Critics accuse the president of using land to stay in power
As the sun rises over Karoi, Zimbabwe, about 200 km northwest of the capital, Harare, squatters appear to have taken over the rolling countryside. Their presence is a stark reminder of the troubled times facing the southern African nation. The hundreds of black peasants camping on the rich farmland owned by whites are protesting unequal land distribution. And for the first time since the squatters appeared in February, white families have started to abandon their properties. One farmer wept as he recounted how armed insurgents forced him to sign over his 400-hectare tobacco farm. Across Zimbabwe, once considered a model for racial tolerance, similar tales are now heard.
Estimates vary widely, but at least 7,000 rebel peasants, led by men claiming to be veterans of the country’s liberation war against Great Britain, have seized 500 farms. Two people have been killed, and on April 1, 15 others were injured when black supporters of President Robert Mugabe attacked opposition party members peacefully demonstrating against the farm invasions on the streets of Harare.
The farmers are an easy target: although whites make up about one per cent of the country’s population of 12 million, they still own about one-third of all fertile land. And the situation is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Last week, Harare High Court Judge Moses Chinenga ruled the Zimbabwean police must evict the thousands of squatters, insisting the “rule of law must be upheld.” But the police have already asked to be excused for not obeying an earlier eviction order. And last week, the war veterans rejected the High Court decision even as the farm invasions continued—and Mugabe vowed that nothing would stand in the way of land
redistribution. All of this comes as Mugabe dissolved Zimbabwe’s parliament last week, ostensibly in anticipation of a forthcoming election, which the 76-year-old strongman says he will call some time this spring.
Many Zimbabweans, both black and white, are blaming the president for encouraging the squatters and raising racial tensions as a ploy to win rural support. He certainly has his own political problems. Just before the farm invasions began in February, Zimbabweans voted down a draft constitution that would have extended Mugabe’s term for a further 10 years and given him power to confiscate white-owned land for redistribution to blacks. For the first time in his 20 years as leader of Zimbabwe, officials of his own party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), suggested Mugabe step down—a sentiment shared by many citizens.
But despite Mugabe’s referendum defeat, in early April the ZANU-PF-controlled parliament passed legislation allowing the government to seize the white-owned farms—which further emboldened the squatters. Many political analysts see the action as an attempt to intimidate white land owners, who largely support the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the first party that has a chance of defeating the ZANU-PF in its 20-year reign. “Its not a question of land, but a political problem,” Ian Smith, the former prime minister who still lives in Flarare, told Macleans. “The present government is scared of losing the elections and wants to use the land issue as a political gimmick to stay in power.”
But land is an issue that has bedeviled Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, since it gained its independence from Britain in 1980 after a bloody 15-year guerrilla war against whiteminority rule. As part of the independence negotiations, Mugabe, leader of the rebels, agreed to a reform program that involved, with British aid, buying land owned by whites and reallocating it to landless black peasants. Yet over the years, critics say, the government mismanaged the program. Even though the economy thrived in the 1980s, land reform was sidelined as Mugabe spent the money that should have gone to land reform supporting left-wing insurgencies in other African nations. In an unpopular move, last year Mugabe’s government sent 11,000 Zimbabwean troops to fight on the side of Laurent Kabila’s regime in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war.
Critics have also accused Mugabe of playing favourites at home. “Mugabe’s ministers, state and party officials profited from the land distribution, some of them amassing several farms,” says MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. More than half of the 800,000 hectares bought from white farmers since 1980 was distributed to wealthy Zimbabweans, mostly
Mugabe’s friends. Another 800,000 hectares is currendy up for sale, but the cash-strapped government cannot afford it. Meanwhile, the majority of black rural peasants to whom Mugabe promised land never received any, Tsvangirai claims. “Those who really need land have been practically ignored for years,” he said.
In order to win the next election, Mugabe needs to woo the black rural constituency— ZANU-PF’s traditional core of support. But black allegiance is waning. Many say the rapid descent of the country into poverty is one reason voters are disenchanted with the current government. Meaningful advances achieved since independence in I health care and education have I eroded—while reports indicate I that nearly three-quarters of I Zimbabweans now live below the poverty line. Inflation is at 60 per cent. The Zimbabwean dollar is worth about four cents in Canadian funds. A large unemployment crisis, AIDS—which claims the lives of an estimated 1,200 Zimbabweans each week—and a fuel shortage cripple the country. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have frozen all financial aid, because of the poor performance of the national economy and Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Congo war.
But Mugabe seems determined to persevere, even if it plunges the nation into armed conflict. One tactic, say MDC officials, is intimidating white opposition party members. In the April 1 incident in Flarare, the attackers targeted whites, not blacks, in the mixed demonstration. In other violence on April 3, 12 black squatters beat Iain Kay, who owns a farm about 80 km southeast of Harare, on two separate occasions. Kay holds a prominent position with the MDC and was planning on running in the spring election.
Smith says simply that “Mugabe’s government is desperate and wants to stay in power at any cost.” Some foreign observers seem to agree. Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, recently suggested to Mugabe that international observers monitor the next election. Smith, however, said such a move would not make a difference: “International observers mostly see what is on the surface. They don’t see how the government is intimidating the opposition and democratic forces.” As other accounts of violence emerge from Zimbabwe, that may not be true for long.
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