"This is not about politics. This is just about food!"

Goodwill Murinwe was making a fiery speech, and hundreds of villagers were listening to every word. That's because they were hungry, and Murinwe was explaining how the World Food Program would select 89,000 of them for emergency maize handouts in this district of dusty fields and mud huts.

"This food is only for the most vulnerable people!" shouted Murinwe, a program manager for Catholic Relief Services here. "We don't care which party you support. Politics has nothing to do with this!"

But in today's Zimbabwe, politics has something to do with just about everything -- especially food. With more than half the nation's 12 million citizens at risk of starvation, there is strong evidence that President Robert Mugabe's ruling party has used food as an instrument of power -- to reward allies, punish opponents and attract new supporters.

The group Physicians for Human Rights concluded in a recent report that "the political abuse of food is the most serious and widespread human rights violation in Zimbabwe at this time." Officials in Mugabe's party -- the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) -- have been spotted distributing maize at party rallies, in party offices and sometimes out of their own back doors. And while most of the problems have involved food controlled by Mugabe's government -- which holds a strict monopoly on grain imports here -- at times politics has interfered with international food aid as well.

In Insiza, the World Food Program had to suspend food aid for two months after ZANU-PF activists seized three tons of its maize. In Binga, ZANU-PF officials barred the Catholic Church and the nonprofit Save the Children (UK) from distributing food to the poor after the area voted en masse for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Here in Makonde, where World Food Program officials recently invited reporters in an effort to show that international food aid is nonpartisan, local activists offered several examples of intimidation and politicization surrounding government food aid.

U.S. diplomats have accused Mugabe of using food as a political weapon, and one even threatened that the problem "may bring us face-to-face with Zimbabwe's sovereignty." The European Union's president accused Mugabe of using aid "as a tool in the domestic fight against the opposition." Even Mugabe, who routinely blames whites and opposition activists for his nation's crises, has publicly acknowledged serious corruption in his government's food distribution network.

"I am told some senior officials use their influence to get maize and resell it at the expense of our people," Mugabe, 78, said at a recent ceremony to commemorate National Planting Day. "Those who are doing that should stop it forthwith."

Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980. After he almost lost power in March, narrowly defeating the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai in a highly disputed election marred by widespread violence, he vowed to rein in dissenters. "We'll make them run. We won't pander to them any longer," Mugabe said at a post-election ZANU-PF celebration recorded on videotape. "We're in a new phase, a new chapter, and there will be firm government. Very firm."

The result was new laws cracking down on journalists, outlawing the most prominent Zimbabwean human rights group and requiring police permission for all public assemblies. MDC officials say they are constantly harassed, assaulted and arrested. Didymus Mutasa, ZANU-PF's organizing secretary, notoriously proclaimed at an August rally that "we would be better off with only 6 million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don't want all these extra people."

Still, suggestions by human rights groups, MDC activists and foreign diplomats that Mugabe has launched a genocidal attempt to starve his opposition seem stronger than the evidence supporting them. In Zimbabwe, as in much of southern Africa, rural villagers are increasingly malnourished after two straight years of drought, but they do not look like skeletons, and they are not dying in droves. Foreign donors have managed to get some food into Zimbabwe without passing it through the government's hands.

Still, it is clear that Mugabe's land redistribution program -- which has ousted most of the nation's white commercial farmers, often in favor of ZANU-PF loyalists with no agricultural experience -- has been a major cause of the nation's food crisis.

Before the land grabs, Zimbabwe had been a key exporter of grain; the World Food Program had a procurement office here, but no distribution office. Now, farm production is down by more than 50 percent, and the country is desperately short of maize and other staples.

It is also clear that some ZANU-PF officials have taken advantage of those shortages to steer food in politically advantageous directions -- and, at times, to enrich themselves. In the Nkayi district, for example, Physicians for Human Rights collected 1,437 allegations of MDC supporters being denied access to food, and unearthed a local ZANU-PF official's memo declaring that government food programs and land distributions should be restricted to ruling party members. MDC officials, the official wrote, "have clearly demonstrated that they don't want land. They should go stay with their whites and their Tsvangirai."

Here in Makonde, MDC officials say that a local ZANU-PF leader sold an illicit shipment of maize at the Godzi Primary School on March 27, slashing prices for ZANU-PF members. Lecks Machiridze, a deputy chief in the district, says that a top party official warned him that his constituents would be denied food unless he started attending ZANU-PF meetings and that government food would be reserved for its supporters.

"They control the food, and they make sure it goes where they want it to go," said Tonderai Ndira, 26, an MDC activist who is Machiridze's son. "Just look at who's in charge of the process."

There are two official processes for distributing maize in Zimbabwe: The government sells it cheaply through its Grain Marketing Board, the nation's only legal grain importer, and the World Food Program gives it away through government-approved nonprofit groups. Originally, Mugabe's government tried to insist that WFP officials distribute grain through its party-controlled marketing board as well, but they refused. The haggling delayed WFP operations by more than three months, and ZANU-PF officials continue to block some grain shipments at the border. Tony Hall, the U.S. ambassador to the food program, recently asked one of Mugabe's top aides: "Why do I get the impression that I have to beg you to feed your people?"

Overall, though, WFP officials point out that they have distributed 100,000 metric tons of food and have lost only the three tons in Insiza; they say they are keeping their own distributions as apolitical as possible. They rely on local politicians and chiefs to tell them who needs food most, but they conduct independent reviews to make sure they're not misled.

"I'm not saying there haven't been efforts to interfere, but we're reaching the people we want to reach," said Kevin Farrell, the WFP's top official in Zimbabwe.

In Makonde, for example, a ZANU-PF politician, Dan Zvobgo, is chairman of the local distribution committee, but Catholic Relief Services workers kept close watch as residents registered for their food. Zvobgo and the local ZANU-PF chairman, Fannie Chikomba, brought two police officers with them to the registration, but they did not make any public speeches.

"You heard them say very clearly that there is no politics with food," Chikomba said in an interview. "The opposition may come up with a storm in a teacup, but I tell you this food is distributed fairly."

But the Grain Marketing Board has distributed three times as much food as the WFP. And almost everyone outside the ruling party hierarchy agrees that the control of that process by ZANU-PF board members, officials and party-approved millers and shopkeepers is almost absolute.

In recent weeks, the most intense politics around food has swirled in Kuwadzana, a district in the capital, Harare, that will soon hold a special election to replace a deceased member of parliament.

All maize in Kuwadzana is milled by David Mutasa, a ZANU-PF politician who is a nephew of the party secretary and may run for the open seat. MDC officials say some of the maize is then distributed to selected shops -- one controlled by a ZANU-PF ward chairman, one by a party militant -- where it is sold at the low official prices to anyone with a ZANU-PF card. They say the rest is repackaged and sold on the black market at inflated prices by local party officials.

"It's good business, and it's good politics," said Basil Nyabadza, a Kuwadzana exporter who owns the warehouse where the Mutasa family operates its mill. "People are hungry. Maybe they'll vote for the man who gets them food. But who knows? Maybe they'll buy his maize and vote MDC anyway."

In interviews around Kuwadzana, dozens of MDC supporters said they were turned away from bread lines at ZANU-PF-controlled shopping centers. Several said they had purchased ZANU-PF cards in order to eat. Emilia Mukusha, a 68-year-old former street cleaner who is blind in one eye, said she joined the party she despises to stave off starvation.

"I hated to get the card, but I'll die without it," said Mukusha, a widow with eight unemployed children. "It doesn't matter. I'm still MDC all the way."

But Zvobgo, the ZANU-PF food official in Makonde, said the MDC's complaints are just sour grapes. Sure, he said, the opposition is hungry.

In Zimbabwe, he said, everyone is hungry.

"When the cake is small for sharing, everyone complains about his portions," Zvobgo said. "But this government is doing its best for everyone."

Despite drastic food shortages in Zimbabwe, workers in ruling party politician David Mutasa's mill show off maize.