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On Old Trade of Food for Votes, Tables Could Turn in Zimbabwe

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 30, 2005

ZHULUBE, Zimbabwe Hundreds of bags of corn meal were stacked in front of a bar near here this month, rising as high as its roof. The only problem for the hungry people of this drought-stricken area was that the food, like the bar, was controlled by officials from the ruling party. With a crucial election nearing, they weren't about to give it to just anyone.

The officials first held a rally by their impressive mound of food, witnesses here said. The next day, as hundreds of people from surrounding villages gathered to collect the 110-pound bags they had ordered and paid for months before, ruling party officials announced that only their supporters were eligible. When the names of opposition voters were called, they were simply handed back their money, according to several people who were turned away. The leftover bags went on sale hours later for twice the price.

Human rights reports say withholding food from opponents is nothing new for the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, the party of President Robert Mugabe. But this year, the threat of starvation is creating a potentially potent backlash against ZANU-PF.

Many people in this tiny, impoverished village in southern Zimbabwe say that their votes in Thursday's national parliamentary elections will be based less on their immediate food needs than on which party offers the best chance to reverse Zimbabwe's five-year-old economic decline and end recurrent food shortages. Opposition party leaders say the issue might represent their best chance to make inroads into Mugabe's traditionally strong rural support.

Among those who went home empty-handed here on March 19 was Thenji Matema, 48, a lean and soft-spoken widow supporting a daughter and four grandchildren on the roughly $25 she earns each month selling mats that she weaves by hand. Matema said she walked away furious and doubly determined to vote for the opposition--even if she has to drink tea to curb her hunger before her one daily meal, and serve meat to her family only once a week.

"It's better I suffer than vote for ZANU-PF," Matema said. She later elaborated on her distaste for the ruling party. It is not only its role in mismanaging the food situation, she said, but "that they are forcing people to do what they want. People don't like that."

Mugabe's party has manipulated voter rolls and is likely to send the politically loyal military to oversee polling stations and ballot counting, human rights groups say. Even the most enthusiastic opposition activists say this rigging makes outright victory for the opposition unlikely.

Mugabe, in power since this nation's independence in 1980, can neutralize all but a landslide win for the opposition because he directly appoints 30 of the 150 members in parliament. His current six-year term lasts through 2008.

But if a single issue dominates political discussions this election season in Zimbabwe, it is the growing problem of hunger, as evidenced by the thousands of acres of wilted corn plants that can be seen, brown and dying, across a country once regarded as southern Africa's breadbasket. International groups that monitor famine say nearly half of Zimbabwe's 13 million people might need food aid in the coming months.

Less than a year ago, Mugabe boasted of a bumper harvest to come and ordered international food donors to cease general feeding programs in what many political analysts in Zimbabwe regarded as an attempt to gain control of all food stocks before the election. In a rare interview with an international news organization in May, he told Britain's Sky News, "We are not hungry . . . Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough."

But Zimbabwe, which was already suffering food production declines after the violent seizures of white-owned commercial farms beginning in 2000, was soon hit by a drought, one that has also hobbled food production in neighboring Zambia and Botswana.

Farmers who grow their own food on small patches of land suddenly faced a near-total loss of their staple crop, corn, which is milled into a fine grist, then boiled into a stiff mush that is central to Zimbabweans' daily diets.

Mugabe has belatedly acknowledged the drought and food shortage, telling supporters at campaign rallies that he will prevent mass starvation by importing food from neighboring South Africa, where modern irrigation systems make farms resistant to drought. In state-owned newspapers, top ruling party officials in Zimbabwe have called reports that they are using food as an election tool "completely unsubstantiated and untrue."

Such reports have been widespread for many years, detailed in accounts by independent journalists and such groups as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Catholic Archbishop Pius A. Ncube, a leading critic of Mugabe in nearby Bulawayo, said the use of food as a weapon was common throughout the country this election year, as it was in 2000 and 2002. "They are totally corrupt, and they will use anything to protect their power," he said.

Here in Zhulube, 82-year-old Asa Sibanda said her refusal to support ZANU-PF had cut her off for years from food reserves controlled by the government and the party. Instead, she supports herself, five orphaned grandchildren and one great-grandchild by selling chickens and getting occasional gifts of corn meal from her son, who lives nearby. Her total income, she said, is a few dollars each month.

Though she did not get government food, she used to get regular deliveries of corn meal, beans and other food from international aid groups. But in the middle of last year, Mugabe ordered an end to such efforts. As for the chickens, only eight are left.

Sibanda said some people in her village would vote for the ruling party out of fear that government food aid will otherwise be withheld. "Most people, they are not voting for ZANU-PF, but they are voting for food," she said. Yet she and many other opposition supporters will not be doing the same, she said. "I choose to die rather than be arm-twisted to go back to ZANU-PF."

Hunger has become a central rallying point for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which features images of green, fertile fields and well-stocked grocery shelves in its television ads.

A victory for the opposition, party members say, would allow Zimbabwe to rapidly repair the international relations of a country that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January called one of the world's "outposts of tyranny." Major food aid, plus a resumption of foreign investment, say opposition leaders, would quickly follow.

Matema, the widow, is ready for some good news. In October and November, three of her four head of cattle died as a result of the drought. The following month -- two days before Christmas -- her husband died. Later, when the rains failed in January and February, her fields of corn turned brown, leaving only a handful of plants with enough water to grow cobs with edible kernels. An adjacent field of peanuts was also a nearly total loss.

"We are hoping for a change," she said.

Zimbabweans wait to buy food from the government, which denied food aid to the opposition.

Thenji Matema finds a rare, usable corn cob in her field, which, like many corn fields in Zimbabwe, has been virtually destroyed by drought.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company