By Nonthando Bhebhe in Harare (AR No. 113, 24-May-07)
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 distribution.
By imposing restrictions on non-government organisations, NGOs, officials are curbing their ability to provide food aid. And as international donor 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.
During the liberation struggle in what was then Rhodesia in the Seventies, Ian Smith's white minority regime withheld food from rural areas in an attempt to starve out rebel guerrilla groups.
Soon after independence in 1980, 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.
Local aid groups are now jittery after Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said all NGOs had been "deregistered" and must apply for new licenses to operate. Later, however, the government said it had not banned NGOs but simply put in place new policy guidelines for their registration and operation.
Under the new regulations, NGOs now have to sign a memorandum of understanding with the government department relevant to their specialist area, and can be stripped of their official registration if they are deemed to have exceeded their mandate.
Towards the end of April, Agriculture Minister Rugare Gumbo reiterated the official line that any food aid that appeared to have political strings attached would be blocked.
"Government will certainly sit down and decide which aid agencies or organisations to allow assisting with food distribution," he told the United Nations information agency IRIN. "We realise that there are organisations bent on using aid as a political tool to enhance the interests of the opposition, and we are not going to allow that."
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," Fambai Ngirande, spokesperson for the National Association of NGOs, told IWPR.
"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.
"As we are heading towards 2008, part of the election strategy is to close certain NGOs that deal with governance and human rights issues. They also want to monitor food; and given that it is a drought year, they want to make sure that they are the sole distributors of food aid," he said.
Zimbabwe's food crisis may get worse, as stocks of the staple food item, maize, are said to be running out.
Domestic production of maize, sorghum and millet for the 2006-07 growing season is forecast to be about 50 per cent of the preceding season. Cereal production is forecast to be enough to meet only 40 to 50 per cent of domestic consumption needs.
The United Nations Food Programme says nearly half of Zimbabwe's 13 million people will need food aid this year, and a country which used to export food to its neighbour would need to import two million tons of grain to get through the year.
With no hard currency reserves, the government will almost certainly be unable to pay for adequate grain imports - even taking hundreds of tons of donated food into account.
Ngirabnde 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.
"We are telling our members that pulling out is not the answer, as it will make it worse for ordinary Zimbabweans," he said. "If we stop our activities, the human rights abuses, torture and denial of food because of political affiliation will go on. The situation demands an even greater presence - we simply cannot afford to close down.
"Most of our organisations are funded from outside, the foreign policies of those countries affect resources that come into Zimbabwe. If the food distribution is not done properly, then they would rather go elsewhere where there is also need."
Nonthando Bhebhe is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Zimbabwe.