On August 27, 2019 British High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Fergus Cochrane-Dyet held his last press conference and bid his Zambian friends farewell , as he returned to his home country. In his farewell statement, the British Envoy made it clear that he was departing Zambia with a sense of unease about the direction that this very special country is headed.
He went ahead to pose some very important questions around the prevailing hunger situation in the country, unprecedented corruption, ballooning foreign debt, shrinking press freedom, failed national dialogue and government’s responsiveness to climate change. Instead of providing answers to the pertinent questions he asked, our government responded with a tone of sarcasm pointed towards reminding, not just the British Envoy, but all diplomats serving in Zambia that “we are a sovereign country” and they should keep their opinions on governance issues to themselves.
Typical of our government, they did not admit to any of the governance problems that High Commissioners Cochrane-Dyet highlighted. Even the corruption that has now become the face of this regime was defended to the hilt, forgetting that the diplomat they were mocking was going back, leaving British aid to Zambia still frozen because of the same corruption and theft.
What we found more striking in the government’s reaction to the British Envoy’s concerns was that it was coming from a permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services. This confused us because; we thought the role of Chief Government Spokesperson starts and ends with the Cabinet minister in charge of that ministry, and not the permanent secretary. So to date, we have yet to fathom which authority this permanent secretary was using to talk about a matter that falls squarely under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But we have never served in government, so what do we know? Maybe permanent secretaries can now act as ministers, or maybe there is a ‘Chief Permanent Secretary’ in the Cabinet hierarchy who is allowed to speak on issues affecting all the other ministries. Kaya uko!
Anyway, our opinion today seeks to appreciate this diplomat who spoke more candidly, fearlessly and passionately on behalf of the many voiceless Zambians. We believe that we speak on behalf of many citizens when we say we will miss his voice. When we look back, we see that he kept the government in check, as he defended his country’s interest.
Using his Twitter handle @ferguscd, the 53-year-old British envoy, who served in Zambia for about six years, first as deputy High Commissioner and later in charge of the UK-Mission, caused ripples in the Patriotic Front government with his social media usage to communicate his thoughts. In 2018, government threatened to expel him, but the British Envoy did not cower down.
When those in government were attacking their own oversight institutions, such as the Financial Intelligence Center and the Office of the Auditor General, High Commissioner Cochrane-Dyet found words to explain the important roles that these institutions played.
At the point when Zambia’s external debt started attracting international attention, this diplomat engaged British investors in London and assured them of our country’s political stability and in turn, informed our government about the concerns expressed by the investor community.
We recall his comment on calls from some sections of society that were advocating for authoritarianism, on grounds that democracy was not good for Zambia. To this, High Commissioner Cochrane-Dyet said:
“Authoritarianism can work (e.g. in Singapore) with benevolent leaders, but these leaders are as rare as a hen’s teeth. More likely, in Zambia as elsewhere, authoritarianism will mean corrupt dictatorship.”
Such is the courage we need from those who mean well for Zambia. We are not asking foreign diplomats to insult our democratically elected leaders, just because they give us aid. But the international community will be failing in its duty if it watches while a government destroys the lives of the very people that it is supposed to serve and protect. A good leader welcomes positive criticism, and if anyone in this government despised your advise, it says only one thing about the caliber of our current leadership.
Go well, High Commissioner Cochrane-Dyet. Zambians will surely miss your voice. You set the bar high for a British Envoy and we look forward to a cordial working relationship with your successor. Muyende Bwino!