NOEL KING, HOST:
The State Department has recalled the U.S. ambassador to Zambia after Zambia's president asked for him to be withdrawn. Ambassador Daniel Foote is a career foreign service officer. And last month, he criticized a court ruling that sentenced two Zambian men to 15 years in jail for having a sexual relationship. That started a fight between him and Zambian officials. NPR East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta is following this from Nairobi. Hey, Eyder.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: So Zambia is not a place that we hear a lot from or about. What's it like there?
PERALTA: Yeah, so we're talking about Southern Africa, and it's a country that's a little bigger than Texas. And the reason we don't hear a lot about it is because there's little drama. It's a functional democracy. Since the '90s, there have been peaceful transfers of power. But things are changing. The country isn't doing great economically because the price of copper, which Zambia has a ton of, has dropped. And activists say that this particular government is tending more authoritarian. This episode with the American ambassador, they say, is an example of that.
KING: So what did Ambassador Foote do that made the government so angry?
PERALTA: So as you said, it started last month with this court ruling where they sentenced two men to 15 years in prison for having sex with each other. The ambassador said he was horrified, and the Zambian government basically told him to mind his own business. And Ambassador Daniel Foote then unloaded. He released a diplomatic statement, that I have seen, you know, few as pointed as this one was.
And he said that the U.S. had saved more than 1 million lives in Zambia with just its HIV programs, and then he went on to accuse the government of being hypocritical, of outright stealing millions of dollars intended to go to important welfare programs. He said that while the corrupt officials doing that don't even get a slap on the wrist, two men having sex get 15 years in jail. And then he said that everyone should just stop pretending that the U.S. and Zambia have cordial relations. He wrote - and I'm quoting now - "the current government of Zambia wants foreign diplomats to be compliant with open pocketbooks and closed mouths."
KING: Oh, wow. That's really interesting. So this was about way, way more than just a homophobic court ruling.
PERALTA: Yeah, for sure. And Zambian President Edgar Lungu was seething mad, and he essentially declared the ambassador persona non grata, and the U.S. had to pull him out of the country.
Today, I spoke to Fumba Chama. He's an activist and a musician who has faced the wrath of this government. Last year, he was thrown in jail for a song that criticized the president, and just a few days ago, he was arrested and charged with holding an unlawful assembly. I asked him what it says about Zambia that someone with as much leverage as the American ambassador can be forced out in this way, and he tells me that this is much bigger than the United States. Let's listen.
FUMBA CHAMA: I think we, as a people, have lost a battle because I'll tell you, what Ambassador Foote was doing was giving a voice to so many of us that are scared to say what he said.
PERALTA: So what this means, he says, is that Zambia just lost a powerful voice at what he says is an urgent moment for a country moving in the wrong direction.
KING: Where does this leave the U.S. and Zambia now? Do we send a new ambassador?
PERALTA: Yeah. So, you know, both sides still have significant interests. The U.S. sends half a billion, with a B, dollars a year in aid to Zambia. So I think what we can expect is that a new ambassador will be named, and both sides are just going to have to live with each other.
KING: NPR's Eyder Peralta in Nairobi. Eyder, thanks so much.
PERALTA: Thank you, Noel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.