A few weeks ago I happened to meet an interesting new acquaintance; this person was a member of UNICEF who’d arrived in Butare on his way to see what he could do to help the earthquake-ravaged populace in Cyangugu town and other parts of the Western Province.
We had a chance to sit down to chat and what a conversation it was. The UNICEF man had flown in from Zimbabwe, and once I learnt that, the conversation quickly turned to the realities on the ground, more especially of a political nature, in that country.
I was curious, above all, about whether the international media was accurate in portraying the Zimbabwean economy as a lame duck because I’d been used to these media houses depicting African nations as ‘banana republics’. I was surprised to find out, according to the UNICEF gentleman anyway, that the media might have, in fact, under-reported some things. According to him, the only reason that people didn’t die in the streets was because there happened to be World Food Programme (WFP) trucks providing the staple, maize, to the starving people.
Furthermore, I learnt to my horror that even this essential food was being used in a high stakes game of Russian roulette. According to the gentleman, President Mugabe uses the food relief as a kind of loaded gun on the collective heads of the Zimbabwean people.
You see, whenever he chooses to punish the people for having the impertinence to oppose him, he shuts down the WFP trucks outside the border and when he realizes that the people might get too hungry to care about getting tear-gassed and thrown in prison and ready to rebel, he lets the trucks in, and the previously rebellious people forget the thought of killing him but rather treat him as a kind of ‘hero’. It dawned on me that the WFP might actually be keeping him in power in some strange way.
When I mentioned this he was quick to point out that the WFP had no choice but to play along with this because people’s lives were at stake and that the political gimmicks had to be tolerated for the greater good. He has a good point.
However, I choose to disagree with this viewpoint that he had and probably one that many readers might have. This so-called ‘humanitarian-ism’ of food aid without tackling the real reasons that cause the hunger in the first place is one that, in my humble estimate, doesn’t make sense. I mean, what happened to the ancient Chinese maxim that ‘give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him fishing and you feed him for life’? Seriously though, haven’t those in the highest echelons of the UN and WFP in particular learnt their lesson? Food aid has always played a large role in international politics and the bodies that distribute it have often played a negative role despite their best wishes. Look at Somalia; warlords control the populace because they control the routes that the aid trucks travel, in fact US-led Operation Restore Hope in Somali came into being because the Somali warlords, more especially the late Farah Aideed, used the food aid as a control mechanism and a weapon of war.
Closer to home, who can’t remember the refugee problem that Rwanda had just after the 1994 Genocide? Refugees, led by their former leaders, many if not all Genocide perpetrators, settled right across our border in the former Zaire in the camps of Mugongo and Tingi-tingi. Some of these refugees carried out atrocities in the camps, carried arms and acted like an invading army. What was the ‘humanitarian’ response? Give them food, medicine and whatever they needed to make their stay in Congo as comfortable as possible! Did they think that maybe their stay in the Congo would destabilize Rwanda? Maybe. Did the ‘humanitarians’ realize that terrible things were going on there including further genocidal killings? Probably. But what was their response? Give them more food!
Here is what I believe: the attitude of ‘all they need is food aid’ is wrong. The quote that ‘no man can live on bread alone’ is one that I love. Unless you tackle the underlying factors to these crises that call for food aid then you shall keep having this aid used by unscrupulous characters to further their aims.
Here is what I would do. Stop giving food aid without conditions. If you use my aid to do things that I believe are unjust I shall turn off the taps. Yes, people might starve but there is a saying that a ‘hungry man is an angry man’. No state can exist without the will of the people…and trust me, no government can resist the force of a hungry people who, rightly, realize that their leadership is the cause of their suffering. Guess what would happen then? Real change and not just a full stomach for a day or two.