In the run-up to the June presidential run-off elections in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe’s government banned the distribution of food to poor people by NGOs. The government accused NGOs of using food to campaign on behalf of the political opposition.
More than anything else the government ban on food distribution is a revelation of how much the stomach has influenced political developments in the country.
Zimbabwe is a nation-state that has been increasingly built on the politics of empty stomachs since it attained independence from British rule in 1980.
A combination of widespread rural poverty and a legacy of the liberation war have in many ways nourished President Robert Mugabe’s rule since 1980.
Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Unity-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has mastered the art of handing out Lazaric crumbs to the majority of the people, particularly in the rural areas, in exchange for political gain and control.
In many ways, the Mugabe regime has largely fed off the majority of the people’s inability to access basic services that can allow them to independently lead their lives and make decisions that promote the democratic well-being of the nation-state.
Thus, Zimbabwe’s democratic culture is largely malnourished as much as the people’s stomachs are empty, and as in many parts of the continent, this tends to augur well to those in the echelons of power.
Essentially, the lived reality of poverty limits citizens’ ability to invest in social capital strategies that are a pre-requisite for a functional democracy. Many people only focus on day to day survival making them either politically apathetic or highly vulnerable to political chicanery.
Approximately 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people live in rural settings with no access to basic services such as water, health, education or transportation. Many of these people depend on agriculture for their livelihood and food but lack of support from the government and poor rainfall patterns have devastated subsistence agriculture.
With an estimated 80 percent of the population living on less than US$2 per day, poverty in the country is endemic.
To put it bluntly, poverty, hunger, and deprivation have played a key role in strengthening Mugabe’s stranglehold on power, making his rule one of the most paradoxical in modern times.
It is ironic that though Robert Mugabe is credited with instituting health and educational reforms to help previously marginalized black people, rural underdevelopment and lack of access to information have nourished his rule.
And it appears that his government has such a vested interest in keeping the majority of the population poor and dependent on the wiles of the ruling party government.
In Zimbabwe, as in many parts of Africa, rural areas remain underdeveloped and inaccessible. Due to high levels of poverty, many rural folk tend to be dependent on what the government provides to them.
Rural folk have developed a dependency syndrome that has served to sustain the incumbent government. Mugabe’s government has effectively used rural-based poverty as a means to maintain an ideological stronghold on the rural people.
Unfortunately, unlike during the early years of independence in 1980, ZANU PF’s charity has failed to address the fundamental problems that fuel rural poverty.
Government actions in rural areas have been more about political expediency as opposed to an investment in agriculture, road projects or economic infrastructure.
Without jobs and unable to produce adequate food, rural-based populations are forced to turn to government for food assistance.
However, the ZANU PF government has not always been able to fill this need, leaving it to non-governmental organizations.
Some ZANU PF apparatchiks fearing lack of control over food utilize food handouts as a political tool, or use NGO food distribution as a political campaign platform.
The ban on food distribution by the ZANU PF government was therefore a calculated move to win the battle over people’s stomach.
It is fact though that poor people simply have far less time to devote to the types of participation that give life to democracy. Poverty is antithetical to the growth of democratic values.
Sadly, politicians in Zimbabwe, and indeed throughout the continent, have manipulated empty stomachs for political gain.