Food for votes – Zanu at it again

Local relief groups complain that government pressure is compromising their ability to feed a hungry population.
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 food distribution.
By imposing restrictions on NGOs, officials are curbing their ability to provide food aid. And as international donors 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.
Soon after independence, 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.
Since 2000, when Mugabe launched a campaign to dispossess white farmers and redistribute their farms to landless people, Zimbabwe has suffered severe problems with agricultural production. As a result, many people are reliant on handouts from relief agencies or the government.
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. The government also discouraged international donor organisations from giving out food, misleading them by telling them that Zimbabwe had had a bumper harvest.
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.
This attempt by Mugabe to stifle debate served its purpose, as most NGOs were uncertain about their future and security, and many limited their operations during that period.
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.
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,” said Fambai Ngirande, spokesperson for the National Association of NGOs.
“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.”
Ngirande predicted that the pressure, obstructions and surveillance NGOs now have to endure would get worse.
He said most foreign-funded organisations had already significantly reduced their aid to Zimbabwe, and given the worsening environment in which NGOs operate, they were liable to curtail it even further; putting millions of lives at risk. – IWPR

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