Harare — IN a major volte face, President Robert Mugabe's government has accepted United Nations (UN) assistance for the provision of shelter to thousands of victims of its controversial Operation Murambatsvina scattered in and around the country.
The government's change of heart, coming a month before the arrival of another special UN envoy to assess the humanitarian crisis triggered by the widely condemned clean-up exercise, follows this week's forcible removal of hundreds of people that had been sleeping in the open in Mbare after the demolition of slums six months ago.
Sources within the diplomatic community in Harare told The Financial Gazette yesterday that Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo wrote to the UN on Monday stating that the government had resolved to accept the world body's help to specifically build shelter for people made homeless by Operation Murambatsvina.
Although Chombo was unavailable for comment yesterday, Yasuhiro Ueki, the acting director of the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC), confirmed the latest development.
"I can confirm that we received a letter from the Government of Zimbabwe for the UN to proceed with the construction of temporary shelter. The confirmation was received late Monday. The eventual cost will possibly be US$18 million," said Ueki.
Diplomatic sources, adamant that the government lacks the financial wherewithal to construct decent accommodation for the clean-up victims without external assistance, said the overall UN offer entailed building 20 000 temporary housing units at an estimated total cost of US$20 million.
The initial phase of the UN project would involve the construction of 2 500 units mostly in Harare and Bulawayo for thousands of urbanites rendered homeless by the widely-condemned exercise.
UN Habitat head Anna Tibaijuka, who visited Zimbabwe in June and compiled a damning report on the demolitions, put the figure of the homeless at 700 000 people.
Tibaijuka also reported that more than 2.4 million others were left without means of earning a living following the destruction of informal vending sites and backyard industries. The UN offered to build temporary housing units for the victims of the operation then but the government spurned the offer, categorically stating there was no humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.
In a previous communication to the UN, Chombo stated that it was the government's position that "there is no longer a compelling need to provide temporary shelter as there is no humanitarian crisis."
Chombo also claimed in the communication to the UN that government had addressed the most urgent shelter needs in Zimbabwe after it put into place Operation Garikai, the successor to Operation Murambatsvina, a claim which has been proved untrue as thousands of people are still homeless five months after the beginning of the controversial operation.
Annan last month slammed President Mugabe's government for rebuffing UN assistance. The UN chief said he was dismayed and disappointed by the government's refusal to accept aid, despite growing evidence of a humanitarian crisis.
Jan Egeland, the UN relief coordinator, is now expected in Harare in early December to help with the project as well as assess the humanitarian crisis besetting the southern African nation.
The government's Operation Garikai/Hlalani Kuhle has dismally failed to meet set targets.
Zimbabwe is grappling with one of its worst food shortages. The UN's World Food Programme estimates that 4.3 million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid but the Harare authorities are adamant only 2.4 million require assistance. The WFP is currently feeding one million people in the country and preparations are in progress to feed 2.9 million before the end of the year.