Food shortages become election issue for Mugabe    

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe's draconian press reporting restrictions make it a crime for unregistered foreign correspondents to report from the country. As a result, our correspondent cannot be named.

Monkeys have moved on to the Cabanzas' smallholding east of Harare, ejected from woods behind the farm home by land invaders who have either chased the animals away or hunted them for food.

"We don't know what's going to happen next," said Irene Cabanza (not her real name), who has spent much of her life serving the ruling Zanu-PF government. "It has become frightening to farm." The lives of thousands of farmers, black and white, have been disrupted – and ruined – by lawless "land reforms" that have left Zimbabwe teetering on the edge of starvation.

Food shortages are a big issue five weeks before presidential elections. The country's veteran leader, Robert Mugabe, is trying to win by promising poor rural voters tiny portions of seized commercial farms, and by clamping hard on the opposition.

But hungry voters may be angry voters. Invasions by "liberation war veterans" of thousands of commercial farms and failing price controls have caused agricultural chaos, empty shops and queues for oil. Even if the country produced enough this year, 112 per cent annual inflation is making food unaffordable for many.

Now the government has retreated into fantasy-land, making wildly optimistic claims over the economy. A Harare food manager said: "Listening to what ministers are saying is surreal. We've doubled the cost of burgers in a month. We print menus without prices now."

The economy has shrunk by 30 per cent in two years since oppression followed the defeat of Mr Mugabe in a referendum on constitutional reform. It is expected to deflate a further 10 per cent this year. One in five adults is in formal employment, with 25 per cent of paid jobs lost in two years. Relative incomes are lower than 30 years ago.

On the side of a rural road, a man in a country with advanced agricultural sectors sells wooden ox-yokes for ploughing. His market is Mugabe's newly landed peasantry, the 135,000 people with no hope of state aid the government says it has settled on seized white-owned land.

Agricultural specialists say Zimbabwe will run short of its staple food, maize, within four weeks and the country's 13 million people will be 1.1 million tons short of grain and oilseed over the next six months. Imports cannot make up the shortfall because of lack of finance and capacity to deliver. This agricultural year, as was the last, has been a disaster. Agricultural imports have fallen by more than a third in four years, from $3.2bn (£2.3bn) to an expected $2m this year.

Last week, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, warned that "hunger and starvation loom for millions". The Catholic Church and UN aid officials say 500,000 Zimbabweans urgently need relief. "Zimbabwe is no longer able to feed itself," an economist said. "We'll need to import at least half of our food for the next two years, and beyond that, if we don't start recovery soon."

Yet state-owned ZWNews reported a Grain Marketing Board spokesperson as saying: "There is so much maize in the country, we may not even need to import if we manage to impound all maize from commercial farmers."

The government claims it has seized 36,000 tons of maize from white farmers it accuses of hoarding food to topple Mr Mugabe. At the same time, ministers are also appealing for 98,000 tons of maize from the World Food Programme.