/ 13 December 2023

Zambia’s haphazard foreign policy is a disaster

Intra African Trade Fair 2021 In South Africa
President Hakainde Hichilema is quickly squandering the respect the country once held on the international stage. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Zambia’s foreign policy and its international relations are at their lowest ebb since 1964. 

This unfortunate, and turbulent, situation is directly proportional to the inexperience of the new government which won the general elections in August 2021. 

The leadership of President Hakainde Hichilema lacks the foresight and vision of the freedom fighters and forebears of this republic who laid a foundation of true sovereignty. They commanded respect across the globe for their principled and uncompromising position — simply put, they were leaders who stood their ground, despite the challenges of the times. 

As an example, it was not by chance that Zambia’s first democratic President Dr Kenneth Kaunda (KK) took the position of being part of the non-allied movement during the Cold War. This was a movement that supported neither the Western bloc (the US and Europe) nor the Eastern bloc (the Soviet Union and China). 

In other words, Zambia took a neutral position during the Cold War conflict, supporting neither side, on principle, and this was the right thing to do for the country at a very difficult time. 

Moreover, the deliberate and decisive decision taken by KK to liberate the region and stand up to apartheid South Africa cannot be forgotten. 

All these efforts and calculated moves by Kaunda and his team could not have been undertaken by a government with a wishy-washy foreign policy.  

Regrettably, the US has desperately tried to win over some African nations in its quest to counter the influence of Russia and China, which is rising on the world stage. 

Therefore, independent nations such as Zambia, which have leadership perceived as “weaker”, are seen as “puppets” of the American project to scale back the footprints made by the Eastern bloc on the continent — while striving to maintain the status of a unipolar world. 

Hichilema either lacks understanding, or he is ignorant of, the historical relationship between Zambia and what was then the Soviet Union and with the People’s Republic of China. If it were otherwise, the actions of his administration — and sometimes its inaction in the UN General Assembly and the Security Council — would be different.

In fact, they should be reminded that it was the Russians who trained African freedom fighters, such as Chris Hani of the South Africa Communist Party. 

It was the Russians who provided the ammunition that African freedom fighters needed in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other colonised parts of the continent. 

Therefore, it is not surprising that President Macky Sall of Senegal, who is the immediate past chairman of the AU, visited Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict. 

There is no doubt that the world is a far more complicated place today than it was in KK’s time and that issues of international relations require serious tact and skill.

Russia’s influence is now apparent from Bamako in Mali to Bangui in the Central Africa Republic — and not forgetting Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. 

In the former Timbuktu, the military leader and head of state Assimi Goita kicked the French troops out of Mali early this year and replaced them with Russian troops. 

At the UN General Assembly, on 12 October 2022, at least nine African countries abstained from voting for or against a resolution that rejected Moscow’s controversial referenda in four Ukrainian regions. These countries included Mali, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, the Republic of the Congo, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Eritrea and Zimbabwe. 

But Zambia voted in favour of the resolution. And when President HH was asked about this development, he struggled to justify Zambia’s actions and simply stated that the “vote was not to condemn Russia, but rather a vote against the war”. This, of course, is not factual by any stretch, because that vote was outright for the condemnation of Russia.  

It was unthinkable for Zambia to have taken such a position. The president claimed that “instability anywhere is instability everywhere” and that this was the reason why his government voted against “Russia’s aggression”.

As if to add salt to the wound, Hichilema would later join the other African heads of state who went to Russia to meet Putin about the conflict. That incident merely exposed what we already suspected — and it was clear from Putin’s body language that Hichilema was not welcome in Moscow. 

In a classic twist of events, after Israel began to bomb Gaza after the 7 October Hamas attack, the whole world witnessed Zambia abstain from a UN General Assembly resolution on 28 October calling for an immediate humanitarian truce and which would facilitate aid access into Gaza. 

It was unthinkable for Zambia to have taken such a position. The president claimed that “instability anywhere is instability everywhere” and that this was the reason why his government voted against “Russia’s aggression”. But how hypocritical can one be, to have abstained from the UN resolution for humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip? Well, the answer is crystal clear.

Just two months prior to the Israel-Gaza war, HH had taken a trip to Israel, where he wined and dined with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog. He returned back to Zambia on 3 August 2023. 

Therefore, there is no other explanation for Zambia’s behaviour over Gaza and the government’s continued silence in the face of the grave injustices being inflicted on the people of Palestine. 

If this was during the time of President KK, Zambia would have joined South Africa in taking the State of Israel to the International Criminal Court.  

The so-called “new dawn” administration of President HH would do well to rebuild the respect that Zambia once commanded internationally. 

With this haphazard foreign policy now, for the first time post the independence era, Zambia cannot have an impact on the world stage or even on the African continent.

Lest we forget, at the height of the Cold War, Dr Vernon Mwaanga, the Zambian ambassador to the UN, successfully moved a motion in the UN on 25 October 1971 to admit the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China under resolution 2758. 

This was unprecedented and Zambia did so while maintaining and enjoying viable diplomatic relations with the US and China concurrently.

Aaron Ng’ambi is a geopolitical analyst and newspaper columnist, leadership instructor and a social entrepreneur.