JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 11 -- The Zimbabwean government, backing off forecasts of a bumper harvest, announced Friday that 1.5 million people were in immediate need of food aid, especially in the country's drought-stricken southern provinces.
The state-controlled Herald newspaper in Harare, the capital, reported that the government planned to spend about $8 million to buy and distribute more than 15,000 tons of corn meal, the staple food in southern Africa, in the weeks leading up to nationwide parliamentary elections March 31.
Ignatius Chombo, Zimbabwe's acting minister of public service, labor and social welfare, said needy households would each receive a 110-pound bag of corn meal, as well as about $5 in cash to help buy food, the Herald reported.
The announcement drew immediate criticism from opposition leaders, human rights activists and other government critics who warned that in the previous two national elections -- in 2000 and 2002 -- President Robert Mugabe's ruling party used food handouts to garner votes. Mugabe has been in power since 1980.
"They want to control the food and politicize it," said Pius Ncube, the Catholic archbishop of Zimbabwe's second-largest city and one of Mugabe's most vocal critics. "They'd rather kill people for the sake of power."
Ncube said the announcement was part of a strategy that began last May, when Mugabe called on international food donors to leave Zimbabwe. "We are not hungry . . . Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough," Mugabe told Britain's Sky News.
The U.N. World Food Program, World Vision and other donors sharply curtailed their operations soon after, leaving the government as the primary source of emergency food aid.
The government also has limited the purchase and transport of corn meal by individuals. Roadblocks have been set up on main roads, and Zimbabweans caught carrying more than two or three of the bags can face fines or imprisonment.
Zimbabwe was once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa because of its copious production and export of corn, tobacco and other commodities. But agricultural output has plummeted since 2000, when Mugabe sanctioned violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms. Many once-productive fields have turned brown and are overgrown with weeds. As recently as 2002, the World Food Program fed more than half the population.
Production appeared to increase early last year after months of heavy rainfall. Mugabe ejected international teams charged with measuring output but said Zimbabwe would produce more corn than in any year since the land seizures began.
The Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party, charged that such food aid was already being used to buy support, especially in rural areas.
"It has already begun, using food as a weapon," said Paul Themba Nyathi, a party spokesman. "Government is already saying to these communities, should you vote against government, should you vote for opposition, you won't get food."