January 12, 2004

TANZANIA: Famine looming

Amid reports that some people around Lake Victoria are now cooking and eating raw mangoes for sustenance, counter accusations by the government and the opposition are threatening to worsen the acute food shortages facing more than two million Tanzanians. The issue has become such a political hot potato that some analysts speculate that its handling may influence the outcome of the 2005 general elections. Opposition politicians say that since Premier Frederick Sumaye's issued a threat to district commissioners to ensure food availability or face the sack, the officials have been under-reporting the extent of famine in their areas for fear of losing their jobs. The Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) government, on the other hand, accuses the opposition of seeking to make political mileage out of the famine and insists that the number of affected people is not that high. It also claims that food aid and commercially imported cereals are adequate, but are not reaching the people at the promised subsidised prices.

The opposition first sounded the alarm after the national chairman of the Civic United Front (CUF), Prof Ibrahim Lipumba, visited several districts in Tabora Region in western Tanzania and reported that some villagers were eating roots, some of them poisonous. But the Tabora regional authorities, who were yet to visit the famine-stricken villages, dismissed Prof Lipumba's report as "cheap publicity." In Dodoma rural, however, the authorities admitted the situation has worsened in recent weeks, necessitating the distribution of food to all 128 villages. District Commissioner Mark Maffa was quoted as saying: "Some people are abandoning their homes to go and look for casual work to earn money for food." Even as politicians quibble over the severity of the famine, the government's response and that of donors indicates that the situation is bad.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, Mr Wilfred Ngirwa, warned last month that Coast, Dar es Salaam, Tanga, Kilimanjaro, Arusha, Manyara, Mara and Mwanza regions, and northern parts of Morogoro, Kigoma and Shinyanga regions, as well as Pemba island of Zanzibar, are expected to experience food shortages from this January to March because of poor rains. The Minister for Finance, Mr Basil Mramba, added his voice, saying that the Ministry would in the next session seek approval of parliament for an extra expenditure of Tsh4 billion ($4 million) for the purchase and distribution of food to alleviate famine.

In order to avert the looming famine, Tanzania has had to import even from countries which would normally be at the receiving end from Tanzania, as far as food security is concerned. Mr Geoffrey Paul Mbogo, the shipping manager of Export Trading Company Ltd, said: "We have imported some 8.000 metric tonnes of maize from Ethiopia, 5.000 from Zambia, 4.000 tonnes from Mozambique and 10.000 tonnes from Malawi." The company is one of the main importers under the waiver system introduced and later extended by the government in order to deal with the food shortages.

The looming famine also forced the government to extend to an unspecified date import duty remission for rice to allow increased importation of cereals to offset prevailing food shortages. Furthermore, by December last year, the government had released 32.540 tonnes of maize from its Strategic Grain Reserve for sale to affected areas at the retail price of Tsh50 per kg, but reports from 50 out of 120 most affected districts say they cannot afford to buy even at that price. Private importers had imported 297.044 tonnes of maize, rice and wheat. Already the US, through the World Food Programme has donated 15.000 tonnes of maize. Sweden, the UK and Ireland have granted a total of U$4.3 million for purchase and distribution of 11.521 tonnes of foodstuffs. The Japanese government has donated 17.000 tonnes of rice and 3.000 tonnes of wheat, which are already in the country. (The East African, Nairobi)

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