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Mugabe lifts ban on food aid as power-sharing talks resume


Harare : President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has finally yielded to international pressure and announced it was lifting a three-month ban on the distribution of food aid in the hunger-stricken country as the country’s power-sharing talks resumed in South Africa.

A bulletin Friday quoted a statement from the welfare ministry as saying that the government had “with immediate effect lifted the suspension of operations of private voluntary organisations and non-governmental organisations.”

These included those involved in “humanitarian food assistance, relief, recovery and development, childcare and protection and the rights of people with disabilities.”

On June 4, shortly after the launch of a bloody campaign for a second-round presidential election Mugabe ordered aid agencies to halt their operations, claiming some were using food to persuade rural people to vote for the Movement for Democratic Change of Morgan Tsvangirai.

Observers had pointed out that most evidence pointed in fact to government refusing food to hungry MDC supporters, by forcing people to produce cards of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party before they could be given food, or handing out maize at party rallies.

“The majority support the opposition (the MDC) and the majority are being starved by the government,” said Effie Ncube, director of a small aid agency in the western city of Bulawayo.

Reacting to Friday’s announcement, the regional director of British-based aid agency Oxfam, Charles Abani said in a statement: “We welcome this announcement, as the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe needs urgent attention.”

“Without the immediate resumption of food aid across the country, widespread hunger and worsening malnutrition will be unavoidable.”

But Abani also expressed reservations about government’s plans “to clarify
operation modalities” at a meeting with the NGOs scheduled for Monday.

“We hope that these ‘modalities’ will not involve restrictions on aid agencies or local civil society,” he said.

About two million people will need food aid from this month to avoid starvation after the worst crop harvest in Zimbabwe since 1980, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. By January, the number needing aid is expected to swell to five million.

A recent survey by the World Health Organisation found that 29 percent of Zimbabweans suffer from “chronic malnutrition” and a similar number of young children suffer stunted growth.

International and local donor agencies have been pleading with government to relax the ban to allow them to carry out emergency feeding for hundreds of thousands of children under five, as well as for HIV/AIDS patients, and the elderly.

As part of power-sharing talks with the MDC, Mugabe July 21 signed an agreement in which he agreed to allow humanitarian aid to resume. He had ignored the undertaking until now.

He relented as talks between negotiators from his party and the two MDCs – the largest faction led by Tsvangirai and a breakaway faction led by Arthur Mutambara – resumed in South Africa more than two weeks after they snagged.

Tsvangirai, 56, has baulked at a draft deal that would make him prime minister in a government of national unity but let Mugabe, 84, retain much of his powers as president.

A defiant Mugabe this week threatened to forge ahead and form a government without him, despite Tsvangirai’s MDC faction having the most seats in parliament. The MDC has warned such a move would kill the talks.

Zimbabweans are counting on a negotiated settlement to end nearly a decade of hardship and political repression under an increasingly autocratic Mugabe.

Tsvangirai took the most votes in the last credible presidential election March 29. Mugabe won the second round of voting June 27, but only after Tsvangirai withdrew over a spate of killings of MDC supporters by Mugabe supporters.