Food used as political weapon

HARARE - The use of food as a weapon is an age-old strategy.

In ancient and Biblical times, armies laid siege to enemies to weaken them before attacking.

Food in the modern world continues to be used as a weapon — albeit a political one.

The principle still holds that those who have food have power.

During the cold war era, US food aid was directed to countries ideologically aligned to the West as opposed to those that were Marxist, pro-Soviet and pro-China.

In one of the worst droughts to hit the continent in 1984, over a million people starved to death in Ethiopia because the West was tardy in giving food aid.

Reverend Charles Elliot, the then director of British charity Christian Aid, accused the US and Britain of deliberately blocking relief supplies to Ethiopia with the hope the pro-Soviet regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam would fall.

Both the US and Britain denied the accusation.

But Elliot told the London Observer that the US and British governments believed a major catastrophe would bring down the Ethiopian regime in the same way a drought a decade earlier had brought down the regime of emperor Haile Selassie after 200 000 perished.

Mengistu, who overthrew the emperor in a coup, finally fled to Zimbabwe where he has been exiled since the late 90s.

Philip Klutznick, who was US secretary of Commerce during the last 18 months of the Carter administration said there was never a doctrine to use food aid as a political weapon but noted the rationale existed for the sensitive commodity to be used for political leverage.

The food weapon was used twice in the Carter era, against the Soviet Union after it had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and against Iran, during the American hostage crisis. America was later to invade Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban regime after 9/11 because it was hosting Bin laden’s al Qaeda.

Shridath Ramphal, secretary-general of the Commonwealth in the mid-1980s, was scathing about using food as a political weapon, labelling it fundamentally immoral because it created a choice between starvation and survival.

“It is quite deplorable that one could say: Here are the millions of dollars to help those who are starving but if only they say the kinds of things, and adopt the kinds of gestures that please use in a political sense. If they don’t let them starve.”

While African governments and developing countries have complained about the West using food as a weapon, they have been using the same weapon against their citizens.

During the height of the Ethiopian drought, when the West was dilly-dallying about giving Ethiopia food aid, Mengistu ordered that available food be given to the vocal and organised urban population who were likely to start riots.

Meanwhile, the peasants, marginalised and without political power, perished in the country-side.

In addition, many of Mengistu’s critics thought Mengistu had a sinister reason for denying food to the rural population — his regime was trying to starve rebels in the northern provinces of Eritrea, Tigray and Wollo into submission.

Shimelis Adugna, head of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, setup in the aftermath of the 1973 drought to distribute international relief to areas in need, said: “There was an understanding among the hardline elements, including Mengistu, to let nature take its toll and deprive these areas of food and other assistance, starving the guerillas out, punishing the people and depopulating the areas.”

Similar accusations were echoed during Zimbabwe’s civil war in Matabeleland which lasted from 1982-1986 and pitted Robert Mugabe’s Five Brigade and some elements of Joshua Nkomo’s Zanla army. Some tens of thousands perished.

Food has always loomed large in Zimbabwe, a country that was the region’s breadbasket before the 2000 land grab turned it into a basket case.

With maize harvests dwindling because of persistent droughts, poor grain prices and lack of skills among new resettled farmers, millions of Zimbabweans face starvation each year and have to survive on food handouts.

In polls after the new millennium when Zanu PF got the “wake-up” call the electorate would no longer be taken for granted, food has been used to garner voters.

The wake-up call came in the form of a Zanu PF loss in a plebiscite in which Zimbabweans wanted a two-term presidential limit, and a drubbing at the hands of a nascent MDC backed by a coalition of NGOs in the June 2000 parliamentary elections. The MDC won 56 seats to Zanu PF’s 43 seats.

Zanu PF was rescued by Mugabe’s 20 nominated seats. Even then it had a majority of six.

In the intervening period, Zanu PF and MDC politicians have fallen over each in providing food handouts.

During the bloody run-off to the 2008 presidential elections, Zanu PF ordered Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) out of rural areas to prevent them from distributing food to starving peasants.

When a country makes a food aid appeal, the World Food Programme raises funds to buy grain.

There has been a growing reluctance by Western countries to donate funds as they prefer the grain to be distributed through UN agencies and NGOs.

Zanu PF often accuses NGOs of being funded by their enemies and of driving the agenda of their paymasters — the West.

As Mugabe criss-crossed the country on a campaign trail with his wife before the July 2013 harmonised elections, Grace Mugabe was donating tonnes of grain to needy rural folk in the countryside.

She promised villagers in Matabeleland South they would not starve as long as she lived.

Zanu PF chairperson Simon Khaya Moyo had plastic maize-meal bags with his name-made long before poll dates were announced. He was retuned to Parliament for the first time after 2000.

In the run-up to the recent harmonised polls, Obert Mpofu, then incumbent Member of Parliament for Umguza, in Matabeleland North pledged to pay for all the maize that was to be distributed to villagers in his constituency under the grain loan scheme. His truck ferried maize from Zambia for the constituents.

“I encourage all villagers to take maize through the grain loan scheme as I am going to pay for it. All those that had taken already will not pay back as I will cover all costs,’’ Mpofu was quoted by a state daily. He won his seat with an overwhelming majority.

Over the years, villagers across the country have complained they were being denied grain because they were suspected of supporting the opposition.

Using food for political gain seems to have spilled into South Africa where a minister is being accused of employing state resources for party campaigning in the troubled Tlokwe Municipality in the North West.

The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) have taken to task the minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini who used her department’s outreach programme to distribute food parcels in a ward the ANC and DA are vying for in a by-election.

The DA and Sanco say the move was a covert bribe to residents to vote for the ANC. But Dlamini says this is part of the normal work of government.

In India, debate is raging over a Food Security Bill to provide subsidised grain to 67 percent of the population.

The ruling party faces criticism for exploiting extremely high poverty levels to provide cut-price staple food, at taxpayers’ cost to garner votes in next year’s polls.

With sluggish growth in employment, the move is seen as a deft stroke to win over the poor.

With unemployment in South Africa hovering around 40 percent, the country’s social grant system keeps the poor in check and reduces poverty levels.

Some 16 million people survive on social grants, enabling the ruling party to contain discontent and rebellion. This creates a massive constituency of people grateful to the ANC.

With poverty levels remaining high even in countries like China and India that have the fastest growing economies will the poor continue to be used to vote for the rich, while they remain hungry?

 

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