Zimbabwe, facing fears of widespread famine, has welcomed the resumption of international food donations that could feed up to 4 million people, U.N. officials reported Wednesday. President Robert Mugabe had curtailed such aid last year, saying the country could feed itself.
After meeting with Mugabe in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, U.N officials said the delivery of several hundred thousand metric tons of food would begin as soon as supplies were collected and routed to Zimbabwe. The food will be directed to schools, orphanages and work programs because Zimbabwean officials have objected to the creation of centers that would distribute food to the general population, the officials said.
"It's clear the government of Zimbabwe will welcome support from the international community," said James Morris, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, who spoke at a news conference in Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, after meeting with Mugabe in Harare.
Mugabe's acceptance of food aid follows broad police crackdowns in the nation's cities and growing shortages of such staples as sugar, cornmeal and flour. The plunging value of Zimbabwe's currency and hours-long lines for gasoline have crippled the economy, and few families can afford more than one or two meals a day, rarely with meat.
Presidential spokesman George Charamba, speaking by phone from Harare, said Mugabe stopped short of formally requesting U.N. food aid but made clear Zimbabwe's "openness to countries of goodwill that might want to augment our efforts."
Drought in southern Africa has cut food production in several nations but none so severely as Zimbabwe, which has a population of 12.7 million. The country's agricultural sector is reeling from triple-digit inflation and the effects of a land redistribution program that parceled out white-owned commercial farms to landless blacks and a large number of government officials.
Once known as the breadbasket of southern Africa for its bounteous exports of corn and other staples, Zimbabwe has failed to produce enough food for its own population since the often-violent land seizures began in 2000.
Zimbabwean officials recently placed an order for 1.2 million metric tons of corn from neighboring South Africa to ease this year's shortfall, Charamba said, and the government is seeking an additional 600,000 metric tons to bolster reserves.
Last year, with an election season looming, Mugabe ordered U.N. and other humanitarian agencies to end their general food aid programs, though smaller, targeted efforts to schools and orphanages were allowed to continue.
Mugabe also told Britain's Sky News in May 2004 that Zimbabwe would have a bumper harvest that would provide more than enough food for the nation. "We are not hungry. . . . Why foist this food upon us? We don't want to be choked. We have enough."
International aid agencies subsequently cut their staffs and directed their efforts to other countries. In Zimbabwe, some donated food sat in warehouses for months.
Many critics interpreted Mugabe's cutoff as an attempt to centralize control over food in advance of the March 31 national parliamentary elections. In the months before the vote, human rights groups and religious leaders reported that officials from Mugabe's ruling party were withholding food from political opponents.
Mugabe's governing party dramatically strengthened its control over parliament in that election, which was denounced as rigged by the United States, the European Union and human rights groups.
Since then, shortages have grown more dire, and Mugabe's police force has begun Operation Restore Order, arresting street traders and targeting informal settlements in Harare and other urban areas. More than 22,000 people have been arrested, according to a state-owned newspaper, and countless shacks have been burned down. Many in Zimbabwe regard the campaign as a reprisal against urban dwellers who supported the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, which has called for unspecified "mobilization" to resist the police actions.
Morris said he spoke briefly with Mugabe about the crackdown but added it would have no bearing on food aid.
"I simply told him how important it was to respect the rights of every person," Morris said. "I wish the world was perfect. The job of the World Food Program is to see that people don't starve."