ZAMBIA: Mwanawasa cracks down over food crisis
Villagers from the drought-hit Luanga valley in southern Zambia walk home with bags of maize aid
lusaka, 9 October 2002 (IRIN) - Human rights groups this week condemned legal action against a Zambian legislator who alleged people had died of starvation in his constituency, thereby contradicting government assurances of no hunger-related deaths in the drought-hit countryside.
Vitalis Mooya, the member of parliament (MP) for Moomba, about 240 km south of the capital Lusaka, faces charges of making false statements aimed at causing public alarm, a jailable offence under Zambian law. Last week, Mooya said three elderly people starved to death in his constituency, one of the worst-hit areas in Zambia's current food crisis.
"[President Levy] Mwanawasa should know that an MP represents people. In a democracy, people must be allowed to state their views, even if the views do not please the president. His action clearly shows that he has dictatorial tendencies that are not in line with a multi-party state set up," Ngande Mwanajiti of the vocal human rights group, Inter-Africa Network for Human Rights and Development, told IRIN.
Mwanawasa has repeatedly dismissed reports of starvation, and last week ordered the police to arrest MPs from the Southern province who claimed that people were dying of hunger. A police team visited Moomba before pressing charges against Mooya on Tuesday. The police denied they were acting on political orders.
"The food crisis in Zambia is for real," Mooya's lawyer, Sakwiba Sikota, told IRIN. "Mr Mwanawasa should look for food instead of intimidating representatives of hungry people, whose only appeal is that food should be distributed and distributed quickly to avert further deaths."
Mwanawasa has repeatedly vowed that no Zambian would die from hunger on his watch, and has accused his detractors of playing politics with the food crisis. As a result of two consecutive poor harvests, 2.9 million Zambians are threatened by shortages.
But despite the scale of the country's food needs, the government has rejected aid consignments from the US government containing genetically modified (GM) maize on the grounds of health and environmental safety. The World Food Programme (WFP) has been forced to find alternative non-GM food sources for distribution.
"Thanks to WFP and the Office of the Vice-President [responsible for disaster relief] our food pipeline has been to a large part fully covered for this month. But what is still unknown in terms of the food supply situation is what will happen for November/December. I'm quite certain that WFP will cover the needs of the most vulnerable, but what is still unknown is what the government can or can't do," Patrice Charpentier, food coordinator for the relief agency CARE told IRIN.
From December, Zambia enters the traditional hunger season until the new harvest in March/April. "We need help," Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana told IRIN. "We can't rely on the little that we have, we have to make more effort [to source food]."
Zambia has come under strong international pressure to accept GM maize. A team of scientists sent abroad to study the GM issue recently returned to Zambia after a three-week mission. Mwanawasa is expected to make a decision soon on whether to accept GM maize aid, alternatively to continue with the ban, or join the regional consensus and agree to it in a milled form.
"I don't think the government is particularly well informed on the extent of the food shortages," commented an aid worker, who asked not to be named. "I don't think [the GM issue is] a diabolical plot to withhold food by the government, I think it's just blundering."