Saturday, June 09, 2007

food for votes in Zimbabwe

Local relief groups complain that government pressure is compromising their ability to feed a hungry population.

By Nonthando Bhebhe in Harare (AR No. 113, 24-May-07)

The Zimbabwean authorities have a history of controlling access to food for political purposes. As the ongoing drought adds to the food shortages, and the 2008 elections draw closer, the government is once again focusing its attention on distribution.

By imposing restrictions on non-government organisations, NGOs, officials are curbing their ability to provide food aid. And as international donor find that their local partners are less and less able to operate freely, there is a danger they will divert food aid to countries where it can be distributed effectively.

During the liberation struggle in what was then Rhodesia in the Seventies, Ian Smith’s white minority regime withheld food from rural areas in an attempt to starve out rebel guerrilla groups.

Soon after independence in 1980, the new administration of President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party again used food as a weapon against political opponents. During the Gukurahundi campaign, in which thousands of civilians in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions died, shops were closed and relief aid was halted to these drought-stricken areas, just to prevent a few hundred armed dissident fighters from accessing food....

As well as selective distribution through its own food aid centres, the government has tried to influence the way international relief groups manage distribution.

In the run up to the 2002 presidential election, ZANU-PF members warned local chiefs and headmen in some areas that they would be denied supplies of food aid for their communities if they did not deliver an electoral victory for Mugabe. ...

Then in 2004, months before the crucial 2005 parliamentary election, the authorities introduced the controversial Non-Government Organisation Bill which restricted the activities of NGOs and human rights groups, particularly those financed from abroad....

As a result, an estimated 2.3 million rural people in need of food aid had to rely completely on government assistance programmes. Food imports arranged by the MDC were seized at the border and distributed by government.

In autumn 2006, the government lifted a ban on NGOs handing out food. But as the country heads towards next year’s make-or-break presidential and parliamentary election, the government is again trying to control NGOs, particularly those involved in food aid, human rights, civic education and election monitoring.

Local aid groups are now jittery after Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said all NGOs had been "deregistered" and must apply for new licenses to operate....

The government is shipping state-subsidy grain for public distribution – but only to ZANU-PF strongholds. Given the state Grain Marketing Board’s history of discriminatory allocation, supporters of the opposition are likely to suffer.

“Food distribution has been made political,” Fambai Ngirande, spokesperson for the National Association of NGOs, told IWPR.

“Distribution organisations have been compelled to give food only to card-carrying members of the ruling party. These agencies have been denied access to some areas, and told to leave the food with government distribution arms.”...

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