The 5-Minute Briefing: Zimbabwe's food shortage

Has hunger returned to Zimbabwe?

It is back with a vengeance. Between two and five million Zimbabweans face starvation unless 1.2 million tons of grain are imported quickly. In Bulawayo, two women with babies on their backs were injured this week when shoppers stampeded for sugar, not seen in stores for weeks; 200 children have died there this year, according to the city council. Long lines also formed for bread, wheat flour and maize meal, the staple diet of Zimbabwe's 11.6 million people.

How can five million Zimbabweans be starving after a 'bumper harvest'?

Before the recent elections, President Robert Mugabwe boasted that there had been a huge, 2.5 million-ton maize crop and that the country would be self-sufficient in food. Even though the World Food Programme had warned before the election that five million people - many of them already weakened by Aids were going hungry and at risk - Mr Mugabe's reaction was to spurn the aid and throw the United Nations organisation out.

Is Mugabe using food as a political weapon?

After a heavily disputed election result, and with hunger stalking the land, President Mugabe is worried about political instability, so he is preparing to invite the WFP back in. Shortly after the poll - won by his Zanu-PF party with a huge majority amid allegations that he had used food as a weapon to secure votes - the government said it would have to import maize, traditionally the country staple commodity. With extraordinary effrontery, Mr Mugabe recently told the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, that Zimbabwe will welcome food aid so long as it is not tied to any political conditions.

Why is the World Food Programme propping up Mr Mugabe?

As with food aid for North Korea, the WFP, whose priority is saving lives, has little choice in the matter and will do its best to ensure that food is distributed fairly throughout the country. In practice it will not have much control over who gets access to the emergency rations. Before the election Mr Mugabe accused donors of seeking to choke Zimbabweans with unwanted aid and told them to take their charity elsewhere. He also maintains a stranglehold on food and grain distribution through the government's monopoly on the Grain Marketing Board. So another humiliation awaits the WFP when Mr Mugabe meets its director, James Morris. In 2000, Mr Mugabe rejected his pleas for orderly land reform and went on to seize 5,000 mostly white-owned farms, triggering a collapse in Zimbabwe's food production.

Has Mugabe outfoxed the world once again?

He is 81, very much in charge and skilled at playing his enemies off each other. Remember this is a man who received an honorary knighthood during a state visit to Britain,after he had sent his North Korean-trained 5th brigade to Matebeleland - where the soldiers massacred 20,000 of his political enemies just after independence. So far he seems to be winning.

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