More food for thought over Zimbabwe
More food for thought over Zimbabwe
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

More food for thought over Zimbabwe

THE Zimbabwean government raised a few eyebrows in May when it announced its projection of a maize crop of 2.4 million tonnes, overcoming the challenges of inconsistent rains, inadequate agricultural equipment and insufficient seed.

The estimate is only about one-third true and, in the coming year, Zimbabwe will suffer a grain shortfall of 6-900,000 tonnes, or between one-third and one-half of national consumption.

Robert Mugabe’s regime has stopped the UN’s World Food Programme from carrying out its independent crop estimate. Further, it has told international donors that it will no longer accept food aid.

Instead, the government will quietly import more grain into the country – already there are reports that it has entered into a contract with an American company to supply food – and thereby ensure that it has full control over its distribution.

To some extent, the government’s act is part of an effort to convince the international community that its land reform has been successful and that is has not led, as independent statistics suggest, to a precipitous decline in agricultural production.

Firstly, however, this was a political measure to suppress opposition further and was the government’s first big move of the 2005 parliamentary elections. The government has used food as a political weapon before: requiring membership in ZANU-PF to qualify for food aid, restricting the sale of food to shops whose owners do not support the government and threatening voters with the retraction of famine relief.

This time, the weapon will be even more powerful. The government has scheduled the elections for March 2005, just before the next harvest, when the population will be most desperate for food.

With complete power over the distribution of food, the government can coerce the population to toe the government line.

Harare is poised to pass a bill that will allow a minister and a commission of his appointees to close down any non-governmental organization or church and imprison its leaders if it voices any criticism of the government, including its distribution of food.

The government recently announced that it had acceded to a few of the demands of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

But it has decided to pick and choose from the demands, identifying reforms that will not hurt the regime and may even help it. For example, in the absence of other reforms, transparent ballot boxes may actually facilitate intimidation.

The regime can afford a few concessions because, with its monopoly on food and violence, it will beat the opposition into submission in the elections.

At this rate, the polls will be a sham and then Zimbabwe may go beyond the point of no return. Elements of the opposition and civil society, disaffected war veterans and youth militia and losers in the ZANU-PF factional battle would likely go underground.

They would operate separately and for different reasons, but they would probably create civil conflict and increase violent criminality.

Democracy promotion in Zimbabwe today has become a conflict prevention imperative.

The European Union, along with the rest of the international community has, so far, failed in its efforts to reverse the crisis in Zimbabwe. It must step up its efforts.

The EU should start by tightening sanctions against regime officials and extend sanctions to the families of these officials and to the businesses in which they have a stake.

It should also increase financial and technical assistance to the beleaguered civil society and opposition forces in Zimbabwe, and work with organizations in South Africa, such as church and trade union groups, to deliver help.

Most importantly, it must convince the regional governments, and foremost South Africa, that they must act to defuse the crisis in Zimbabwe.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has recently endorsed its Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. The Zimbabwean opposition believes that these benchmarks can be helpful, but it insists that the government will only comply under political pressure.

The EU should work with SADC to agree on a procedure for deciding early on whether the electoral process is meeting these benchmarks.

The Union must not wait for the polling day, when just about all the damage to the electoral process will already have been inflicted and when an international response will be too late to influence the government.

These parties must decide on specific retaliatory policies that they will administer if the Zimbabwean government fails to satisfy the requisite standards.

Successful diplomacy can serve to pre-commit the hitherto reticent, and even obstructionist, SADC countries to a more forceful policy towards Zimbabwe.

The EU must push SADC to undertake a concerted effort at resolving regional problems.

It must be convinced to uphold regional standards and persuaded that it simply can no longer allow Zimbabwe to go against the grain.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
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Gideon Maltz
Former Intern, Africa

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