- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

HARARE, Zimbabwe Food riots in two towns could be the start of a showdown between President Robert Mugabe's government and a restive population facing shortages of most basic goods, commentators said this week.

Rioting broke out Friday outside a government-run grain depot in Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo. Thirty-seven people were arrested, then released Monday and ordered to appear in court Jan. 20.

On Sunday, four police officers manning a food line were injured in clashes with youths who besieged a shop that had received scarce supplies of the national staple, cornmeal, in Chitungwiza, 15 miles south of Harare.

"I think it's a symptom of food availability and distribution problems, and that could be the beginning of many more riots," said Brian Raftopoulos, chairman of a civic group called Crisis in Zimbabwe.

"What happened in Bulawayo and Chitungwiza is just a tip of the iceberg of what has been happening elsewhere," said Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. "These are just spontaneous reactions to a crisis."

While some commentators predict full-fledged riots soon, others are of the opinion that there could be sporadic unrest that will eventually fizzle out.

John Makumbe, a political scientist and anti-government activist, said the worst can be expected around March or April, when the current farming season ends and it will be clear whether there is enough food in Zimbabwe.

"Then we will see sustained civil strife across the country," he said.

"I think the food riots could very easily result in the government being kicked out of office. I think this regime is ready to run away if things get out of hand. I think we could have a full-fledged riot," Mr. Makumbe said.

Mr. Matombo, the labor leader, said after the clashes in Bulawayo and Chitungwiza that "anything can happen, anytime now."

"The time is coming when there will be no food, and we will see people rising to the occasion," he said.

But Mr. Raftopoulos said there "could be sporadic riots, but nothing on a mass scale, unless the opposition and civic groups organize."

Zimbabwe is in the throes of crippling food shortages that threaten more than two-thirds of the population of 11.6 million. The shortages are mainly attributed to a drought that has ravaged southern Africa, but critics also blame Mr. Mugabe's land reforms, in which he has ordered white-owned farms seized and given to blacks.

Zimbabwe needs to import more than 300,000 tons of corn by March to alleviate the shortage, but supplies are only trickling in at 22,000 tons a week, according to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The government has rejected accusations that food in some rural areas is being distributed along party lines.

In some areas, relief food takes weeks or months to arrive, and people eat wild fruits and the roots of trees. A weekly documentary program made by the Roman Catholic Church for state television has shown families talking about their distress.

Many have hardly one meal a day.

Food-security agencies in southern Africa have warned that Zimbabwe and other countries are likely to experience another drought because simply normal to below-normal rainfall is forecast by meteorologists.

Basic goods such as sugar, salt, cooking oil, cornmeal and bread, whose prices are controlled by government, are hardly available in shops, but can be found on the black market usually at 10 times or more of the controlled price.

Inflation runs at more than 175 percent, and the United Nations said last year that three quarters of the people live in abject poverty.

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