Mixing politics with food in Zimbabwe

Food and politics, as Zimbabweans are finding out, are not always mutually exclusive. If they were, what would explain official claims of a bumper harvest when independent assessments suggest otherwise?

The clue seems to be parliamentary elections — now only six months away.

The last presidential poll, as well as subsequent by-elections, was mired in dispute partly because the ruling party was accused of baiting needy rural voters with subsidised or free food. It is widely believed that, once again, the state is pursuing a similar strategy which demands it controls as much of the country’s food stocks as possible before next March’s election.

A UN-led assessment mission says about five million of the southern African country’s 12-million people will need food aid before the next harvest in March.

Yet in the last four months the government repeatedly stated Zimbabwe will not need food assistance this year. As a result, international donors, like the World Food Programme (WFP), responded by scaling down relief assistance which had been in place in the last three years due to the destructive effects of drought and the land-reform programme, which began in 2000.

“By the time of the elections (the ruling party) ZANU-PF will control all staple food supplies and we fully anticipate that they will use food as a weapon of intimidation and coercion,” says Eddie Cross, economic advisor to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

A law restricting the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), especially on governance issues, is also expected to be passed next month. Its effects, critics say, will be to control those likely to interfere with the government’s election plans.

In the last four years, the country has been caught up in a political crisis triggered by the disputed parliamentary and presidential polls of 2000 and 2002. An accompanying land-reform programme — meant to redistribute farms owned by 4 500 whites to black peasants — has precipitated an economic collapse.

Last month the MDC announced it was suspending participation in elections. It argued that repressive laws, state-sponsored political violence as well as biased electoral machinery, tilted the environment in favour of the ruling party. However, the MDC expects to have finished selecting candidates for all the 120 constituencies by the end of September.

The party says it will revoke its boycott when the government implements protocols on free and fair elections it acceded to in August at a summit of the 13-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) held in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. They include setting up a truly independent electoral commission, granting the opposition media space and the right to campaign.

MDC secretary-general Welshman Ncube says the election protocol does not make specific reference to the manipulation of food except in broad terms when it alludes to freedom of voter choice and non-abuse of state assets. “The whole idea of shutting out donors is that when food availability will be at its most critical, Zanu-PF will be able to strangulate voters in exchange for votes, saying ‘it’s either you vote for us or starve’,” he says.

In the meantime, however, conflicting figures of food stocks are keeping Zimbabweans guessing.

Earlier September the head of the state monopoly Grain Marketing Board (GMB) told parliamentarians the organisation had grain stocks of only 298 000 tonnes, or the equivalent to two months supply. Even after accounting for anticipated seasonal deliveries of another 5 000 tonnes of the staple maize crop, it seems the country would be short of at least half its annual grain requirements of 1,8-million tonnes.

Yet government officials persist with the claim that 2,4-million tonnes of grain, mainly maize, will be realised this year.

Meanwhile reports, quoting local officials, say 162 malnutrition-related deaths have occurred in the country’s second city, Bulawayo since January.

Such data has not been music to the ears of government officials. That the local authority is run by the opposition doesn’t help matters. In spite of the city’s reputation for relative competence and transparency, the government claims it is playing politics, not least to discredit the controversial land-reform programme.

Brian Raftopoulos, a professor of development studies at the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies, says the government could well be holding more food than it admits. “I think they are keeping the food situation very close to their chest,” he says.

Although the government has denied augmenting supplies with imports, it is believed grain is secretly being brought in from neighbouring South Africa.

Cross says the World Food Programme is known to have asked Zambia to hold on to 100 000 tonnes of maize for possible procurement, while contracts are reported to have been signed with South Africa and Argentina. “I understand that 200 000 tonnes is being imported,” he says. “It may have already arrived as we are seeing maize wagons every week.”

Even though reports of food manipulation are beginning to accompany each major election in Zimbabwe, it appears over the last two years simmering political tensions have spilt into food distribution.

“What we know is that there are areas which still need a lot of food,” says David Chimhini, the director of the Zimbabwe Civic and Education Trust, an NGO that operates across the country. “I think the government should start distributing food now and not at a particular time,” he says.

In a report released at the end of last year, Human Rights Watch, based in New York, found that Zimbabwean authorities discriminated against perceived political opponents by denying them access to food programmes.

The 51-page report, called Not Eligible: The politicisation of food in Zimbabwe, documents how food is denied to members of the MDC, and to employees of former commercial farmers, resettled under the controversial land-reform programme. The report also examines the widespread politicisation of the government’s subsidised grain programme, managed by the GMB as well as the far less extensive manipulation of international food aid.

Raftopoulos says while food will be important in the coming election, especially if the MDC decides to participate, the decisive factor will be a combination of other issues. They will include the flawed electoral system, state control of the media, the incapacitation of the MDC and civic society as well as the demoralisation of the population.

He warns that even if the state is earnestly short of food, Zimbabweans “shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of these guys to get the food they need to use during the elections.” — IPS

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