Food has become a key issue of the parliamentary election campaign in drought-hit western Zimbabwe, with both the ruling ZANU-PF party and opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) promising aid to increasingly desperate voters.
"We know you need assistance. Government is taking care of the situation, and rest assured that no one will starve," President Robert Mugabe told a rally in rural Matabeleland last week.
"By the same token you should also vote wisely - don't vote for Blair [Mugabe accuses the MDC of being sponsored by Britain], vote for ZANU-PF, a party that has given you land so that you can produce enough food," Mugabe urged villagers.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, while blaming the government for the food crisis, also promised that his party had secured "thousands of metric tonnes of maize to distribute to areas currently grappling with starvation, and is set to trickle into the country on 1 April if you have voted for the MDC".
The MDC contends that the government's allegedly botched land reform programme and inability to support the new farmers, as much as a series of droughts, are to blame for successive poor harvests.
The US-funded Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) recently warned that three perennially dry provinces - Matabeleland, Manicaland and Masvingo - were in dire need of relief assistance.
However, ZANU-PF has only belatedly acknowledged the extent of food insecurity. Despite warnings from the humanitarian community that last year's harvest would not be the bumper crop predicted by the government and aid would be required, Mugabe famously told Britain's Sky TV: "We are not hungry, why foist this food on us? We don't want to choke."
At the beginning of March, however, President Mugabe admitted there was a problem. He said the country would need to import food for an estimated 1.5 million people in need, in seven of the country's nine provinces - a substantially lower estimate than the 4.8 million people FEWS NET said required aid, a figure the government has ridiculed.
The state-owned Grain Marketing Board (GMB) has rejected reports that the country faced an immediate food crisis, stressing instead that its strategic grain reserve held 15 months worth of stocks.
But in interviews with government-run television and the official Herald newspaper, GMB chief executive officer, retired colonel Samuel Muvuti, said the grain monopoly would seek new tenders and revive existing but inactive ones for the supply of cereals.
"We are in the process of setting up new contracts. We still have contracts that we signed months or years ago, which are still running; what we have done to these contracts is to ensure that they perform faster than before - deliveries will be coming into the country shortly," said Muvuti.
A GMB source told IRIN that the board was looking to reactivate grain supply deals with South American suppliers, including Brazil and Argentina, which stopped when Zimbabwe ran out of foreign currency early last year.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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