By John Campbell, CFR
Editor's note: John Campbell is a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This entry of Africa in Transition originally appeared here.
Of Zimbabwe’s almost 13 million people, 1.6 million of them will require food aid, and the number is likely to grow. An estimated 1.8 million tons of maize, the staple crop, is necessary to feed Zimbabwe. But farmers unions are saying that the harvest is likely to be 1.1 million tons short. The ministry of agriculture is saying that about one third of all planted crops have failed due to the lack of irrigation and 45 percent of the maize crop must be written off. The World Food Program is preparing for a big increase in need. But the WFP’s Zimbabwe program budget of $119 million faces a shortfall of about $85 million.
Why is Zimbabwe once again facing food shortages? According to Zimbabwe’s acting president, Joice Mujuru, the answer is drought related to climate change. She is calling for the development of drought-resistant maize, and last month she introduced one such variety developed by the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre in Harare.
It’s certainly true that there is a shortage of rain in most parts of the country. According to the Meteorological Service Department, rains have started late and were below normal in the first half of the growing season.
But, the cause of hunger is more than drought. According to the media, banks have been financing the production of cotton and tobacco rather than maize. Charles Taffs, the president of the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe, argues that a major contributing factor is government agricultural policy. He specifically cites the planting of maize in areas that are unsuitable for the crop.
Hunger, agriculture, and land also continue to have a racial subtext in Zimbabwe. Taffs is white and the Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe is associated with white farmers, a diminishing group as land invasions continue. (Whites are now less than 1 percent of Zimbabwe’s population.) For many – perhaps most – of the remaining whites and many others as well, Zimbabwean hunger’s root cause is Robert Mugabe’s seizure without compensation of white owned commercial farms, ostensibly for distribution to poor peasants, but very often also to his political cronies and allies.
Certainly there is drought in Zimbabwe. But official government policy probably has turned an agricultural challenge into a disaster.
It is too soon to say what the impact of hunger will be on Zimbabwe’s currently stalemated politics. But, if elections come soon, as Robert Mugabe wants, hunger could be the backdrop. Elections in Zimbabwe have been characterized by violence. That in conjunction with hunger could again set off refugee flows, especially to South Africa.