Thursday, June 05, 2008

Political obscenity in Zimbabwe & Rome

Skirting some restrictions on his international travel, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe arrived in Rome over the weekend to attend a United Nations food conference, and raised protests on Monday from some European and other officials. [....]

The Australian foreign minister, Stephen Smith, who is also set to attend the conference [....] said of Mr. Mugabe: “This is the person who has presided over the starvation of his people. This is the person who has used food aid in a politically motivated way. So Robert Mugabe turning up to a conference dealing with food security or food issues is, in my view, frankly obscene.” [....]

But the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which has convened the gathering, brusquely rejected the criticism. [....] (New York Times 6/3/2008)
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Zimbabweans — orphans and old people, the sick and the down and out — have lost access to food and other basic humanitarian assistance as their government has clamped down on international aid groups it says are backing the political opposition, relief agencies say.

In recent days, CARE, one of the largest nonprofit groups working in the country, has been ordered by the Zimbabwean government to suspend all its operations, which help 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable people. This month alone, CARE would have fed more than 110,000 people in schools, orphanages, old-age homes and in various programs, it said.

But the aid restrictions go far beyond any one group. Muktar Farah, deputy head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Zimbabwe, said Tuesday that millions of people had lost assistance because of what he called “the shrinking of humanitarian space.” [....]

Aid workers and human rights groups say the restrictions are meant to prevent them from witnessing attacks on opposition supporters, often in nighttime raids, amid the government’s increasingly violent and deadly crackdown on those it sees as a threat to its hold on power.

The United Nations Children’s Fund said Monday that 10,000 children had been displaced by the violence, scores had been beaten and some schools had been taken over by pro-government forces and turned into centers of torture. In a statement, it expressed worry about the welfare of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable and orphaned children, given how many aid groups have restricted their operations “due to threats, requests to do so by authorities or general ‘concern at current uncertainties’.”

Zimbabwean political analysts and civic leaders say that Mr. Mugabe and ZANU-PF, his governing party, are themselves seeking to use food as a political weapon in a country, once the region’s bread basket, where hunger now afflicts millions. The government recently bought 600,000 tons of corn. By barring NGOs from giving out food in some areas, the governing party controls food distribution and can use it as an inducement to win support. [....]

As Zimbabwe’s economy has collapsed, unemployment has risen to more than 80 percent, and hyperinflation has made food ever more costly, Zimbabweans have engaged in an ever more desperate struggle just to survive.

“Zimbabwe is a huge patronage system, and ZANU-PF drives that system,” [Zimbabwean political scientist Eldred] Masunungure said. “Food distribution is not only a matter of life and death to recipients, but it’s a strategic political resource that the government deploys to promote its political agenda.” [....] (New York Times 6/4/2008)
--Jeff Weintraub