The death of eight people who tried to queue up to receive food aid at a sport complex in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, has raised questions on the country’s food security situation, the country’s leading opposition leader said on Tuesday.
“These deaths were avoidable in the sense that our people died as they were looking for food, which has become a luxury under the current government,” Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) said. At least eight people were killed on Monday in a stampede at the Olympic Youth Development Center (OYDC) as thousands of people invaded the sports complex to receive free food hampers which were being donated by a church.
The food parcels included a head of cabbage, sugar, soya pieces, cooking oil and a 10 kilogram bag of mealie-meal. The church had prepared food hampers for about 35,000 people, mostly from the slums of the city but more people turned up to receive the free food. According to eyewitnesses, the stampede was caused by impatient residents who did not have coupons but wanted to gain entry into the sports complex. The government has since expressed sadness over the loss of lives and suspended the operations of the church following the incident, claiming it did not follow laid-down laws for organizing public gatherings. But for opposition leaders and civil society groupings, the incident is a sign of the level of hunger in the country which boasts of producing plenty of maize, some of which is being exported to neighboring countries facing a maize shortage.
Critics have questioned why the price of the staple food, mealie meal, could be beyond the reach of many people, mostly from the country’s impoverished densely populated slums when the country has plenty of maize. According to the opposition leader, the scramble for food at the event is a sign of the hunger situation in the country as the price of the staple food has become too expensive for many to afford, a situation he calls unacceptable and shameful. “How can a country so rich as ours be failing to feed its own people and yet some people are globetrotting pretending that there is no hunger among ourselves,” he wondered. His views have been supported by MacDonald Chipenzi, a governance expert, who said the stampede over food was enough evidence for those in authority to consider the hunger situation among the impoverished people in society. “What happened at the OYDC has correctly brought to our attention the acute hunger situation people are facing in communities especially in urban areas,” he told Xinhua.
According to him, it is pointless for the government to be talking about bumper harvest of maize and improving economy when the majority of the people were not benefiting. He said the bumper harvest of maize and improved economic growth being touted by the government is a contrast to what was happening on the ground as people are not able to afford the price of mealie meal. “The unfortunate incident was due to our church, political leadership and some on-state actors who are denying the extent of hunger and destitution in our country and communities,” he added. Zambia has had good harvests of maize in recent years, a situation that makes the country among the few that are food secure in the southern African region. According to the Millers Association of Zambia, an association of milling companies in the country, Zambia is food secure with 915,000 tons of maize. Andrew Chintala, the association’s president said the country only need 350,000 tons of maize until the next harvest season which is expected to commence in April, according to local media.
However, despite the country having plenty of maize, the price of maize meal is still beyond the reach of many. Recently, the millers, the Grain Traders Association of Zambia and the government signed a tripartite maize agreement in which the millers were to be supplied with maize at reduced prices so that they could pass the benefits to the consumers. However, Zambian President Edgar Lungu has expressed concern that the agreement, which was effected last month, has not yielded any tangible results, forcing the president into threatening to cancel the agreement as it is not fulfilling its intended purpose of providing cheap mealie meal to the consumers