entrenched social attitudes would also require effective leadership at the highest level but I do not see this happening under Hichilema in Zambia’s case. His minister of justice recently claimed that the administration cannot change the anti-homosexuality law in the absence of public submissions or protests. 

This reasoning is simply ridiculous. Governments repeal, amend, and introduce new laws all the time without submissions or public protests. Hichilema recently presided over the repeal of the death penalty, yet this was a change opposed by most Zambians. The most recent public survey on the subject found that nine out of the country’s 10 provinces favoured retaining capital punishment. But the government showed unusual boldness in repealing the law. That is leadership. 

It is most irresponsible to uphold an unjust law that fosters discrimination. Not long ago, people of different colour were legally discriminated against, for they were seen as less human. Today, they are accepted as human as anybody else.

Not long ago, people of different sex were legally discriminated against, for they were seen as less human. Today, they are accepted as human as anybody else. Now we have people of different sexual orientation being legally discriminated against, for they are seen as less human. Among their oppressors today are those who only yesterday were at the receiving end of discrimination based on their colour and sex — namely, the black person and the woman. As former president Mbeki once noted, we dehumanise ourselves the moment we start seeing other people as less human.

The paradox of it all is that the anti-homosexuality law in many British ex-colonies, one that many people today justify in the name of the law or religion, is partly a chronological accident. In Zambia, for instance, the law that criminalises homosexuality was enacted in November 1931 as part of the colonial state’s general tendency to adopt legislation from the UK. In Britain itself, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. Had decolonisation occurred slightly later, I suspect similar laws may have been passed in the British Empire as well, and new governments would have simply adopted them without much consideration, as other colonial-era laws were adopted. 

Instead of repealing the anti-homosexuality law after achieving independence in 1964, successive Zambian governments have preserved it on the statutes in the name of religion or culture, effectively pandering to a deeply conservative population that falsely believes that homosexuality is a Western imposition. We Africans have more reason to reject Christianity than homosexuality, for the latter existed even in pre-colonial societies, long before the arrival of European missionaries or Western religion on the continent. Homophobia, like Christianity, is a colonial-era import now masquerading as an indigenous tradition.

About the writer: Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian historian and senior lecturer in history at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.–Mail & Guardian.

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