- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, contradicting U.N. relief experts, has said that his country has no shortage of food and that international assistance is no longer needed.

In an interview broadcast yesterday on British television, Mr. Mugabe rejected estimates by the U.N. World Food Program that more than 3 million Zimbabweans are on the brink of starvation.

“We are not hungry. [Food aid] should go to hungrier people, hungrier countries than ourselves,” Mr. Mugabe said. “Why foist this food upon us? We don’t want to be choked, we have enough.”

Mr. Mugabe, whose land-distribution policies have contributed to widespread famine, said Zimbabwe would harvest 2.5 million tons of maize this year.

That figure far exceeds the estimates of international food agencies, which predict a crop of less than 800,000 tons, half the amount needed to feed the nation.

Gibson Sibanda, vice president of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), charged that Mr. Mugabe wants to use food shortages for leverage in elections scheduled for March.

“Already, they are telling people that anyone who attends an opposition rally will not receive any rations and, when people are hungry, that is a powerful weapon,” Mr. Sibanda said from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

Earlier this month, at Lupane in the south of the country, the MDC lost a by-election to Mr. Mugabe’s ruling party. In the 2000 general election, the opposition received 14,000 votes in Lupane against 3,000 for Mr. Mugabe’s party, but the winning candidate died. Accusations later surfaced that he had been tortured in police custody.

“In Lupane, people have almost nothing to eat,” Mr. Sibanda said. “So the government used the offer of food to buy people’s votes.

“Add to this that we were virtually barred from campaigning, and people were beaten and intimidated by the army and the youth militia. You can hardly call it a free vote,” he said.

Mr. Sibanda said he feared that, with radio, television and all daily papers under state control and the prospect of famine, Mr. Mugabe might call an election as early as October.

“It is quite possible,” he said, “but we are ready, provided that the basic principles of democratic elections are adhered to. However, I am not sure that will be the case, and state distribution of food could be a real problem.”

In 2000, Mr. Mugabe’s government began a coercive land-reform program to distribute white-owned farms to landless black peasants. Combined with a drought, the program resulted in a disastrous plunge in agricultural production.

Mr. Mugabe was returned to power in 2002 in an election that Western observers said was marred by violence, intimidation and vote-rigging.

More than 2 million black Zimbabweans have fled to neighboring South Africa in search of jobs and food.

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