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Opposition, Analysts Fear Zimbabwe May Use Food Distribution as Political Tool - 2004-04-23


Zimbabwe's opposition and independent analysts are expressing concern that the government will use food supplies as a political tool in the run-up to next year's general election. The Zimbabwe government has told donors it will import and distribute food itself, without U.N. involvement, if the present harvest falls short of the nation's needs.

Opposition Movement for Democratic Change agriculture spokesman Renson Gasela this week presented a detailed assessment of the present harvest, the last one before parliamentary elections in March of next year.

His predictions coincide with those recently presented by the regional food security organization, the Famine Early Warning System.

Mr. Gasela estimates that the government will have a shortfall of at least 600,000 tons of grain, and perhaps as much as 900,000 tons. His report also charges that the government has 250,000 tons of maize in stock but has not released any of it, even though people have been dying of hunger, particularly in the Matabeleland province.

In Zimbabwe's food shortfalls of the past two years, the United States, Britain and the European Union have provided funds for the importation of food for an average of about four million people, most of it distributed by the United Nations World Food Program. But the WFP says it has not been asked by the government to continue distributing food beyond its present mandate, which ends in a few weeks.

The Zimbabwe government tried last year to take over distribution of donated food but it retreated when donors protested. Now it says it will import any grain itself.

The opposition's Mr. Gasela appealed this week for foreign donors to remain involved in food distribution ahead of the parliamentary elections. He said there is proof that the Zimbabwe government has used food as a political weapon in the last three years.

Brian Kagoro agrees. He is the co-chairman of the civil rights group, the Crisis Coalition, representing scores of non-governmental organizations. He says the government may find more sophisticated ways to manipulate food distribution than it has used in the past.

Before the international community got involved, the Zimbabwe government often required membership in the ruling ZANU-PF party in order for poor people to receive food aid or participate in food-for-work programs. It also restricted sales to food stores whose owners did not support the government.

Mr. Kagoro says the government may avoid such obvious forms of discrimination against its opponents in the future, in order to avoid criticism from neighboring African countries, but he expects the discrimination to continue.

One government initiative that worries him is the installation of governors in urban areas. The governors are able to overrule elected mayors and councils, most of whom are from the opposition. Recently, the government appointed governors in the two main cities, Harare and Bulawayo. They are both prominent members of the ruling ZANU-PF.

Mr. Kagoro says as urban hunger worsens, at the end of the year, he believes the new governors and the army will be directly involved in food distribution. He says the ruling party already controls food production in rural areas.

Mr. Kagoro, the independent activist, also says it is becoming more difficult to monitor the food distribution process as repression by government security services grows.