At the end of my tenure as British High Commissioner to the Republic of Zambia, I am grateful to His Excellency the President for his accessibility and cooperative approach during my time in Lusaka. I believe he values the relationship with Britain, appreciates our development support and commercial investment, and understands that Britain wants the best for Zambia and the Zambian people.
There is a misconception within certain other parts of the Zambian establishment about the role of ambassadors like me. We are obliged to be non-partisan and totally unaligned to any political parties. But in pursuit of our own countries’ interests it is part of our job sometimes to speak candidly in both private and in public. Just as foreign ambassadors in London talk openly to the UK media, so I am required to communicate clearly in defending the substantial development and commercial investments that Britain has made in Zambia over many decades as this country’s oldest friend. When I speak, I speak on behalf of the British Government.
It is not right, therefore, that we ambassadors are maligned in some quarters – as demonstrated by the threats of expulsion directed at me during 2018 when I spoke out against corruption. Expelling an ambassador is a very serious matter, even more so a high commissioner.
You see it is a convention that ambassadors exchanged by Commonwealth nations are styled as “high commissioners” to convey that special Commonwealth friendship. Hence, it is almost unknown for a British High Commissioner to be expelled, ever, anywhere in the world. Indeed there is probably only one example: Malawi, where then President Bingu Mutharika expelled the British High Commissioner in April 2011. The UK’s reaction was swift. Malawi’s High Commissioner in London was expelled, Malawi was disinvited from the Royal Wedding, and the UK’s aid programme was drastically curtailed. The bilateral relationship went into deep-freeze until well after Mutharika’s death the following year. This is a subject on which I am an expert – since I was that same British High Commissioner who, with my wife, crossed the border at dawn from Malawi to recuperate at this British Residence here in Lusaka. I believe the late President Sata and I were declared persona non grata by Malawi at around the same time, hence I was in good company.
Britain is a true friend of Zambia and I personally love this country. Having served in Lusaka previously in 2004-7, when my youngest son went to school here, I have spent almost 6 years in this beautiful and potentially wealthy country achieving an understanding better than most foreign diplomats. There is much of which you Zambians should be proud. Unbroken peace since independence. Extending hospitality to huge numbers of refugees from neighbouring conflicts. Twice passing power from one political party to another through democratic elections – something few other countries have achieved in this region.
Yet I depart with a sense of unease about the direction this very special country is headed. Let me be frank about the UK’s concerns and pose some questions.
1) Debt. Given that in 2005 Zambia’s national debt was wiped clean by creditors like the UK, why has it soared again to an unsustainable level? What does it mean for spending on social sectors like health and education when servicing that debt is costing a huge share of government expenditure? Can the well- regarded new Finance Minister implement measures announced by his predecessor and as a prerequisite for IMF support?
2) Corruption. What should we make of persistent reports about rampant corruption? What can be done to reassure donors and foreign companies forced to withhold aid and investment due to obstacles caused by corruption? Corruption kills as surely as any gun, depriving Zambians of life-saving government resources, water-preserving forest, internationally-renowned wildlife, and jobs that foreign companies would otherwise provide.
3) Political dialogue. Has the National Dialogue Forum done anything to foster reconciliation and reduce political tensions ahead of the 2021 elections? Or is the proposed legislation only generating further controversy? The proposal to empower the Executive to dismiss judges would have precisely what implications for the rule of law?
4) Drought caused by climate change. Neighbouring counties have declared food security emergencies. Why hasn’t Zambia? It’s estimated that 2.5m Zambians will soon be in crisis. Declaring an emergency would unlock international humanitarian assistance that donors can’t otherwise provide. People will undoubtedly die from malnutrition compounded by disease. Maybe Zambians and outsiders who deny the need for an emergency should examine their consciences.
5) Freedom of media and expression. Is Zambia becoming more free or less? Are Zambian journalists and editors inclined to exercise self-censorship over fears that their licences might be suspended?
6) Poverty. Above all, why is it that 60% of Zambians live in poverty, the same proportion as when I first moved to Lusaka 15 years ago? That’s 7 million poor Zambians in 2004, 11 million today, and 25 million by 2050 when the country’s population is projected to reach 42 million. Is this poverty caused by internal conflict? No. Is the gap between haves and have-nots growing wider? Yes. Does the broad Zambian elite really care at all about these millions of have-nots beyond their own extended families and networks? What does this mean for Zambia’s future stability?
I offer these questions in a spirit of great respect with the humble intention of promoting constructive debate. If some respond with personal slurs against my person – instead of engaging with the substance of my comments – that will say more about them than me!
Outside Britain, I can think of nowhere I feel more at home than Zambia. There is much that we in the UK can learn from Zambians’ joyful approach to life and religion, your respectful treatment of the elderly, your prioritisation of human relationships and community. You deserve so much better. God bless you all and God bless Zambia.