- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

Zimbabwe's government is using a policy of "selective starvation" to punish political opponents, enrich supporters and ensure a victory in local elections next month, according to an American researcher who just completed a weeklong visit to the south African country.
John Prendergast, who heads the Africa program for the Belgian-based International Crisis Group, said in a telephone interview yesterday from Kenya that the policy of manipulating the food supply has proved even more effective for the government of President Robert Mugabe than direct violence and intimidation of his political opponents.
"What we saw was selective starvation, the use of food as a political weapon," he said.
"Local officials were told that if they didn't deliver the vote, they wouldn't get food for their districts. That's a pretty frightening message in a region that's already facing a major food shortage," Mr. Prendergast said.
Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 22 years, has feuded bitterly with Britain, the United States and other Western governments in recent months over a disputed March presidential election and a land redistribution program that has forcibly displaced about half of the 4,500 white Zimbabwean farmers who were the backbone of the country's agricultural economy.
With southern Africa in the grip of a 4-year drought, U.S. Agency for International Development chief Andrew Natsios said in South Africa he was "very, very alarmed by what is happening" in Zimbabwe.
"The wrong policies are in place, and things are sliding fairly rapidly there," Mr. Natsios told reporters on the sidelines of the U.N. summit on development now under way in Johannesburg.
Mr. Mugabe has defended the evictions of white farmers as a necessary step to address inequalities in land ownership dating back to colonial times under Britain.
He has also rejected criticisms of the March elections, widely denounced by outside monitors for intimidation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and for newly imposed restrictions on the press and criticism of the government.
Mr. Prendergast, who has written extensively on Zimbabwe, declined to detail where he had traveled in the country last week, saying it could endanger the people he met with.
But he said he saw clear evidence that the government was using its control of both foreign food aid supplies and the commercial food and grain distribution networks to its political advantage.
"The most affected areas weren't the MDC strongholds like Matabeleland, but swing districts which might have voted for either [the government] or the MDC in the past," he said.
"Because government suppliers have a monopoly of the distribution networks, cutting back supply sends prices through the roof and is just one more way for the Mugabe government to steer money to its friends. Put that on top of the lack of nutrition, the high unemployment and the general economic decline, and you have a train wreck on the way."
Zimbabwe holds district elections Sept. 28-29, and Mr. Prendergast said the government is pushing to run up even bigger majorities than it recorded in the March presidential vote, an election the Bush administration denounced last week as "illegitimate."
The United Nations World Food Program warns that up to 13 million people across the region could begin to face famine by the end of this year if emergency food aid is not forthcoming. At least 6 million Zimbabweans, half of the country's population, could face crippling food shortages and starvation, according to U.N. figures.
Based on his tour of Zimbabwe, Mr. Prendergast said mortality rates among AIDS sufferers in Zimbabwe have already spiked because of the declining food stocks. At an estimated 35 percent of the population, Zimbabwe has the second-highest infection rate in the world after Botswana.
While much of the Western criticism has focused on the struggles of the white farmers, Mr. Prendergast said the government's food policies have been far more devastating for the 1.5 million black farm workers and their families who have been ousted from their plots as the white-owned farms are seized.
Although the drought is real, the researcher said the food crisis in Zimbabwe was fundamentally a result of the government's control of the aid and commercial distribution channels.
"If you broke the government's monopoly on the commercial food distribution chain, you could avert the famine tomorrow," he said.

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