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

Mugabe Seeks Food Aid

Once-defiant president secretly tries to avert a looming famine.
By Alfred Tsotso

President Robert Mugabe - who last year told the international community that his people did not need food aid - has quietly established contacts to secure emergency help from outside to avert a looming famine.


“We do not want food that is foisted upon us,” Mugabe insisted last November.


However, with parliamentary elections scheduled for March 31 and agricultural analysts warning of a serious shortfall in maize production, he appears to have changed his mind.


The European Community, which has imposed travel and banking bans on Mugabe and his ministers, has been the among the first to react to the new initiative, quietly allocating 15 million euro to those Zimbabweans most vulnerable to food shortages, especially orphaned children and people living with AIDS. Food bought with the European money will be distributed through such United Nations agencies as UNICEF and the Food and Agricultural Organisation, FAO.


In a terse statement issued in Brussels, a spokesman for the community said, “Unprecedented numbers of people [in Zimbabwe] are facing food insecurity and rising rates of HIV/AIDS infection.


“The majority of the population can barely cover their most basic needs. The health, water and sanitation sectors have collapsed. The country counts more than one million orphans [in a total population of 11.5 million], mainly as a result of the AIDS pandemic. Diseases that were once eradicated from the country such as cholera and dysentery are again being reported due to the absence of basic water, sanitation and health services.”


UN officials in Harare said Mugabe had swallowed his pride and approached them for help in formulating a major appeal to be made to the international donor community as soon as the election results are declared in around three weeks time.


“Food assistance will make up more than 70 per cent of the appeal,” a senior UN official told IWPR.


The government, however, has not yet gone public yet about the initiative for fear of ridicule and a widespread outbreak of anger ahead of polling day. Mugabe and his agriculture minister, Joseph Made, have spent recent months boasting that a record harvest was expected from April onwards.


The UN officials say they will establish a food emergency coordinating team with the government as soon as it is known which party will form the next government. Preliminary work has been going on since last December, with the social welfare ministry spearheading the “talks about talks”.


Current limited supplies of maize meal, the country’s staple food, have created a booming black market and high retail prices that are beyond the reach of most Zimbabweans.


The main famine and weather-monitoring organisation in southern Africa said the situation was many times worse than conveyed by the government to the UN. The Johannesburg-based Famine Early Warning System Network, FEWSNET, said 4.8 million Zimbabweans - nearly half the population - urgently require food aid or they could starve.


Council minutes published in Bulawayo, the country’s second city, record at least 24 people as having died of starvation since the beginning of the year.


“There is a lot of suffering in this city,” said the mayor, Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. “Many children and some elderly people are dying as a result of malnutrition.”


Hunger is also stalking the rural people of Chimanimani, in the highlands 450 kilometres east of Harare.


Traditional chiefs, who are normally the vanguard of Mugabe’s ZANU PF, have this time thrown their weight behind MDC candidate Heather Bennett, the wife of the current MDC member of parliament Roy Bennett, who is currently in prison. Heather Bennett - who lost a baby when ZANU PF thugs attacked her in 2000 when they invaded the couple’s farm, murdered workers and raped women - addressed a rally of around 5,000 people on March 6.


A local chief stood up and told her, “To hell with a government that can’t provide its own people with grain.”


A drive into any rural area reveals stunted maize withering in the blazing sun, and once-productive farms lie idle everywhere. Mugabe boasted that the confiscation of white farms and the resettlement on them of landless peasants would boost agricultural production. But the government has dismally failed to provide such basic inputs as seeds, fertilisers and tractor fuel to the “new farmers”. Many have been driven to plant what few seeds they do have on untilled land, with disastrous consequences for yields.


When the first stories of the impending famine began surfacing at the end of last year, agriculture minister Made described them as an attempt by “enemies of Zimbabwe” to tarnish the government and to undermine the “success” of the land reform programme.


Agricultural experts have since said it is unlikely that more than 300,000 tonnes of maize will be gathered in the coming harvest season. Zimbabwe needs a minimum of 1.8 million tonnes of maize a year in order to feed its entire people.


At the beginning of this month, having already opened clandestine negotiations with the UN, Mugabe admitted that only 40 per cent of confiscated white land allocated to new black farmers is actually being utilised. He threatened to repossess such land. It was his first tentative admission that his land reform programme had failed.


Alfred Tsotso is the pseudonym for an IWPR journalist in Harare.


More IWPR's Global Voices