Zambian Presidential Candidate Courts Israel

If you’re a promising young politician living on a continent rapidly shifting towards Islam, touting a pro-Israel stance isn’t the best public foot to put forward when looking to win an election.

But Zambian presidential hopeful Dr. Saviour Chishimba is putting caution aside as he kicks off his 2011 election campaign.   He’s decrying Islamic terrorism -- not a tough principle to support in the wake of the recent U.S. air scare and fear surrounding the current era of urban warfare -- and he’s specifically targeting Hamas-sponsored attacks against Israel. In fact, Chishimba is building an election platform that includes promoting reinstatement of full Israel-Zambia ties cut in 1973 and partially reestablished earlier this decade.

A member of Zambia’s royal family and the country’s majority Bemba tribe, Chishimba hails from a legacy of politickers and freedom fighters, including relatives who fostered the country’s breakaway independence from Rhodesia in 1964.

Zambia’s political history has been sprinkled with corruption and cronyism, and 36-year-old Chishimba, a former MP and current leader of the United Progressive People's Party, sees himself as the gateway to the future, the new face of hope, and the pathfinder of global relations.

Said Chishimba over a cup of hot tea with fresh mint in a Tel Aviv restaurant earlier this month: “The current leadership stands for outdated politics. It’s time to form international contacts with bodies and leaders who have a broader understanding of business and democracy. Like parliamentarians in the UK and business leaders in the U.S., I want to form different types of networks and get away from the old ways of thinking.”

What Chishimba specifically means is that he will weaken ties with Iran, and specifically Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. This currently prompt eyebrow-raising over the African country’s covert uranium trade.

“A pro-Iran, anti-Israel regime in Zambia is very dangerous,” Chishimba remarked. “Iran is determined to wipe Israel off the map and that can only be done with nuclear capability. Facilitating transport of uranium to Iran is very, very dangerous." Despite a 2008 law implemented to control uranium mining and export, Zambia continues doing business with Iran.

Sitting at the presidential hopeful’s Tel Aviv table was another not-new-to-politics figure, media advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dr. Raanan Gissin. Gissin was offering Chishimba pointers on successful campaigning and wooing influential backers ahead of the African’s impending European and U.S. visits this spring. Chishimba plans to meet parliament members, prominent CEOs, and President Obama on his visits.

Is Israel, then, a segway to the American Jewish lobby and U.S. campaign backing?

Says Chishimba: “I have always said Israel has a presence in Africa. This is not a strategy to get American influence. The relationship between Zambia and Israel started in 1900, when the first Jewish family settled there. Jews fought alongside freedom fighters for independence, and from 1964 to 1973, Israelis helped build the country’s largest university and the only medical teaching hospital.”

But after Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War, Zambian leaders adopted an anti-Israel foreign policy, opting for partners who would advance personal agendas. In the 1990s, the country’s governmental demands shifted and a multiparty system was introduced.  Today, says the devout Christian, the country is run by a strong presidency and a weak parliament -- a system he aims to deconstruct.

Courting Israel at home in a country not much larger than the size of Texas may not be a tremendous departure -- Zambians are 80% Christian and 5% Muslim. But getting along with the neighbors in 35% Islamic Tanzania, 20% Islamic Malawi, and 18% Islamic Mozambique may get thorny if he opens full relations with the Jewish state.

Chishimba spouts faith.

“The partnership I seek with Israel dates to the pre-independence period. My government will work with progressive countries to create a new global democratization with democratic principles. I want to open our country to foreign investment interests and democracy and shut the door on practices stifling freedom.”

Chishimba has exuberance, family backing, and apparent foreign support. Cutting old ties and strengthening new, less popular ones, however, may be a bit more complicated.