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Rights Group Criticizes Politics of Food in Zimbabwe - 2003-10-24

The Zimbabwean government is being accused of using food as a political weapon in a report by Human Rights Watch. The group also condemns donor nations for directing their food aid away from newly resettled Zimbabwean farmers.

The staple food in Zimbabwe is corn, or maize. There are two ways it gets to people. Those who can afford it buy maize through the government-run Grain Marketing Board, when it is available.

Those who cannot afford to buy it get humanitarian food rations, mainly from the U.N. World Food Program. The WFP says it expects to feed more than five million Zimbabweans between now and the harvest next year, nearly one-half of the population.

Human Rights Watch says the government's Grain Marketing Board is corrupt, and is manipulating the food supply for political reasons. Zimbabwe has angrily denied those allegations. A government spokesman called Human Rights Watch a tool of the British government.

Zimbabwe's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change has long complained about food being used as a political weapon.

Party spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi says MDC members can rarely buy maize, even if they have money, because the Grain Marketing Board will only sell it to supporters of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

"Of course, we have numerous examples where food that is provided to the Grain Marketing Board by donor funds is purchased corruptly by those that are well-connected," he said. "And even when it gets down the distribution line, it is still bought by those that are expected to produce membership cards. We have abundant evidence to that effect."

There are other ways that food gets used as a weapon in Zimbabwe. The MDC secretary for legal affairs, David Coltart, is a member of parliament from the southern city of Bulawayo. He says during recent city council elections, he saw ample evidence that the ruling party was using food to influence voters.

"In my constituency, which is a working-class area of Bulawayo, at two of the three polling stations, there were large quantities of grain left and guarded by ZANU-PF operatives, within 100 meters of the polling stations," he said. "People were told the food would not be distributed until the results of the election were made public. And if they went the right way for ZANU-PF, then that food would be distributed. So that's as recently as August."

Human Rights Watch says because of corruption in the Grain Marketing Board, much of the maize that is supposed to be sold at subsidized prices ends up either on the black market or in neighboring countries, where it can be sold at a much higher price. The report says the resulting shortages mean that more people must rely on international assistance and relief aid.

The World Food Program has been appealing to donor nations for more help in meeting Zimbabwe's humanitarian needs. But WFP spokesman Mike Huggins says donors are very concerned about keeping their donated food separate from the highly politicized government supply, and that has made it harder for the agency to raise funds.

"I think from WFP's perspective, we have done absolutely everything possible to ensure that our food gets to those people who need it the most in what is a very difficult situation," added Mr. Huggins. "So apart from increasing our monitoring capacity in Zimbabwe, there is little more that we can do to actually reassure the outside world that food is reaching those who need it."

Relief agency sources confirm a Human Rights Watch allegation that some donors are putting conditions on their aid to Zimbabwe. They say the European Union, Britain and the United States are reluctant to fund aid programs targeting newly resettled farmers, who have benefited from Zimbabwe's controversial land-reform program.

That fact has also spurred criticism in the Human Rights Watch report, which urges those donors to reconsider their policy. The group says they have a duty under international law to assist all those who are in need.