Zimbabwe playing politics as people starve, report says

Mugabe's supporters get food aid, opponents get none, rights group says

October 24, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Their country racked by drought, political turmoil and economic disarray, millions of Zimbabweans will face starvation this year.

But who will get food and who will go hungry is being determined in many cases not by need but by who is a card-carrying supporter of Zimbabwe's president, Robert G. Mugabe.

That is the finding of a report being released today by Human Rights Watch, which documents Zimbabwean authorities' use of food as a political weapon, rewarding loyalists with easy access to government food programs while denying aid to political opponents.

"All the evidence that we have gathered shows that the party card you carry will help you gain food. The lack of a party card will make it much more difficult," said Steve Crawshaw, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch in London.

According to the report, Zimbabwean officials manipulate supply and distribution of government-subsidized grain programs, and the registration of needy households, to meet political ends.

`A tired old lie'

A spokesman in Mugabe's office, George Charamba, denied that food aid is politicized.

"It's a tired old lie," Charamba said by phone from the capital, Harare. "Zimbabwe is looking after itself and its population. Zimbabweans are healthy as ever."

The opposition "is not just well fed, but well fed to tell its propaganda to pro-British, pro-American institutions," he said.

Human Rights Watch said some of the politicization was the fault of international aid programs, with some donors opposed to assisting needy Zimbabweans who have been resettled on white-owned commercial farms as part of the government's chaotic and often-violent land reform program, which is widely opposed by the West.

"A policy excluding resettled farmers, like many of Zimbabwe's government policies, ignores the only proper condition to receive aid - need," the report said.

The report faults the United Nations World Food Program, which distributes food separately from the government, for failing to monitor distribution closely enough to stop misuse of aid.

According to the report, a mother of nine tried to get on World Food Program feeding lists in 2002 and was told by community leaders responsible for drawing up the lists that she was ineligible because she was a member of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

"The kraal head came to her home and told her she had to surrender her MDC cards if she wanted to benefit from donor food," the report said.

The World Food Program says its distribution procedures are tightly controlled to avoid political abuse, though isolated cases have occurred.

"In any major operation there are likely to be incidences of interference," said Richard Lee, spokesman for the World Food Program in Zimbabwe, which distributes food at more than 1,300 sites around the country. But "the chance of people being excluded is very, very slim."

James Morris, executive director of the World Food Program, has vowed to end its work in Zimbabwe if it encounters difficulties in distributing food.

A country in shambles

More than 5 million people in Zimbabwe, nearly half the population, will need food aid in 2003-2004, according to the WFP.

Widespread hunger is the latest hardship to befall the nation, which is embroiled in its worst crisis since independence from white minority rule in 1980.

In the year and a half since Mugabe was re-elected in a disputed election tainted by violence, the country has teetered on the edge of economic collapse.

The government seizure of white-owned farms has left millions without jobs, caused inflation to soar and left the economy in shambles.

Fuel shortages have stranded commuters, truckers and even emergency vehicles. Zimbabweans face daily shortages of bread, vegetable oil, drugs and dozens of other items. Millions have fled across the border to South Africa and Botswana.

Mugabe's government has done little to counter such developments. The government appears focused, critics say, on little else other than stamping out the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which has posed the first serious challenge to Mugabe's stranglehold on power since 1980.

Hunger as a weapon

During polling in local, parliamentary and presidential elections since 2000, the ruling party youth militias and police have used violence and intimidation against opposition supporters and candidates. Police recently shut down the country's only independent daily newspaper.

Now, as the country faces its third year of drought and economic hardship, the government is using hunger as a way of punishing political opponents, real and imagined. Human Rights Watch calls the practice "a human rights violation as serious as arbitrary imprisonment or torture."

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