Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Agriculture Minister Gets It Wrong Again

Joseph Made once more accused of misleading Zimbabweans about the country's food crisis.
By Memory Zigora
Ambuya Emily Gondo, a villager from the Mhondoro rural communal area of Zimbabwe's Mashonaland West province, tells IWPR with tears in her eyes that her family is likely to starve if she does not receive government and other humanitarian assistance in the next month or two.

She is currently caring for six orphaned grandchildren, the youngest of whom is only two-years-old. It is a lucky day when they all manage to eat two meals.

Zimbabwe's rains, which fall in the summer from November to April, were good this time. But, despite that, Ambuya (the affectionate Shona name for an elderly woman) Gondo will harvest very little. Like all rural Zimbabweans at a time of their country's deepest economic crisis ever, she had neither an adequate supply of maize seed nor fertiliser to maximise the yield on her small patch of land.

For her age - more than 70 - she is active and very talkative. She even finds humour in the poverty and sadness that surrounds her. "Ah. I talk a lot because I am in good health," she jokes in Shona. "It is the sick who are very quiet. Have you ever seen a sick person talking?"

Barely seconds after chuckling to herself, her mood changes as her moist eyes wander around and look at her grandchildren and her nutrient-deficient maize.

"I thank God that at least I will be able to harvest a reasonable amount of sweet potatoes and groundnuts," said Ambuya Gondo. "But as for maize [the staple food of Zimbabweans], I am not going to get enough to last me a long time. I didn’t get fertiliser and even if it had been available I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. It is so expensive now.

"Imagine, now, when we are supposed to be close to harvesting, people here have to work for food handouts under the government’s food-for-work programme. That means we will be working for food if we don’t get assistance as soon as possible. Just look at me - how much work do you think I can do? I now have to use my young grandchildren [to work]. If we worry about child labour, we will certainly starve.

"That’s the new Zimbabwe we now live in."

Ambuya Gondo is just one of more than four million Zimbabweans, in a population of 12 million, who United Nations agencies say will be in need of food aid until the next harvest in 2007.

According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture, Zimbabwe is expected to produce between 700,000 and 900,000 metric tonnes of maize in the current harvest season. But the country needs at least 1,800,000 tonnes per year to feed its people and animal stocks at minimal levels.

Lack of fertiliser and maize seed and the leaching out of nutrients because of excessive rains have reduced yields in most maize producing regions of the country. USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Network, FEWSNET, has listed Zimbabwe as a food emergency country in its latest assessment. It said more than half of the rural population survived the first months of 2006 because of international food aid.

Many put the blame for the country’s low maize output this year squarely on the shoulders of Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, who has since his appointment in 2000 gradually destroyed the country’s farm sector.

Zimbabwe is entering its fifth successive year of serious food shortages. The country which once exported all manner of food and was southern Africa's bread-basket is now the region's basket case. The country’s shrunken economy, with inflation running at more than 1,000 per cent, mirrors the agriculture sector.

A senior ZANU PF official and cabinet minister, who asked not to be named, told IWPR that Made has totally destroyed the country's agricultural sector and should therefore be sacked. He said he failed to understand why President Robert Mugabe continued to keep a non-performer like Made when he is always preaching that he would get rid of failures.

The minister said most of his colleagues expected Mugabe to have fired Made by now, especially after the electoral congress of the ruling ZANU PF party last December, where Made was lambasted by ordinary party members for failing to provide adequate supplies of seed and fertiliser. There are serious shortages of tractors for ploughing, and anyway the country is unable to afford to import enough petrol to fuel those that are still in working condition.

"Made has failed," said the minister. "I know we have all failed the nation, one way or the other, but we also have amongst us ministers whom we agree should not be part of the cabinet. Ministers, like Made, should be fired for lack of planning and delivery.

"You should see him lying to the president that everything is in place. We were happy at the ZANU PF congress when ordinary members, I mean villagers, gave a true picture of what is happening in the rural areas. We thought, this time, he would by now have been fired."

To general disbelief, Made has predicted that Zimbabwe will harvest in the next few weeks all the maize necessary to feed the country for a year. "Who is fooling who here?" asked Gondo Gushongo, a columnist with the independent weekly Financial Gazette. "Who are we most likely to believe?

"Made or all international crop assessments? The answer is obvious … The nation is once again being led up the garden path about food security. It can believe

the minister at its own peril.

"Made is inflating the figures, as he has done in the past … in a game of political point-scoring. It does not matter a brass farthing what the consequences will be to the most vulnerable groups who normally bear the sharpest edge of the knife when hunger strikes."

Last year, Made misled the country and Mugabe when he denied reports that half the population needed food. He went further and alleged that reports of hunger in the country were a US plot to destabilise Zimbabwe and achieve regime change. Mugabe responded to Made's hopelessly exaggerated food production statistics by rejecting international food aid and telling donors, "We are not hungry. Why foist this food on us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough."

Zimbabwe, nevertheless, had to buy more than 800,000 tonnes of maize from South Africa over the past year. Despite these imports, shortages of essential foods continued and the country's hospitals are full of children with starvation-related diseases such as kwashiorkor. FEWSNET says the availability of maize meal for the poor remains precarious.

In 2004, Made said Zimbabwe had more than enough food to feed the population and even had surpluses. When international and local experts said the country had produced between 500,000 and 700,000 tonnes of maize in a season of particularly low rainfall, he said more than 2,400,000 tonnes had been harvested.

He was quoted then in the state-run daily Herald newspaper as saying, "You see, God has been smiling on us and we are lucky that in the northern parts there were good rains in the last few days and crops are doing well." During that year Zimbabwe had, in fact, to import grain to feed nearly five million people.

Zimbabweans vividly remember Made flying over the country and predicting a bumper harvest in a year marked by one of the lowest maize outputs ever.

Made has been giving wrong estimates since 2001 and each time Zimbabwe has had to go begging to the international community and South Africa because millions were on the brink of starvation.

Made was co-opted into Mugabe’s government in 2000 as a technocrat, despite having been a failure at running the state’s Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, ARDA.

The cat-and-mouse game played by Mugabe and Made with the crisis over food production and aid has led an increasing number of experts to question whether it benefits ordinary Zimbabweans in the long run for the government to be bailed out with supplies of grain from abroad.

"Such generosity is welcome, but its subtext raises wrenching ethical issues," said veteran American foreign correspondent Michael Wines, currently the southern Africa correspondent of the New York Times. "The world's aid to Zimbabwe is part of a devil's bargain, critics say, 'save the poor from hunger and exposure', but at the price of aiding the very rulers who are making them hungry and exposed in the first place."

Memory Zigora is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.