Mugabe ready to accept food aid
THE Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, has bowed to mounting international concern over his country’s widespread food shortages and said he will consider accepting emergency aid for his people this year.
It is the first time in months that Mr Mugabe appears to have admitted that Zimbabwe will need outside assistance. Last year, he said international food handouts would "choke us".
But, according to the official Herald newspaper, he has now accepted an invitation from Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, to meet James Morris, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP), when he visits Zimbabwe next month.
"Yes, the president has acceded to the UN secretary-general’s request for a meeting between him and the WFP official," George Charamba, a presidential spokesman, said.
Mr Morris is due in Zimbabwe at the start of next month as part of a tour of southern Africa. But Mr Mugabe insists he will accept aid only if it comes with no political strings attached.
"The president is very clear that, whilst Zimbabwe welcomes drought-mitigating assistance from other countries of goodwill, it remains firmly opposed to any food handouts that are predicated on political conditionalities," his spokesman told the Herald.
"Equally, the Zimbabwean government is clear that the primary responsibility of ensuring that Zimbabweans are provided with food is its own."
Mr Mugabe is sensitive to any criticism of his controversial land reform programme, under which thousands of productive white farmers were chased off their farms. He is said to be particularly angry that blacks who were given farms under the programme have failed to produce enough food for the fourth year running.
The president’s claims of a "bumper harvest" last year never materialised, and reports suggest that, this year, farmers could harvest as little as 500,000 tonnes of the staple maize crop, well short of the 1.8 million tonnes Zimbabwe requires.
Aid agencies estimate that up to five million people will need emergency food aid. The WFP is already feeding a million Zimbabweans - mostly the elderly, AIDS orphans and people living with HIV/AIDS. But it is not allowed to extend its feeding programmes without a request from the Harare government.
Aid officials said yesterday that Mr Morris’s visit could come "just in time" for Zimbabwe.
"The visit is quite timely if the government wants to let Mr Morris know the size of the assistance they require," one aid worker said. "It’s a good time at the beginning of June for the humanitarian community to raise funds."
Mr Mugabe insists the latest crop failures are due to poor rains. But critics point to the destruction of vital irrigation equipment on many farms and lay the blame squarely on the land reform programme.
Zimbabwe’s government says it is already importing grain to avert starvation. The state-run Sunday Mail claimed last weekend that 50 trucks full of maize were being sent each day to centres in Mutare, Masvingo and Gwanda, while a train carrying grain departs daily for Bulawayo and Chegutu. But fuel shortages are likely to hamper deliveries.
Food shortages have worsened since the parliamentary elections at the end of March which were controversially won by Mr Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
Most supermarket shelves are empty of basic goods such as bread, cooking oil, milk, sugar and soft drinks. Long winding queues form outside shops when a delivery is made.
Meanwhile, sources in Zimbabwe claim Chinese firms are to be given former white farms to try to revive agriculture. Officials from the state-owned China State Farms Agribusiness Corporation are expected in Harare "soon". Mr Mugabe has been pursuing a vigorous "Look East" policy and China is now Zimbabwe’s biggest investor.
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