(London) - The government should immediately reverse its decision to ban aid agencies from distributing food to hundreds of thousands of hungry people in rural areas, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 29, 2008, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Social Welfare, Nicolas Goche, issued a directive prohibiting a major international aid agency from distributing food in Masvingo province. Goche has alleged that international aid agencies are using food distribution programs, set up to reach Zimbabwe’s population, to support the campaign of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. The aid agency denies the charge. According to local sources, Goche has also blocked other aid agencies from distributing food in Masvingo, Manicaland, and Mashonaland provinces until after the June 27 presidential elections.

“The decision to let people go hungry is yet another attempt to use food as a political tool to intimidate voters ahead of an election,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Zimbabwe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Mugabe’s government has a long history of using food to control the election outcome.”

Also on May 29, the minister of local government, Dr. Ignatious Chombo, issued a separate directive stating that all rural areas would fall under the jurisdiction of his ministry and that all food aid distribution would be carried out through local government structures.

“This decision effectively puts all food distribution in these areas under the full control of President Mugabe’s governing party,” said Kasambala. “It’s imperative that the government ensure that all those in need receive food irrespective of political affiliation. The government should put its political aims aside and let independent aid agencies feed people.”

Human Rights Watch has received independent reports that a number of aid agencies working in Binga, Chipinge, Chimanimani, and Nyanga districts have also been forced to halt their operations, indicating that the government is imposing its control over food aid country-wide.

Background

The recent collapse in Zimbabwe’s food production has caused a serious food deficit, affecting 4.1 million people (more than one-third of the population). On May 29, President Robert Mugabe announced that Zimbabwe had had to import 600,000 tons of maize to ease food shortages. Hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas are entirely dependent on food assistance carried out by international agencies.

In March 2008, Human Rights Watch reported on the politicization of the distribution of both agricultural equipment and food. Human Rights Watch documented allegations of political interference in the distribution of free agricultural equipment (under the government’s farm mechanization program) and state-subsidized maize and seed from the government’s Grain and Marketing Board. Such manipulation is not new to Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch reports from 2003 and 2005 have documented how food assistance has been denied to suspected supporters of Zimbabwe's main opposition party and to residents of former commercial farms resettled under the country's “fast-track” land reform program