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Food Situation Worsens in Zimbabwe

President Robert Mugabe was quoted in the state media this week as saying Zimbabwe would accept grain from the United Nations, but he wants it distributed by traditional leaders. The president made the statement as the summer heat was beginning, and many communities are crying out for food aid.

The Zimbabwe government has admitted in the state media that by December people in some areas of the country will need food aid.

But officials are insisting, in public at least, that traditional leaders distribute the food aid, which is being donated mainly by the United States, Britain, and the European Union.

President Mugabe told the Herald newspaper, that traditional leaders were best equipped to handle the distribution. He said non-governmental organizations had political agendas and he had relayed his views to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan during their recent meeting in New York.

Opposition member of parliament Welshman Ncube, from Southern Zimbabwe, says food aid is needed now. He says it is not only rural people who need food, but those in urban areas like second-city Bulawayo in the dry Matabelaland Province.

Mr. Ncube says hunger is obvious in the streets of Bulawayo, and in particular in the high density townships.

He says people have no food in their homes, they have no resources for medical treatment, or even funds to bury their dead.

Mr. Ncube says many traditional leaders were part of the ruling Zanu PF and would not distribute food fairly when, and if, it is allowed into the country.

"Our view is clearly that Mugabe is forever playing politics, dirty, wicked politics," he said. "Mugabe has appropriated the institution of traditional leaders and is using it as an instrument of coercion against people, which is why he is so determined to ensure that they are the ones who distribute food, they are the ones who produce lists of Zanu-PF members they give food to, only Zanu PF, they are the front line soldiers today of Zanu-PF wickedness in the communities."

The opposition leader says non-governmental organizations would be better positioned to distribute food aid because they are professional and have a reputation in Zimbabwe for being fair.

"The reason Mugabe does not want food to be distributed by the NGOs is precisely because he will not control that food in order to manipulate the rural communities, people will then be free to exercise their political choice," he added. "The international community must continue to insist that if there is to be any food aid that food has to be distributed through non partisan NGO communities who are blind to political affiliation of individuals and give food to every Zimbabwean who is hungry, MDC, Zanu PF or apolitical."

The United Nations estimates up to four million people, or a third of the population of Zimbabwe will need emergency food aid between now and harvest time in April.

Most humanitarian agencies have refused to speak on the record to journalists in Zimbabwe, saying privately that if they do the government might be offended and limit their ability to alleviate suffering.

Foreign donors say the United Nations is busy preparing for food aid to be distributed beginning at the end of October, a month later than planned earlier.