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

Rural Zimbabwe Facing Mass Hunger

People in the countryside can barely feed themselves as crops fail for the sixth successive year.
By Obert Gadzi
The food situation in rural areas of the county is so dire that people are clamouring for something to eat and schools are appealing for help for hungry children, according to aid workers.

The warnings of mass hunger come as members of the governing elite who’ve taken over commercial farms are reprimanded for using their land as “weekend picnic venues”.

Southern Africa's food security warning organisation, FSEWS, said Zimbabwe will bring in from the fields only 600,000 tonnes of maize, ordinary people's staple food, during the impending harvest season against the average annual consumption of 1.8 million tonnes.

Steady, soaking rains have robbed Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe of drought as his standard excuse for nose-diving agricultural production - this being the sixth successive year of crop failure. Until six years ago, agricultural exports to the rest of the region and to the European Community were the country's leading foreign exchange earners.

FSEWS, the Food Security Early Warning System of the Southern African Development Community, said Zimbabwe will have to import 1.4 million tonnes of maize, 200,000 tonnes of wheat, 40,000 tonnes of sorghum and 6,000 tonnes of rice in coming months in order to avert widespread starvation-related deaths.

The minimum cost of such imports for a country that is fundamentally broke - suffering from an official inflation of 800 per cent and only limited foreign exchange reserves - will be at least 350 million US dollars for the maize alone.

In February, the Zimbabwe government struggled to raise nine million US dollars to pay the International Monetary Fund and thus avoid becoming the first country since Czechoslovakia 52 years ago to be expelled from the world's most important lending institution. The country must find another 120 million US dollars to service IMF payment arrears in the next few months.

Zimbabwe now has the dubious distinction of having what the United Nations has called the fastest-shrinking economy, the highest inflation and the weakest currency in the world - coupled with systematic human rights abuses and the collapse of the rule of law.

According to aid workers, the shortage is worst in rural areas where vulnerable people are eating less than one meal a day on average, and schools are appealing for food for their hungry pupils.

Zvikomborero, a 33-year-old firewood vendor whose home in the Harare suburb of Mbare was destroyed last year in Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Filth), presented as an urban renewal scheme, said, "My children are now eating out of a garbage dump. We are washing potato skins and eating them. We are starving. You can say we are dead."

Mugabe's ZANU PF government's notorious Fast Track Land Reform Programme, which when it began in 2000 involved the mass invasion of commercial farms by so-called veterans of the 1970s liberation war and landless peasants, marked also the beginning of the agricultural industry's collapse.

After more than 4,000 commercial farmers were driven from their properties, the initial invaders were themselves pushed from the farms, which were redistributed to members of President Mugabe's family, government ministers, top ZANU PF party officials, senior army, air force and police officials, and compliant judges and journalists.

Few of the "new farmers" are producing crops. In a rare admission of government failure, Deputy Agriculture Minister Sylvester Nguni said they lacked the skills to produce on what he called a "commercial or even subsistence level".

The lack of foreign exchange means there are also drastic scarcities of vital seeds, fertiliser, herbicides and chemicals. There are also fuel shortages and frequent electricity power cuts. A dire situation is made worse by the fact that banks are unwilling to make loans to the new farmers because they have no title deeds to the usurped land.

They rarely have any other collateral to repay loans. Neither do they have the capacity to repay loans nor, in the culture of lawlessness promoted by Mugabe, do they have the will to do so.

Central Bank Governor Gideon Gono criticised new farmers from among the governing elite for using their land only as "weekend picnic venues". He also reprimanded some for using government agricultural loans - as opposed to commercial bank loans - to buy luxury sports utility vehicles for private use and profiteering, by selling subsidised petrol available to them at black market prices.

Consequently, the once flourishing commercial farms are now dismal sights, overgrown with weeds and bush. Where planting has taken place - currently on only about an estimated ten per cent of this farmland - the crops are miserably stunted.

No one bothers to supervise what is happening because the agricultural support infrastructure is collapsing, and, at government level, factions are either too busy fighting each other over who gets the next farm or politicising the whole issue.

The mechanics of food distribution in the country have also contributed to hunger among an estimated five to 6.5 million people of the 11.5 million population. Fuel shortages, now a permanent feature of Zimbabwe's problems, have hampered the delivery of food to needy areas.

When fuel is available, the ZANU PF government politicises food distribution. Areas perceived to be strongholds of the opposition are denied access to food aid as political punishment. Food is thus used as both the carrot and the stick, leaving millions hungry and prompting the outspoken Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, to observe, "They [ZANU PF] would rather kill people for the sake of power. You can see what kind of people we are dealing with here, murderers. President Mugabe is a very, very evil man. The sooner the Good Lord takes him from us the better."

Dydimus Mutasa, Mugabe's right-hand man and Minister of National Security and Land, has notoriously shrugged his shoulders at Zimbabwe's high death rate from AIDS and hunger-related illnesses, saying, "We would be better off with only six million people … We don't want all these extra people."

International food aid is seemingly abused on a widespread basis. Government distribution agents, through whom international agencies are compelled to distribute supplies, tightly control to whom it is given. Local government officials, youth militias, village chiefs and other affiliates of ZANU PF tightly control donor-feeding schemes: they make sure that food goes to communities who proclaim loyalty to ZANU PF, and consequently millions of needy people go hungry. Many donor agencies have withdrawn or been pushed out as a result of these pressures.

Government officials deny the seriousness of the food situation. Both Mugabe and Mutasa constantly assert that the country has adequate food reserves. Denying that Zimbabweans needed international help, Mugabe said, "We are not hungry. Why foist this food on us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough."

Corruption by high-ranking senior government officials and politicians has worsened the food crisis. Politicians who enjoy political protection from prosecution have looted scarce supplies from the Grain Marketing Board, the sole official grain procurement and distribution agency, to sell on the black market and smuggle to neighbouring countries.

Last year, the president’s nephew Leo Mugabe, a ZANU PF parliamentary deputy, was arrested when he attempted to smuggle 30 tonnes of wheat flour out of the country. He was later freed and all charges were dropped.

Obert Gadzi is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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