The spectre of massive enforced starvation is looming over Zimbabwe as President Robert Mugabe's regime unleashes a sinister new tactic to help him cling to power in the presidential run-off vote in less than three weeks' time.
The US ambassador in Harare accused government officials yesterday of blackmailing opposition supporters, by denying them food unless they surrendered their national identity card and thus gave up their right to vote.
Mr Mugabe is no stranger to using food as a political weapon in a country where many people are locked into a desperate struggle to put the next meal on the table. By suspending all aid groups operating in the country on Thursday he has once again concentrated crucial supplies into the hands of his cronies.
But whereas in previous clampdowns, food was only given to those whose names appeared on lists drawn up by the ruling Zanu-PF party, now it seems the regime is trying to entice supporters from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to the distributions, so it can then eliminate them from the electoral roll.
"If you have an MDC card, you can receive food but first you have to give the national identity card to the government officials, which means they will hold on to it until after the election," the US ambassador, James McGee, told reporters on a conference call from the Zimbabwean capital. "The only way you can access food is to give up your right to vote. It is absolutely illegal."
The frightening new ploy has sparked outrage around the world. "This is the first time we have heard about MDC people having their identity cards taken away," Tiseke Kasambala, the Zimbabwe specialist at Human Rights Watch, said on a visit to London. "It's a new tactic to disenfranchise them, another brutal attempt to flush out more opposition supporters, and take them out of the voting system."
The opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, beat Mr Mugabe in the first round of elections on 29 March, but failed to win the majority needed to avoid a second ballot. Having already lost control of the parliament, Mr Mugabe – and more importantly the generals who are believed to be running the country like a junta – is frantic to ensure that his 28-year reign continues after Zimbabweans return to the polls on 27 June.
Charles Abani, Oxfam's director in southern Africa, said he was "deeply concerned" at the suspension of aid groups. "A lot of people are completely reliant on food aid to keep them alive. They have nothing else to eat."
About four million people are dependent on food aid in the country which used to be the region's breadbasket. Many people blame Mr Mugabe's agricultural policies for the food shortages and his woeful stewardship for the official inflation rate of 165,000 per cent.
Although UN agencies are not directly affected by the ban, they could still see their work stagger to a halt because they rely on other aid groups to distribute their food rations. The UN's World Food Programme was planning to feed some 300,000 people this month alone.
Jasmine Whitbread, head of Save the Children, estimated "that in areas we are working, many families' food supplies will start to run out next month". That tallied with the US ambassador's prediction that there would be enough stocks until the election but "massive, massive starvation" could then ensue.
Mr McGee described the Mugabe government as, "a desperate regime ... which will do anything to stay in power".
This week it has become increasingly clear that Mr Mugabe is trying to snuff out any kind of opposition election campaign. Mr Tsvangirai was detained at a roadblock yesterday for the second time in three days. He was held up 25 miles outside Zimbabwe's second-largest city, Bulawayo, an MDC stronghold. After being taken to a police station, he was told that all opposition rallies in the country had been banned indefinitely.
"The regime is increasing the decibels of insanity," said Tendai Bit, an opposition party chief.
The MDC says 65 people have been killed in violence since the March ballot but independent attempts to confirm those figures have also been thwarted. US and British diplomats trying to investigate the allegations were detained on Thursday, after being ordered from the cars at gunpoint by roadside police – an episode described as "outrageous" by government officials Washington and London.
"This shows they're really upping the stakes," said Ms Kasambala of Human Rights Watch. "With the NGO suspension and the diplomatic stand-offs and the violence, there's no way there can be a credible election".
Foreign observers are expected to number a paltry 700, and the Zimbabwean army has already been on the move to seal off areas, particularly in the Mashonaland provinces, raising the prospect of increased intimidation and mass ballot-rigging away from the eyes of outside monitors.
Despite the lack of credibility surrounding the forthcoming ballot, neither Britain nor the US have called for this month's poll to be cancelled.
"Anything less than a run-off would just be giving the Mugabe regime a victory they do not deserve," the US ambassador said.Reuse content