Walking a tightrope between life and death

Patrick Laurence examines the extent to which African governments are culpable for the continent's food crisis.

The launch of the African Union (AU) in Durban, amid sumptuous banquets, extravagant pageantry and grandiloquent oratory, coincided with a growing chorus of concern from international aid agencies over the food crisis in Southern Africa, manifest most vividly by photographs of skeletally thin children.

While politicians engaged in debate about the precise form of the AU, the location of its envisaged Pan-African parliament and the extent to which it should be empowered to intervene in the affairs of member states, the Johannesburg office of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) was anxiously assessing the amount of food aid needed to avert disaster. Opened in June, shortly before the formal inauguration of the AU in early July, the WFP's Johannesburg office was established to serve as a logistical centre for the inflow of food aid to the stricken region.

At the time the WFP calculated that it needed nearly $US 510 million or 1 million tons of food to assist the estimated 10,2 million people who were "at risk of starvation". It anticipated, however, that the number of people in dire need of food would rise to 11 million by September-October and peak at nearly 13 million by March next year. But even those figures "could rise", the WFP warned, if the pending planting season in October-November did not produce a better crop than the present one.

The executive director of the WFP, James Morris, specifically drew attention to the food shortages in Southern Africa in an open letter, dated 9 July 2002, to the AU at its founding conference.
He noted that the threat of famine in Southern Africa a decade ago in 1992 had been successfully countered by a combined relief operation involving the UN, members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and major donor countries, including the United States and members of the European Union.

He noted, too, that the food crisis of 1992 "marked the first official co-operation by the apartheid regime in South Africa with its neighbours" in a major humanitarian operation.

Whether Morris mentioned the participation of the "apartheid regime" to shame African states into contributing more decisively to the food relief programme is not clear. But he was unequivocal about the need for greater support from African states. "I cannot emphasise enough that the WFP very much needs donors beyond the United States and the European Union and soon," he said. "It is a dangerous business to rely so heavily on only a few donors." Then came his challenging question: "What better symbol is there of African unity than one African state reaching out to help another in time of need?"

A press statement issued by Morris two days later left no doubt that the situation was urgent. "Throughout the region people are walking a thin tightrope between life and death," he said. He added a sombre corollary: "(It) may soon lead to a catastrophe".

The AU and what might be loosely labelled its development arm, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), thus faced a major challenge before they had time to find their feet. The challenge served as a litmus test against which the rhetorical flourishes about African solidarity and fraternity, and the accompanying commitment to good governance on the continent, would be measured in the not too distant future.

The challenge could magnify before the end of the year. From mid-2002 meteorologists warned of the possible return of El Nino, the climatic phenomenon that ushered in the prolonged drought of 1992. The Johannesburg office of the WFP was aware of the danger when Focus went to press. It was in constant contact with meteorologists and was attempting to include the El Nino factor in its calculations. "We plan for the worst and hope for the best," Luis Clemens of the WFP remarked.

The crisis gripped at least six countries in Southern Africa: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. If Angola were included the tally would be seven. The full impact of Angola's devastating civil war was becoming apparent as aid agencies began to assess the situation in areas formerly controlled by Unita rebels after the signing of a peace treaty. The treaty was a sequel to the killing of the Unita leader, Jonas Savimbi, in a shoot-out with government forces in February 2002. Oxfam summarised the situation thus: "Peace in Angola has revealed a hitherto largely invisible humanitarian crisis in the zones previously controlled by Unita and (it) also requires a massive international response".

Only three Southern African countries were not threatened directly by the crisis: South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, though two of the "horsemen of the apocalypse", hunger and pestilence (in the form of HIV/Aids), were seldom far from the shanty or hut door in the poorer areas of even these relatively prosperous countries.

But the crisis that raised the spectre of famine over Southern Africa in 2002 differed from the threatened calamity of 1992 referred to by Morris. Where the present crisis was generated by a combination of factors, the 1992 had a single cause, abnormally low rainfall.

As Judith Lewis, WFP regional director for South and East Africa, observed in an interview with Focus, the cause of the 1992 crisis could be delineated in three words, "Drought, drought and drought". The present potentially disastrous situation had multiple causes, however. They include below average harvests, due to drought, in combination in several countries with, ironically, flooding. The flooding often impeded either planting or harvesting depending on whether it came before or after the drought. The resultant low levels of production often came in the wake of two or three years of meagre harvests, meaning that there was little or no surplus capacity to cope with the latest failure. Lewis remarked of Zimbabwe, "Commercial production is 59 per cent down from last year's bad year". A similar situation prevailed in several of the affected countries.

Additional causes of the dire plight that threatened millions of people across Southern Africa included the general poverty of several countries (Lesotho, one of the poorest countries in the world, comes to mind), "high and chronic levels of malnutrition" and, of course, the highest prevalence of HIV/Aids in the world. As Oxfam recorded in a briefing paper: "The causes of the food crisis are complex and vary from country to country. But in different proportions they reflect a mixture of poverty and vulnerability, bad weather … bad advice from donors and economic collapse. High rates of HIV/Aids and (a range of debilitating diseases) have further sapped people's ability to cope".
On the impact of HIV/Aids, Oxfam observed that recent data pointed to levels of 30 per cent or more in the most productive age group (15-49) in several areas of the stricken countries. A direct result of the high prevalence rate was the increasing dependence of sick people on smaller numbers of able-bodied and healthy workers. Oxfam added in its analysis of the crisis: "In Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is common for grandparents to be caring for ten or more children, due to Aids-related deaths".

There was another cause, however, one that pointed to varying degrees of government culpability for the crisis in most, if not all, of the affected countries. It was referred to as "misgovernment" by the WFP, as "poor governance" by Oxfam, and, more obliquely, as "biases that protect the interests of elites" by the United Nations Development Programme. There was a corollary to these observations: whether caused by negligence, greed or prejudice, governmental sins of omission and commission aggravated the food crisis.

The clearest case of government responsibility was in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF government adopted land policies that disrupted and even halted agricultural production across wide swathes of the country. It did so by either turning a blind eye to the seizure of farms from productive (white) farmers by self-styled "war veterans" or by itself expropriating the farms, putatively for the benefit of the landless peasantry but often to fulfil the manorial ambitions of Zanu-PF barons. Not content with that destructive intervention, it then ordered the few white commercial farmers still in possession of their farms to cease all farming activities.

As the WFP stated in a fact paper: "The decrease in the area planted (by commercial farmers) had a significant adverse impact on national food production. Commercial farming operations were disrupted by the ongoing land reform activities and widespread illegal invasions". It noted, too, that the near depletion of foreign exchange reserves (due to Mugabe's profligate and ill-advised policies) meant that the government did not possess the funds necessary to import grain for near starving people.

Private sector imports of food and international food aid were the only viable options for meeting the food deficiency. Even there, however, government policies impeded the inflow of food supplies. Government imposed price controls meant that the selling price was set below the cost of importation. It therefore acted as a disincentive to entrepreneurs to import grain. Ongoing reports that the Zanu-PF government was withholding food aid from political opponents compounded the problem still further. Suspicions that aid was manipulated to benefit the Mugabe government did not encourage donors whose aim was to provide humanitarian aid to Zimbabwe.

When Mugabe was not accusing Britain of being behind the food shortage, he blamed the crisis on drought. But as Ed Osborne, a former secretary of agriculture in Zimbabwe, noted in a letter to Business Day, Zimbabwe had planned ahead during better days to meet the contingency of drought by a dam-building programme to sustain irrigation farming. For that reason the WFP's Lewis commented during the interview with Focus, "Water is not the issue in Zimbabwe".

The European Council undoubtedly had Zimbabwe in mind when it expressed deep concern that "certain political decisions" had "contributed to a further deterioration of the already alarming humanitarian situation". But the Zimbabwe government did not have a monopoly on unwise political decisions.

In Malawi the government, in an apparently irrational act, sold its entire strategic grain reserve last year, thereby depriving itself of what Lewis described as a viable safety net. The decision was made when there were already early warnings of an impending food shortage. As the WFP observed, the 2002 harvest was estimated to be "10 per cent less than last year's poor harvest". The International Monetary Fund was accused of imprudently advising the Malawi government to sell the reserve because of the high cost of maintaining it, an allegation that it denied. The debate about who was responsible for the decision was overshadowed, as Oxfam noted, by a wider two-pronged question, as yet unanswered. Who benefited from the sale and what happened to the money?

In Zambia, as in several of the affected countries, there was little or no effective contingency planning for drought. The assumption appeared to be that there would be another season of "rain-fed" production. Past experience of drought appeared to be a minor consideration. There were reports, too, of genetically modified maize lying idle in warehouses on the orders of politicians while people hovered on the brink of starvation. It should be noted, however, that the new minister of agriculture, disturbed by the food crisis, pledged to provide sufficient funding to maintain strategic food reserves in future. In the meantime, however, there was still the unanswered question of whether donor money was siphoned off for self-enrichment by government officials during the two-term presidency of Frederick Chiluba. By rescinding a decree granting Chiluba immunity from prosecution, President Levy Mwanawasa, who came to power in January, cleared the way for that question to be interrogated in court.

In Swaziland there was King Mswati's decision to purchase a R50m jet aircraft for his personal use, and without parliamentary approval, while nearly a fifth of his subjects were threatened with starvation. It was reminiscent of the indulgent extravagance of Louis XV1 in 18th century France. In the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho poverty long preceded the present drought. "Even in years of reasonable harvest and stable prices," the WFP noted in its account of Lesotho's food crisis, "some two-thirds of households are estimated to live below the poverty line and nearly half are classified as destitute". Even so, successive Lesotho governments could not evade total responsibility for, in the phraseology of the USAID development agency, "the poor soil management that has led to serious environmental degradation".

In Angola the death of Savimbi and the end of the civil war disclosed, as recorded earlier, terrible scenes of devastation, suffering and poverty in areas that had been occupied by Unita. But it simultaneously deprived the MPLA government of President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of the excuse it had used for years for the paucity of development in areas under its control. The reason offered by the Angolan government for the poverty of its citizens was that funds derived from the oilfields and diamond mines had to be diverted to finance the war effort against Unita. It served to explain why international aid agencies were feeding an estimated 1 million destitute Angolans.

But, as Global Witness noted at the time, there were suspicions that money was being channelled into the pockets of corrupt officials. The finger pointing did not exempt the presidential couple, Jose Dos Santos and his wife Ana, a businesswoman who had a stake in one of Angola's biggest diamond mines. President Dos Santos and his wife were once described by a diplomat as "a handsome couple, elegantly and expensively dressed, looking for all the world as though they're living in southern California". The plight of the poor in Angola and the extent of their hunger could be the product of corruption in government ranks as much as the need to finance the war against Savimbi.

Lewis was warm in her praise for the Southern African Development Community and the South African government (and its disaster management task force) for their co-operation with, and logistical support of, the WFP relief operation. "We are looking to the SADC in terms of policy correction," she said, referring to the need for Southern African governments to develop policies that guarantee food security in the decades ahead by taking account of the recurring dangers of drought and flooding.

For the SADC, whose member states are components of the AU, to succeed, however, it would have to address the problem of "misgovernment" with greater rigour than it did in the face of strong evidence of governmental abuse of power and chicanery in Zimbabwe during the election campaign leading to the March 2002 presidential election. If the defunct Organisation of African Unity was a trade union of political leaders bound by an agreement not to criticise one another, as Uganda's Yoweri Museveni once remarked, the AU and SADC have yet to establish that they are any better.