Diplomacy Sata style

Zambian president, Michael Sata, clearly isn’t too concerned about the campaign by civil society groups and opposition parties to have his country expelled from the Commonwealth because of his increasingly autocratic behaviour. Instead, he appears keen – as he often does – to add fuel to the fire rather than trying to douse the flames.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

March 14th, 2013

Zambian president, Michael Sata, clearly isn’t too concerned about the campaign by civil society groups and opposition parties to have his country expelled from the Commonwealth because of his increasingly autocratic behaviour. Instead, he appears keen – as he often does – to add fuel to the fire rather than trying to douse the flames.

Most presidents in a similar situation would attempt to put key diplomats – particularly key Commonwealth High Commissioners – at ease by mouthing the right platitudes and promises. Even if their fingers were firmly crossed behind their backs at the time. But not Sata. For him diplomacy is a dirty word. Almost as dirty as ‘opposition’ (even though he was stuck in opposition himself for over a decade).

Which is in no uncertain terms to 13 Ambassadors and High Commissioners who were officially presenting him with their credentials. In a remarkable outburst – even by Sata’s standards – he ordered them to steer clear of politics. And in particular to avoid talking to members of the opposition about it. 

"What I will not accept is you touring provinces and asking the opposition parties about governance issues," he instructed the diplomats, including those from Commonwealth heavyweights – Canada, Kenya, New Zealand and South Africa. “If you want to ask about governance issues come to my office or go to ministry of foreign affairs." Not an offer that many of them will take up any time soon, I would wager.

I wonder what Sata would have said if previous presidents had banned diplomats from talking politics with the opposition. My guess is that he would have railed against them – and demanded that foreign embassies ignore their orders. But remember – this is the president who now wholeheartedly supports the oppressive – an Act that he promised to repeal during the 2011 election campaign.

Of course, Sata’s latest undiplomatic posturing is not a moment that people will look back on and say ‘ah yes…that’s when things started to go wrong’. But it is yet another worrying indication of where he seems to be leading zambia – away from the path of greater openness and democracy towards a more closed and oppressive society.

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