Zimbabwe's political tool: food

Since Friday, 133 white farmers have been arrested. Opposition says Mugabe is exploiting food crisis.

Even with foreign aid pouring into the country, observers say that Zimbabwe will not have enough food for its people over the coming year. In this looming crisis, the government sees an opportunity – to gain political leverage by withholding food from political opponents, says Sam Mlilo, an organizer for the opposition party here.

Mr. Mlilo says that members of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party come to him looking for food, as drought and President Robert Mugabe's controversial land redistribution program have edged Zimbabwe closer to famine. But Mlilo has to turn his fellow supporters away.

"I have no resources, no food for you," he tells them, "and the next day, I hear that they have surrendered their party cards because they have been starving." Mlilo, a former university professor who lives in Mberengwa East, an area wracked by violence during the country's March presidential elections, adds: "It's really working. [The government's] plan is going to work."

That plan, according to opposition leaders such as Mlilo and aid groups, is to starve the opposition into submission, forcing their allegiance to Mr. Mugabe's regime.

Earlier in the year, some 50 MDC supporters were beaten and shot, allegedly by Mugabe supporters in the run up to the March elections. But as rural villagers are reduced scavenging for roots and berries, or selling their remaining assets to buy high-priced food on the black market, the MDC and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) say food is the government's latest weapon.

The government denies this charge. Speaking to the nation last week during Zimbabwe's independence day celebrations, Mugabe promised that the government would feed everyone, even the "stooges and puppets," one of his favorite term for opposition supporters he claims are working for Britain, the country's former colonial master.

In two short years, Zimbabwe has gone from a food supplier to becoming one of the largest humanitarian emergencies on the continent. Mugabe's plan to give white-owned farms to landless blacks has crippled the country's commercial-farming sector. Yesterday, more than 133 white farmers were arrested for defying orders to vacate their land.

Over the next nine months, the country faces a 1.5-million-ton food-production shortfall and the specter of six million starving if it doesn't receive sufficient aid, according to the United Nations' World Food Program (WFP). Even with aid, Zimbabwe is likely to face a half-million ton shortfall. But despite pleas from the UN to allow the private importation of food to help fill the projected gap, the government has maintained a steely grip on the market. Late last year, private wheat and corn imports were banned, and the government-run grain marketing board, which is managed by top military and intelligence officials, was given control.

Known MDC supporters are being turned away from grain depots, while party big men are buying up grain and selling it on the black market at a profit, say some observers. NGOs also report that MDC supporters are being discriminated against in government-run food-for-work programs.

The Food Security Network, a coalition of 54 local NGOs that has been monitoring the situation in Zimbabwe, says politicization of food aid has been reported in at least 33 of the country's 54 districts. They say many of the depots are being run by youth militia from Mugabe's ZANU-PF party or by intelligence officers, and that more food is being sent to ZANU strongholds than to MDC areas.

"We went to one depot that was being run by youth militia," says the director of one prominent NGO, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation from the government. "That in itself is outrageous. These are the same people who were beating and torturing people in the first four months of the year," referring to alleged violence around the March election, which most observers say was rigged in favor of Mugabe. The government has threatened to ban NGOs critical of the state and to seize the passports of their workers.

The WFP says that food is being distributed to all, not just to those in a particular party. But local NGOs and the MDC say that monitoring has been poor. They accuse aid agencies of looking the other way to avoid confrontation with the government, allowing it to influence who receives donated food.

"The lists of beneficiaries are all being drawn up by rural committees, which are relying on chiefs and headmen who are all in the pay of the government," says Eddie Cross, spokesman for the MDC on economic affairs. "On principle [the WFP and aid groups] will not act in a political manner, but they're allowing themselves to be manipulated."

The WFP and donors deny such allegations and say that they have thoroughly investigated all charges of political bias in the food-distribution process and found them untrue. The biggest problem, they say, is just that there's not enough food aid for everyone.

Since the ranks of the needy are so vast, it is nearly impossible to prove whether someone was left off a list because of political affiliation. Still, several cases of direct interference by ruling-party militants have been recorded.

In the town of Binga, near Lake Kariba, war veterans stopped food distribution by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace for almost two months, saying that the commission was a political organization that was using the food to foment antigovernment sentiment. In another district, a local NGO says its workers were beaten by war veterans who claimed that bags of cornmeal were being distributed with pro-opposition material inside.

The biggest challenge for the donors may be the next phase of the crisis – the recovery phase. Feeding the hungry is usually followed by long-term efforts to improve food security, but according to the WFP, donors will likely be hesitant to subsidize new farmers placed on land taken from white commercial farmers.

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