Robert Mugabe lifts ban on aid operations

HARARE – The Zimbabwean government today lifted its three-month ban on famine-relief operations, one of its most notorious strategies which threatened to cause mass-starvation.

The Ministry of Social Welfare said that it would allow humanitarian aid to get to those left most in need by the country’s economic turmoil.

It had imposed a ban on operations on June 4, which was seen as key a part of Robert Mugabe’s campaign for run-off presidential elections in late July. It complemented an offensive against supporters of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which left 120 dead and thousands maimed and homeless.

In a statement broadcast on state radio, the ministry said: “The government has, with immediate effect, lifted the suspension of operations of private voluntary organisations and non-government organisations.” It said the relaxation of the ban applied to organisations “involved in humanitarian food assistance.”

Analysts say the use of food as a political weapon is now an established occurrence ahead of elections in Zimbabwe, with MDC supporters in famine-stricken areas denied food in state food distribution operations, while only those with Zanu (PF) party cards are allowed to benefit.

The government said it had imposed the ban because “Western NGOs” were allegedly using their food distribution operations to persuade people to vote for the MDC. However, it provided no evidence for this claim.

The ban was imposed as the country went into its most disastrous agricultural season, with production of maize, the national staple, at 575,000 tonnes. This is the worst level since independence in 1980, and enough to feed only 28 percent of the population.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation says that, from this month, two million Zimbabweans will need to be fed by aid agencies to avoid starving. By January, the figure will have gone up to five million – almost half the population. According to the World Health Organisation, 30 per cent of people are afflicted by “chronic malnutrition”.

Mr Mugabe ignored appeals from the aid agencies to allow them to continue with emergency feeding operations for millions of children under five years around the country, as well as for HIV-Aids sufferers and the elderly.

As part of a July 21 agreement signed by Mr Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, the President was obliged to allow the resumption of humanitarian aid. His government, however, took no action until today.

No reason was given for the lifting of the ban, but observers point out that the government has been under intense pressure from the United Nations, Western governments and churches. This week, Mr Tsvangirai appealed to Mr Mugabe, saying that he was “receiving reports of rampant starvation throughout the country. If the situation continues unaddressed, death will occur.”

Zimbabwe’s agricultural industry used to feed dozens of other famine stricken African nations, when it was second in the continent behind only South Africa. But it went into dramatic decline when Mr Mugabe began to drive white commercial farmers off their land in 2000.

Millions of acres of once productive fields and pasture now lie fallow, and the country’s farm-driven economy is in ruins, with inflation officially at 22 million percent and gross domestic at about a quarter of what it was in 2000.