Conflicted Zimbabwe Accepts UN Food Aid, Then Backtracks

HARARE, Zimbabwe, June 2, 2005 (ENS) - With drought, hunger and disease facing much of Zimbabwe's population, a senior United Nations official met Wednesday with President Robert Mugabe in the nation's capital to discuss ways of alleviating the food shortage. After the meeting, UN officials said Zimbabwe will once again accept international food aid, after rejecting aid last year.

James Morris, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, met President Mugabe on the last leg of his 11 day, four-nation tour to refocus attention on how the severe problems of the region have been intensified by drought and HIV/AIDS. Morris also visted Botswana, Malawi and Zambia.

Mugabe agreed to meet with the WFP chief in response to a request by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The Zimbabwe government says at least 2.8 million of its 11.6 million people require food aid due to poor harvests caused by drought. Aid agencies say that up to five million people are in need of help. The aid planned for Zimbabwe could feed up to four million people this year, UN officials said. Mugabe

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe met with World Food Programme chief James Morris on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy UN)
The 81 year old president, who has governed Zimbabwe since 1980, said his government now is willing to accept food aid as long as it comes without political strings attached. Mugabe has rejected food aid last year, saying Zimbabwe could feed itself.

WFP spokesperson Mike Huggins, who is travelling with Morris, said political conditions are never placed on UN aid.

Morris, briefing reporters in Johannesburg, South Africa after his visit to Harare, said Mugabe had agreed to accept UN food aid and made a "strong commitment" to allow nongovernmental organizations to distribute it.

But today, Zimbabwean Minister of Social Welfare Nicholas Goche told state radio that the country did not ask for and does not need the food aid the United Nations has promised.

Goche said Zimbabwe has purchased 1.2 metric tons of corn from South Africa, and claimed that is enough to ease shortages caused by drought. He said "Zimbabwe is not making any request for international aid, but welcomes any that comes," he said.

Mugabe and his ministers are sensitive to any criticism of its controversial five year old program of seizing white-owned land to give to new black farmers. The program has slashed agricultural production in Zimbabwe, once considered the region's breadbasket.


World Food Programme chief James Morris heads the world's largest humanitarian aid agency. (Photo courtesy UNESCO)
Morris's mandate included discussion of a United Nations proposal for an internationally sponsored land reform program in Zimbabwe. But Mugabe rejected the proposal drafted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization although it contains guarantees of compensation for farm owners and training for landless poor.

The economy of Zimbabwe is teetering on the edge of collapse, and the country’s humanitarian situation is the worst it has been since independence a quarter of a century ago, according to aid agencies.

Food, fuel and other basic necessities are in short supply, and prices soared after the March 31 parliamentary elections. The government raised staple food prices in April and devalued its currency by 45 percent.

Zimbabwe suffers from one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection, which today stands at 25 percent, together with plummeting life expectancy, and a catastrophe in orphans unlike any the world has ever seen - almost one in five children have been orphaned by HIV-AIDS.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) calls the situation of children in Zimbabwe "dire."

"Coping mechanisms of most Zimbabweans have been exceeded and they are increasingly relying on dangerous or damaging survival strategies such as poaching, prostitution and theft, which will have severe medium-term effects on the population, the natural resource base and the environment," UNICEF says.

Meanwhile, Wednesday, Zimbabwean police continued throwing informal traders in Harare out of their places of business, which the government has declared to be "illegal places." Across the country, police have arrested more than 22,000 people in the past two weeks. More than two million people could be affected across the country.

The central government and local authorities embarked upon a "cleanup" operation May 19, "necessitated not only by the need to tidy up central business districts and residential areas in urban centres, but also by the need to bring orderliness," the government said in the state-run newspaper "Zimbabwe Herald."

Harare has 25,000 registered informal traders plus 50,000 others who were operating illegally, according to government figures. Since the "cleanup" began, thousands of street vendors have been arrested and their goods seized.

Security Minister Didymus Mutasa said in a radio interview that there was no mass arrest of street vendors. "These were people who were leaving their rural homes and they should return there," Mutasa said.

Using bulldozers, torches, and sledgehammers, police have destroyed stalls and homes in urban slums around the country, leaving thousands of people homeless.

The Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises Development has decided to "regroup and grade the affected informal traders and manufacturers," and reorganize them and "house them in proper infrastructure at designated points."

"Informal traders will be regrouped in accordance with their infrastructure needs such as factory shells and common service centres, artisans’ hives, commercial centers, flea markets, vendor marts-people’s markets and people’s shops," the government said.

Morris said, "Amidst all this suffering, I have seen tremendous resilience, dignity and determination. When I look into the eyes of a young mother who has lost her husband and three children to AIDS and malnutrition, and yet remains determined to secure the best possible chances for her surviving baby, I am humbled.

"We owe her – and millions more just like her – our continuing support and best efforts," he said.

In Washington, DC, Zimbabwe’s political and economic turmoil was on the agenda at Wednesday's meeting of President George W. Bush and South African President Thabo Mbeki.


South African President Thabo Mbeki clasps hands with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House, June 1, 2005. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
"[We're] obviously concerned about a country that was able to feed herself and now has to import food, as an example of the consequence of not adhering to democratic principles," Bush said.

To help the people of Zimbabwe overcome their political problems, President Mbeki called for political arrangements to address the rule of law, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly that would require Zimbabweans to look at their constitution and their legislation.

"And this is a direction in which we're trying to encourage them to move," Mbeki said, "so that they create this political basis where everybody is comfortable that you've got a stable, democratic system in the country, which is critically fundamental to addressing these other major challenges of ensuring the recovery of the economy of Zimbabwe, and really improving the lives of the people. So that's the direction we're taking."

President Bush says he intends to advance what he described as "the compassion agenda" to provide economic and humanitarian assistance to African nations in need when he attends the upcoming Group of Eight (G8) summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, July 6 to 8. Host UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has placed African aid on top of the G8 agenda.

The G8 includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia.

In response, Mbeki said, "The forthcoming G8 summit in Camp Gleneagles in Scotland has the possibility to communicate a very strong, positive message about movement on the African continent away from poverty and underdevelopment and its conflicts," and he added that Bush's "contribution to the practical outcomes" of the meeting "is critically important."

But, said Bush, it is important for African nations to understand that aid has become "a two-way street."

"Countries such as ours are not going to want to give aid to countries that are corrupt," Bush said, "or don't hold true to democratic principles, such as rule of law and transparency and human rights and human decency."