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How Zimbabwe's leader is using the State grain monopoly and UN food aid for political ends

Sitting dejectedly on a wooden stool, Anderson Mupinda, 79 and blind, leans his head against a walking stick.  "The hunger makes me weak.  From six in the morning to six at night we don't have anything to eat.  I haven't eaten a proper meal for more than a week."  He lifts his ragged T-shirt to show the folds of skin across his stomach.  "There is nothing there.  We only have leaves to eat.  We dry them and then boil them with salt, but there is no salt.  We eat them anyway."  In April, the Mupinda family were given food by the UN World Food Programme.  "The food lasted for a month.  We were supposed to get more, but when the trucks came the war veterans chased them away," Mr Mupinda said.  "They said the food came from whites overseas who support the MDC [the opposition Movement for Democratic Change]."  He makes a clicking sound with his mouth to show disgust.  "What rubbish.  They are keeping food away from us because we support the MDC.  They are starving us.  The only way we can survive is to get this man out and get a new government."

The government does not even deny that it is discriminating.  Last weekend the deputy foreign minister, Abednico Ncube, told a crowd in Matabeleland that anyone who voted for the MDC could not expect to get food aid from the government.  "Maize is in abundance but very soon it will be available only to those who dump the opposition and work with Zanu PF," the Zimbabwe Standard quoted him saying.  "The party will start feeding its children before turning to those of MDC."  Living in the arid Hwange district in western Zimbabwe, Mr Mupinda is one of the thousands of Zimbabweans already hungry because of the food shortage.  His plight is made worse by the fact that the area voted for the MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.  By September the famine will affect nearly six million Zimbabweans, by the government's own estimates.  Many may be denied food because they are suspected of supporting the opposition.

In Binga, on the shore of Lake Kariba, Mr Mugabe's self-styled war veterans have stopped distributing food to school children.  "We have 115 tonnes of fortified porridge which should be delivered to 28,000 students in all the schools in this district," an official of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace said.  "But since May 25 the war veterans have prevented us from distributing that food because they say it comes from the UK and it is being used to support the opposition.  How can five-year-old children know anything about politics?  Our food is just sitting in the warehouse and it is beginning to rot.  That food was the main meal for most schoolchildren in Binga district and now they are not getting it.  It is a crime." Binga district hospital has recorded 27 deaths this year in which malnutrition was a factor.  "Most of those deaths were from malaria, but if the children had enough food, many of them would have survived," a hospital official said.  "The situation is getting worse, not better."

It has taken only 30 war veterans with stones and wooden clubs to stop the food being distributed, but the police refuse to take action against them.  "A small group of fanatics is holding this entire district hostage because the police will not arrest them," Joel Gabbuza, the local MDC MP said.  The state grain marketing board (GMB) has a monopoly on imports and wholesale trade in maize and wheat.  Its depot in Binga sells maize at a relatively affordable controlled price, but only to residents with membership cards for Mr Mugabe's party, Zanu PF.  "The war veterans buy most of the maize meal from the GMB and then they sell it at much higher prices," Mr Gabbuza said.  Many believe that Binga has been singled out for starvation because its people voted overwhelmingly for Mr Tsvangirai in the presidential election in March, giving him 27,000 votes: the most he won in any constituency.  Mr Mugabe got 5,000.  "The government wants to punish us for that vote," Mr Gabbuza said.  Political violence has continued, he added.  "My shop in Senga was destroyed two weeks ago.  Another shop was looted and burned last week.  One of our party officials was beaten and police do nothing to protect us.  We do not feel safe."

Binga is not unique.  In Mberengwa, central Zimbabwe, the MDC says government officials are preventing its members from getting food from the WFP.  Much of the food comes from the British government, and British officials in Harare say they are investigating the complaints.  The High Commission in Harare said: "It is a fundamental principle for the British government, as it is for the World Food Programme and the non-governmental organisations with whom we work, that humanitarian assistance is apolitical, targeted at those most in need.  It is our collective responsibility to ensure that this principle is adhered to on the ground and we are all working to fulfil that responsibility.  We believe that this approach is working.  If there are any allegations of politicisation related to our assistance, both we and WFP want to know about them.  They will be investigated promptly."

Judith Lewis, WFP's Regional Director, says there is "an army of food monitors" to ensure that all the needy get food, not those with a ruling party card.  "We have conveyed to the government our zero-tolerance policy for food aid abuse." But Britain and the UN cannot assure fair sales of maize by the GMB.  First-hand reports have come from Harare, Bulawayo, Murehwa, Mutoko and Chiredzi that people must produce Zanu PF cards to buy maize.  Others say that people pointed out as MDC may be beaten in the queue or have their maize seized.  Despite numerous reports in the independent press the government has not said it intends to change the policy.  In Hwange, Anderson Mupinda rises from his stool and adroitly uses his walking stick to locate a basket of dried leaves.  "I am sorry for you to see me like this.  I only have these leaves to offer you.  The life that we are living here is like being in handcuffs and in jail.  It is hard to look at the future because we are so hungry."

Communion in Mission 2006
The Rt Revd Sebastian Bakare
Bishop of Manicaland, 2002