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Elders Ban Blow to Zimbabwe Aid Hopes

Denying entry to international delegation said to have scuppered chance of securing aid.
By Jabu Shoko
By banning the visit of three high-profile international figures, President Robert Mugabe has thwarted an opportunity to convince international relief agencies to send aid to the beleaguered country, said Zimbabwe’s non-governmental organisations.

On November 21, Mugabe refused permission to three members of the international organisation the Elders – former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, ex- United States president Jimmy Carter and international advocate for women's and children's rights Graca Machel.

The delegation had planned to visit Zimbabwe to assess the impact of the humanitarian crisis unravelling there, where more than half the population is starving and the number of deaths from a cholera outbreak is approaching 300.

“We seek no permission other than permission to help the poor and the desperate. However, the refusal of the Zimbabwean government to facilitate our visit in any way has made it impossible for us to travel at this time,” Annan told reporters in Johannesburg, South Africa, on November 21.

While the president’s representatives stated that the three were advised to postpone their trip, government insiders say they were denied entry because they are viewed as hostile to ZANU-PF, and suspected of pursuing an opposition agenda.

Fambai Ngirande, a spokesman for umbrella organisation the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, told IWPR the visit was a perfect opportunity to highlight Zimbabweans’ need of food and other essential drugs.

Ngirande, whose organisation sent dossiers to the trio chronicling the humanitarian crisis in the country, said Zimbabwe urgently needed international aid to counter overwhelming levels of destitution there.

Annan, Carter and Machel were in a position to launch a campaign for the country, which, he said, is becoming increasingly isolated by the international donor community because of its leaders’ intransigence.

However, a chance to secure this vital support has been lost “due to the government’s selfish political interests”, he said.

“The actions of the Zimbabwean government [in preventing the visit] do not help anyone at all as they portray the country as an unfavourable donor destination.”

Ngirande pointed out that the daily struggle for survival for the ordinary Zimbabwean has become unbearable.

“The lives of millions are under threat as they face serious food and water shortages and a breakdown in the health service, as evidenced by the closure of hospitals,” he said.

These problems have been compounded by an outbreak of cholera this summer which has so far left 281 people dead.

According to the World Food Programme, some 5.1 million Zimbabweans will be in urgent need of aid by early next year.

There are also fears that the country faces a grim harvest because the government is ill prepared for the current planting season, and there is a crippling shortage of fertiliser, seed and spare parts.

Useni Sibanda, coordinator of the Christian Alliance of Zimbabwe, agreed that the banned visit meant an opportunity had been lost to garner support for the country.

The delegation would, among other things, has highlighted the plight of Zimbabweans who, in addition to suffering starvation, are dying of curable diseases like cholera, he maintained.

“[The ban on the visit] exposes the heartless of the ZANU-PF leadership, which does not have the interest of the ordinary people at heart,” said Sibanda.

According to Sibanda, refusing the Elders entry into the country has also done longer-term damage, “This diplomatic blunder will have a negative impact in that it sends a signal to donors that Zimbabwe does not need international assistance. It would appear the government is in denial.”

He said he thought the government wanted to perpetuate the myth that all is well in the country.

“If they don’t have anything to hide, why not allow the delegation in to see the hunger stalking both urban and rural dwellers?” he asked.

According to reports, Machel said that the government's ban on the visit was “deeply regrettable”.

The Elders have remained in South Africa to brief themselves as fully as possible about the situation in its neighbouring country.

There they will meet with representatives of humanitarian agencies, civil society organisations, business people and officials from across the region.

Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.