Four million people are starving in Zimbabwe, a quarter of the population, and thousands of Robert Mugabe’s political opponents are being turned away empty-handed from emergency food stations, The Independent can reveal.
Only five days before a crucial general election, the embattled president is deliberately starving opposition supporters in a desperate bid to prop up his discredited Zanu-PF Party. What little food is available is being ruthlessly used in a cynical food-for-votes policy to force people to vote for the pariah president.
One of Mr Mugabe’s starving citizens, Million Ndolovu, had spent weeks longing for the arrival of a food shipment. His family had nothing but tea for breakfast and lunch and a meagre dish of boiled maize in the evenings. The 50kg of maize that he was due to receive from the government for which he had paid in advance would feed them for a few more months. But when he arrived at the distribution point he found Simon Maluma, the district chairman of Zanu-PF, sitting on top of the pile of grain. “Maluma told us the food would only go to Zanu supporters,” recalled Mr Ndolovu, 62.
“Opposition supporters were told to move out of the queue instead of embarrassing themselves. I was hungry so I stayed, but they called my name and gave me my money back. I got given no food.”
Mr Ndolovu’s two sons were also denied food. All three of them got back the Z$37,000 (£1.60) they had paid, but in a country where inflation stands at 300 per cent the money will very soon be worthless.
This year, the rains failed and the rivers around Mr Ndolovu’s home in Insiza, Matabeleland are dry; the grain stores empty. Last year, the UN’s World Food Programme was told to stop feeding people in the area. Now, the only grain comes from the government-controlled Grain Marketing Board (GMB).
The Ndolovu family is already close to starvation. When vegetables fail to grow, they eat wild okra, a plant that is traditionally believed to sap men’s strength. “I am accused of absenting myself from Zanu-PF rallies, but I have never attended any party rally,” said Mr Ndolovu, dressed in a neatly pressed grey suit. “I am one of this community’s elders, one of the rain-makers, but I don’t ask for rains along political lines.”
Shari Eppel, the director of the Zimbabwean human rights group Solidarity Peace Trust, said the Mugabe regime had a monopoly on food. “There is no maize in shops in rural areas so the GMB is the only source of food.” Ms Eppel said “In many places, the GMB only sell their grain at Zanu-PF rallies.”
Last year, Mr Mugabe stopped international food donations because he said the country had plenty of food. He told Sky News: “We are not hungry, why foist this food on us? We don’t want to be choked.” Mr Mugabe is determined to destroy the support base for the main opposition party, the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) and is using food as a weapon. Matabeleland, the heartland of MDC support, has felt the full weight of the policy.
“I am crippled, I am hungry, I have nothing,” said Jesilia Sabanda, 69, who used to be a traditional healer until her weak knees stopped her performing the necessary dances.
“All the food is in the hands of Zanu-PF, and I am an MDC supporter. The food is never given to MDC supporters.”
Mrs Sabanda has extra reason to be bitter. The local chief, Thomas Mpofo, who has so enthusiastically linked food distribution to party politics, is her own son-in-law. “Thomas stopped his own nephew and told him that his grandmother would die of hunger if she is determined to support the opposition,” Mrs Sabanda said.
Food has always been a crucial issue for the Mugabe regime. His controversial policy of seizing white-owned farms and handing them to his black supporters, is blamed for destroying the agricultural sector. His critics say the government failed to distribute seed and fertilisers to farmers in time for them to plant crops.
For the first time last week, Mr Mugabe was forced to admit there were food shortages. He responded with an empty promise that he would not let anyone starve. State television later announced the government had bought grain from South Africa to feed people for the next one-and-half years.
“The whole ‘food as a weapon’ system has backfired as the government is getting to a point where it cannot feed its own supporters,” said Ms Eppel. “There is not enough food now for anyone in the rural areas.”
Until now, Mr Mugabe’s food-for-votes policy has been accompanied by intimidation that stopped people speaking out. Asa Sibanda (no relation to Jesilia), aged 82, is well known locally for supporting the MDC, and has been routinely omitted from grain handouts. She had not eaten for days until neighbours gave her maize.
She is fed up. “Yes, you can use my name. And you can take my picture,” she says. “I have nothing left: what can they do to me now? It is better to die of hunger now than join Zanu-PF.”