As the first rains fell in October, farmers flocked to traditional input retailers, only to be told that the government, through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, had bought all the seed from producers and had centralised the distribution of agricultural inputs.
"We received an instruction that the government had purchased all the seed and would be responsible for distribution to the farmers," an official who declined to be identified told IRIN.
"I have been in this business for more than 20 years and I know the government does not have the capacity to distribute seed. The best method is the traditional way of allowing retailers to sell to farmers."
The absence of maize seed came as the Southern Africa Region Climate Outlook Forum, based in neighbouring South Africa, predicted that Zimbabwe would record normal rainfall between October and December, a crucial stage in the growth of the country’s staple food.
The commander of Zimbabwe’s defence forces, General Constantine Chiwenga, assisted by senior military officials, has been given the responsibility of identifying the beneficiaries of agricultural inputs, and maize seed and fertiliser have been handed out at ZANU-PF rallies to party members and senior government officials.
Chiwenga, speaking at the launch of the initiative this week, said: "The distribution of inputs will kick off soon at a lightning speed, and our plan is to make sure that by November 14 this year, seeds should be underground waiting for the rains. This year we must all work together so that we eradicate hunger from our country."
State radio reported that distribution of the maize seed had started in some parts of the country, especially in the provinces of Mashonaland West, Central and East, the traditional support bases of ZANU-PF.
Seed only for senior officials
A ZANU-PF member in Marondera, a large town in Mashonaland East Province, told IRIN that senior army officers responsible for seed distribution were diverting it to the parallel market.
Only a few ZANU-PF provincial leaders were allocated seed and fertiliser, including the "A1" small-scale and communal farmers and the "A2" new black commercial farmers. "Ordinary party members, such as myself and other villagers, [were told] that the inputs had run out," the ZANU-PF member, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.
"Known or suspected Movement for Democratic Change [MDC] supporters did not receive any maize seed or fertiliser from the soldiers, who are responsible for distribution," he said.
MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa told IRIN the military should not be involved in the distribution of agricultural inputs, as they did not have the capacity, and there was a possibility that they would be biased in favour of ZANU-PF supporters.
"There is a lot of disharmony, disunity and acrimony, especially in rural communities, which is being encouraged by ZANU-PF," Chamisa said. "We have received reports of the isolation of MDC members, and this points at ZANU-PF’s insincerity about the whole process of dialogue and a new beginning."
A power-sharing deal signed on 15 September between the MDC and ZANU-PF has stalled, and the two parties are using increasingly acrimonious language against each other.
Renson Gasela, the MDC agricultural secretary and a former chief executive officer of the Grain Marketing Board, a parastatal grain monopoly, told IRIN that "we are heading for another disaster because the seed and fertiliser, which should be with the farmers, cannot be found."
The UN estimates that more than five million Zimbabweans – or nearly half the population – will require emergency food assistance in the first quarter of 2009.
On 23 October Parliament introduced a motion that the food shortages constituted a national disaster; a full vote is to be conducted when the house reconvenes on 11 November.
ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980 in the general elections earlier this year. Gasela said its strategy now was to distribute seed to small-scale rural farmers in a bid to buy their loyalty.
Agricultural inputs are being sold in foreign currency on the parallel market; a 10kg bag of maize seed is priced at US$40, while a 50kg bag of fertiliser retails at US$60.
Agriculture minister Rugare Gumbo told the state-owned The Herald newspaper in an interview on 23 October that "Anyone who wants to import inputs like fertiliser and maize seed can come to the ministry and we can discuss the modalities, as whatever is done has to be authorised by us."
Zimbabwe is suffering an official annual inflation rate of 231 million percent and foreign currency has become a very scarce commodity.
Gasela said licensing the import of agricultural inputs would not alleviate the seed and fertiliser shortage, because "The planting season is upon us already."
Anyhow, he added, it was very unlikely that a farmer would travel to the ministry in the capital, Harare, pick up a licence, apply for a visa to travel to South Africa, and then return in time to plant.
A journalist who declined to be named told IRIN after visiting his home in rural Masvingo Province that hunger was forcing farmers to eat what maize seed they had, instead of planting it.
"Seeds are usually preserved with a green chemical, but I was told that members of the community had soaked the maize seeds in water to remove the chemical and consumed them to avoid starving to death," he said. "Now they are living on wild fruit, which has caused the deaths of many villagers."