Drought vis-a-vis politics of the stomach

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By Paidamoyo Muzulu
THE summer temperatures are getting high, averaging 30 degrees celsius. There is no sign of storm clouds gathering and the air is dry. Crops are wilting and farmers are already counting their losses. However, politicians from the ruling party are thanking their stars. The 2023 general elections are as good as done.

Zimbabwe has experienced ten-year cycle droughts since independence in 1980. Droughts are a time that makes the politician seem important and caring. Politicians actually become messiahs. They save lives of the poor peasants and in the process reap political dividends in the form of votes.

Zimbabwe is a country that is largely rural. According to ZimStat, 67% of the population stays in rural areas and just a third, 33%, is in urban areas. The issue is further complicated by the high unemployment rate in the formal sector hovering at over 80% according to the World Bank.

The grim picture tells a story of growing poverty and over 70% of the population is food insecure. This is where the looming drought becomes a political issue, considering the forthcoming general elections around June 2023.

To compound matters, the country is facing spiralling inflation where the local currency is fast losing value against the United States dollar. Zimbabwe is a net importer of goods from the region and the world, further heaping pressure on the government on resources to procure food especially maize, crude edible oils and wheat.

However, Zimbabwe has had a bad history when it comes to managing droughts and keeping its people fed, worse during an election period where food can be used as a political tool.

This would not only affect the rural communities where Zanu PF, the ruling party since independence, has played a messianic role to keep its supporters in tow. Urban poverty is growing at an alarming rate and the government has no social safety nets to speak of.

To put this into context, one has to look at how social relief was distributed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Those who were luck to get financial aid received a paltry $1 000, which is way below the poverty datum line which now stands at $70 000 for a family of five.

Zanu PF has been known for politics of patronage. Food aid will be used to woo voters and this has happened before. Food distribution is largely controlled by the central government and the military has had a hand in some instances.

It is a fact that the military is aligned to the ruling Zanu PF party. This clearly came out during the November 2017 coup that ousted the late Robert Mugabe. The military intervened in a purely internal Zanu PF matter.

The military has also been involved in the Command Agriculture and Pfumvudza programmes. These are programmes funded by the State in a murky manner aimed at helping farmers with agriculture inputs.

The programme since its inception in 2016 has largely been a failure as the country continued to import maize and wheat to cover shortfalls. Beneficiaries who are by and large Zanu PF supporters have not helped the situation either when they default on loan repayments.

In November 2021, Finance minister Mthuli Ncube said the default rate stood at 86%. The government is taking over a debt of $37 billion for the 2020/21 agricultural
season.

The situation is not made any better by the proposed Private Voluntary Organisation Bill that is before Parliament. The Bill seeks to control the affairs of NGOs that are said to be involved in political issues. However, the irony is NGOs have over the years carried the burden of feeding vulnerable families in both rural and urban
areas.

It can be hazarded that the Bill’s main thrust is to control NGOs and indirectly the opposition parties. This seems to be an urgent matter to Zanu PF, particularly going into an election year when people are hungry and poor. The opposition to Zanu PF among the electorate is palpable, hence control of food aid is vital.

The government has admitted to the drought and possible food shortages. This was revealed in a post-Cabinet statement on Tuesday.

Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said: “Cabinet wishes to advise the nation that overally, the first round crop and livestock survey confirmed that climate change is upon us and affecting agricultural production.  The nation is being assured that every effort is being made to ensure that no Zimbabwean will die of hunger.  Adequate stocks of cereals are available for all needy families.”

This was a loaded statement. It did not speak to the political distribution of agriculture inputs nor the failure by the beneficiaries to repay the loans. It also skirted the issue of production figures, which apparently are the lowest in the Sadc region at slightly above 1,1 tonnes per hectare for maize. The regional average is five tonnes per hectare.

It would be interesting to see how the electoral period pans out. However, facts abound that Zanu PF will do everything to be Father Christmas to the starving masses and in the process win
votes.

Anywhere in the world, food insecurity, economic decline, rising inflation, high unemployment and collapsed infrastructure would jolt the government to act. This is not the story in Zimbabwe as history has taught us, the grumbling stomachs are a boon for Zanu PF.

I’m out.