HARARE - President Robert Mugabe’s regime continues to manipulate the magnanimous relief effort by western governments and aid agencies, forcing the humanitarian agencies to make painful choices — either to stop dealing with the rogue and unsavoury government or turning their back on needy civilians.
As first reported by the Daily News this week, aid agencies and representatives of western governments confronted the government at an emergency meeting held in Harare on Monday over its obstructions to humanitarian assistance from opposition supporters, with regime officials only enabling the flow of aid to those who bolster the 92-year-old president’s regime.
The government’s grain importation and distribution programme is also widely sledged for political bias; deficiency of transparency and responsibility; and unrestrained levels of corruption and mismanagement.
There have also been a myriad of grievances over violence and intimidation by war veterans, Zanu PF youth, youth brigade members, and the politicians who organise food distributions.
Humanitarian missions must take concrete action to respond to this blatant abrogation of human rights in a way that protects desperate and hungry villagers.
The western-coordinated humanitarian response must operate independently of the political priorities of the Mugabe government.
The politicisation of aid, where politicians, organised groups of war veterans, members, Zanu PF party youths, youth militias have used relief aid for their own ends, has left thousands of desperate civilians without aid, while scores are dying from inadequate medical care and lack of food.
While the international aid system in Zimbabwe functions relatively tightly, the Mugabe regime has curiously gained significant and substantial influence over the relief effort, with aid workers and programme managers warning that international relief food was being diverted or distributed unfairly and less was reaching the targeted population.
No self-respecting aid group would want its name associated with a brutal tyrant who uses their aid as a political weapon.
The government now faces calls for an independent inquiry into its actions, with the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) head of Vulnerability Analysis Unit, Joao Manja, stating they have received over 1 000 complaints through a hotline in six months from April, over flawed “selection of beneficiaries, issues related to registration, from the quantity of the food basket even issues related to exclusion of vulnerable households or wrong inclusion of certain households”.
United Kingdom Department of International Development (DfID) humanitarian advisor Mira Gratier called for the urgent depoliticising of the international aid effort and controlling aid flows.
United States Agency for International Development (USAid) Humanitarian Assistance and Resilience office director, Jason Taylor, warned they could be forced to suspend cooperation with government because of the Mugabe regime’s influence and misuse of international aid.
The threat by humanitarian missions to suspend cooperation is of deep concern, and too ghastly to contemplate.
Yet the ultimatum is the culmination of months of frustration about the delivery of aid to communities that do not support the opposition, and mounting concern over the government’s sneaky strategy — criticism Social Welfare minister Priscah Mupfumira maintains is unfair.
The government has repeatedly denied politicising aid and defended its actions, insisting it remains completely impartial. In a briefing to the aid agencies on Monday, Mupfumira claimed aid agencies work very well with key government departments to support the delivery of humanitarian relief, and stated Mugabe had said no Zimbabwean would die of starvation.
Despite Mupfumira’s hollow remonstrations, politicisation of food aid remains widespread, especially in Zanu PF strongholds, yet the impartiality of the humanitarian operations is fundamental to saving lives. The charities’ focal point must be squarely on reaching people in need. If this persists, who then must feed opposition supporters?
Others feel threats by western countries to withdraw from embattled and drought-torn Zimbabwe may be as difficult to deliver on as earlier promises to protect civilians here, but the prospect nevertheless stir fears of devastating consequences for most of the country’s desperate citizens.
While the warning gives the impression of a new, get-tough attitude with the government, the consequences of such a pull-out would almost guarantee worse impunity and widening of the politicisation of food on the remaining and sole government aid programme.
Essentially, the aid agencies must work with all to reach all.
This comes as 4,5 million people are facing food shortages and need aid, according to the UN, as the El Nino-induced drought continues to devastate the country, and malnutrition is on the rise.
UN resident and UNDP resident representative in Zimbabwe Bishow Parajuli has warned that the drought conditions in many parts of the country have been unprecedented and have severely increased the vulnerability of the poor, depriving them of their livelihoods, including livestock and agricultural production as well as access to water, nutrition, health and education services.
The ongoing aid effort is the most expensive and challenging to date, with the UN appealing for $730 million in humanitarian relief for Zimbabwe after government declared a state of national emergency with effect from February 3, and allowed for the establishment of a standing Cabinet Committee on emergency response chaired by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The dedication of relief agency staff has to be hailed. It is also all the more reason to be dismayed by the Daily News’ exclusive revelations that food aid worth millions of dollars have gone exclusively to people close to Mugabe.
Concerns that the regime might kick the aid agencies out of Zimbabwe entirely, should they become too outspoken, are real.
With China’s Ambassador to Harare, Huang Ping, announcing that his government will provide rice worth $24,6 million and the Brazilian and South African government confirming their further commitment to the ongoing humanitarian response, the president could feel he has little to fear.
Yet it is worth considering the precedents again given that previously non-western governments have failed to adequately provide an emergency response.
This comes as the international community has dismally failed to diffuse the highly charged political situation in Zimbabwe, where tensions are running high between the government and its political opponents as well as between the government and major international donors now.
A sturdy and equitable humanitarian response is the very least required. The aid agencies’ span for leverage may be very limited, but it is not non-existent.
Complaints about politicisation of aid and other amenities were part of the background music in the run-up to the recently-held Norton by-election, where Zanu PF got a hiding from sports personality and businessman Temba Mliswa.
Zanu PF must stop playing politics while children are suffering.