Elders ban blow to aid hopes

HARARE, ZIMBABWE – By banning the visit of three high-profile international figures, President Robert Mugabe has thwarted an opportunity to convince international relief agencies to send aid to the beleaguered country, Zimbabwe's NGOs said this week.

On November 21 Mugabe refused permission to three members of the International Organisation the Elders — former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, former United States president Jimmy Carter and international advocate for women’s and children’s rights Graça Machel — to enter the country.

The delegation had planned to visit Zimbabwe to assess the impact of the humanitarian crisis unravelling there, where more than half the population is starving and the number of deaths from a cholera outbreak is approaching 300.

Fambai Ngirande, a spokesperson for umbrella organisation the National Association of NGOs, told IWPR the visit was a perfect opportunity to highlight Zimbabweans’ need for food and other essential drugs.

Ngirande, whose organisation sent dossiers to the trio chronicling the humanitarian crisis in the country, said Zimbabwe urgently needed international aid to counter overwhelming levels of destitution there.

Annan, Carter and Machel were in a position to launch a campaign for the country, which, he said, is becoming increasingly isolated by the international donor community because of its leaders’ intransigence.

But a chance to secure this support has been lost "due to the government’s selfish political interests", he said. "The actions of the Zimbabwean government [in preventing the visit] do not help anyone at all as they portray the country as an unfavourable donor destination."

Ngirande said the daily struggle for survival of ordinary Zimbabweans has become unbearable.

"The lives of millions are under threat as they face serious food and water shortages and a breakdown in the health service, as evidenced by the closure of hospitals," he said.

Useni Sibanda, coordinator of the Christian Alliance of Zimbabwe, agreed that the banned visit meant an opportunity had been lost to garner support for the country. The delegation would, among other things, have highlighted the plight of Zimbabweans who, in addition to suffering starvation, are dying of curable diseases like cholera, he maintained. "[The ban on the visit] exposes the heartless[ness] of the Zanu-PF leadership, which does not have the interests of the ordinary people at heart," said Sibanda.

According to Sibanda refusing the Elders entry into the country has also done longer-term damage. "This diplomatic blunder will have a negative impact in that it sends a signal to donors that Zimbabwe does not need international assistance. It would appear the government is in denial."

He said he thought the government wanted to perpetuate the myth that all is well in the country.

"If they don’t have anything to hide, why not allow the delegation in to see the hunger stalking both urban and rural dwellers?" he asked.

According to reports, Machel said that the government’s ban on the visit was "deeply regrettable".

Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe