A Zimbabwe judge has confirmed that President Robert Mugabe’s henchmen bought over opposition members with food in the March general election and threatened hungry peasants with starvation if they failed to back his ruling Zanu PF party.
“It was made clear to the villagers that supporting the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) meant going without food,” said High Court Judge Rita Makarau in a written judgment on the election process in Makoni North, a rural constituency, 80 miles south-east of Harare.
The judge quoted the “sad example” of one villager attending a public meeting exchanging his MDC T-shirt for a bag of food. “The other MDC members were then invited to do likewise if they wanted the food hand-outs,” the judge said.
Judge Makarau said Zanu PF village leaders and veterans of Mr Mugabe’s forces during the war for independence had used food to manipulate local voters. Journalists and human rights monitors reported that rural Zimbabweans were refused permission to buy grain from the only legal cereals trader, the government’s Grain Marketing Board, in the run up to the March election, in which Zanu PF won 78 of 120 seats. But Judge Makarau’s judgment is the first time that anyone in Mr Mugabe’s administration has admitted that food has been used as a political weapon.
Nathan Shamuyarira, the Zanu PF spokesman, said: “I can’t comment because I haven’t seen the judgment.”
The MDC challenged the election results in Makoni North but Judge Makarau refused to overturn the results saying it was unclear if the food-for-votes campaign was authorised by Mr Mugabe or local agents.
David Coltart, the legal secretary for the MDC, said the judgment on the facts was fair. “It was disappointing that having found that food was used as a political weapon she then failed to find this had a material effect on the result.”
Six months before the election Mr Mugabe stopped food distribution except to targeted groups such as orphans and those with HIV Aids, and claimed a record maize crop was grown the previous summer. He said Zimbabweans would “choke” if they were given any more food.
Details of domestic grain reserves, or lack of them, are an unofficial state secret and not even the UN can find out whether Zimbabwe has any food in storage. Last weekend up to 80 people armed with spears and axes launched a series of potato raids on several farms near the capital, injuring security guards and killing five dogs, the state’s Herald newspaper reported yesterday.
The UN’s World Food Programme is due to begin feeding up to four million hungry Zimbabweans, or a third of the population, at the end of this month. Mr Mugabe told Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary-general, in New York last month that traditional leaders, who are civil servants, should distribute food and not non-governmental organisations.
“What we do not want is for the UN to give grain to NGOs so they make politics out of it,” Mr Mugabe reportedly told Mr Annan.