Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mugabe Finds New Targets as Disaster Looms

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Long lines of people waiting for corn meal snake through the streets of a nation that was once the breadbasket of southern Africa. Some wait for days, sleeping in lines so they won't lose their place. Girls 13 and under are being married off for the bride price to buy expensive black-market food. Many people are getting one meal a day. And Zimbabwe's hunger crisis is sure to get worse.

Drought, a crashing economy and a land reform program that has destroyed commercial farming have pushed millions of Zimbabweans to the brink of starvation.

In the midst of it all, Zimbawean President Robert Mugabe has lashed out, accusing mining giant Anglo-American Corp. of hoarding salt and threatened to seize the company's local assets, state media reported Sunday.

Mugabe said his government "will not tolerate companies bent on causing unnecessary suffering to the people by creating unnecessary shortages,'' state radio reported.

The radio said ruling party officials last week found 2,000 metric tons of salt in warehouses belonging to National Foods, a company partially owned by Anglo Zimbabwe, a subsidiary of London-based Anglo American.

A National Foods executive said the salt had not been put on the market because it had been imported from neighboring Botswana at the parallel exchange rate of 300 Zimbabwean dollars to the U.S. dollar.

At that rate, nearly six times the government's fixed exchange rate, the company would take a huge loss if it sold the salt at the market price set by the government, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The company had been negotiating with government officials to find a compromise price for the salt.

In a speech to ruling party officials Friday, Mugabe attacked National Foods, which he described as "an Anglo American company of Nicky Oppenheimer,'' the chairman of the mining giant. "They have been hoarding salt. ... They want people on the streets against our government. What kind of mischief is this?'' he said, according to the state-owned Sunday Mail. "We will take over their enterprises.''

Officials from Anglo Zimbabwe, which owns 34 percent of National Foods, could not immediately be reached for comment.

In the 1990s, Anglo Zimbabwe sold off most of its industrial and agricultural investments in Zimbabwe, but retained some mining interests.

More than 6 million Zimbabweans, about half the population, are in danger of starvation after a drought and government seizures of white-owned commercial farms nearly destroyed this year's grain harvest, according to the United Nations.

The country is running out of corn and wheat, and its supplies of cooking oil and salt are dwindling.

Five other southern African countries are also facing severe hunger this year, but Zimbabwe is by far the worst off. The UN World Food Program says nearly half of its 13 million people will need food aid. A country that used to export food to hungry neighbors will need to import a staggering 1.8 million tons of grain just to get through the year.

"This is unprecedented," said Andrew Timpson of Save the Children UK. "We're very worried indeed."

The harvest has just ended, and already the country is running out of corn, the staple food. It is about to use the last of its wheat, and supplies of cooking oil and animal feed are dwindling.

With no hard currency reserves and an economy shredded by political unrest, the government will almost certainly be unable to import enough grain to feed its people, even with hundreds of thousands of tons of donated food, economists and aid workers said. Meanwhile, much of Zimbabwe's most productive farmland lies fallow as the government continues its efforts to seize nearly all the land owned by the nation's white commercial farmers, by far Zimbabwe's most productive food producers, and redistribute it to landless blacks.

The government says it is rectifying a hated legacy of British colonial rule. But human rights activists accuse it of using the seizures to reward its supporters with land while punishing white farmers and their hundreds of thousands of farmworkers, who are seen as opposition stalwarts.

Key donor countries are incensed at government-inspired political violence, Mugabe's land policies and his re-election in March in a ballot that many international and domestic observers judged flawed. The government has also created a grain monopoly. If it doesn't let private companies import grain, "the situation could go from bad to catastrophic," said Judith Lewis, regional director of the World Food Program.

The government is also accused of using hunger as a weapon, shipping state-subsidized grain only to strongholds of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party.