Farm invasions about power, not land

Power, not land, lies at the heart of Zimbabwe’s crisis

The Daily Telegraph by Graham Boynton

10 September 2001

ROBERT MUGABE will not hand over power in Zimbabwe. Whatever promises have been made following the Abuja accord, whatever undertakings have been made about a return to the rule of law and the withdrawal of squatters and self-styled war veterans from farms “illegally occupied”, the retention of political power remains the bottom line.

It has always been thus. This wave of lawlessness and farm invasions commenced within days of President Robert Mugabe being voted down by his own people – for the first time – in a constitutional referendum last year. For the previous 18 years of his rule he had been noticeably indifferent to the needs of his landless peasants and the only acquisition of formerly white-owned farms was undertaken for the benefit of a handful of Mr Mugabe’s political allies.

The referendum undermined Mr Mugabe’s illusions of political invulnerability. I remember watching him deliver his concession speech on national television, his acquiescence to the will of the people delivered with polite formality but with barely concealed menace. One knew that the minute he had finished admitting defeat, the work would start on ensuring it would never happen again.

If a free and fair election were held tomorrow, I have no doubt that Mr Mugabe would be swept from power. So, too, if it were held on any other day between now and April, as required by the Zimbabwe constitution, so widespread is the revulsion at the greed, corruption and violence his government has inflicted on the country.

But there’s the fatal flaw of the Abuja accord. By stating “land is the core of Zimbabwe’s crisis” it plays directly into the hands of Mr Mugabe’s propagandists. The core of the crisis is clearly misgovernment and the accord, by focusing on the land issue, shows no express commitment to a fair electoral process. In fact, by declaring “the international community will respond to any request by the Zimbabwe government regarding the electoral process”, the accord rather misses the point.

Surely it is the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has had at least 80 of its supporters and candidates murdered over the past two years, who should be making requests for protection and transparency.

This scepticism is informed by a 10-day trip I have just made in Zimbabwe, travelling as a tourist because foreign journalists are turned away at the border. I still cannot quite digest the harsh reality of this beautiful, once self-sufficient country in which I was raised disintegrating so visibly and so catastrophically, week by week. The nation is on the brink of famine.

Clearly, the intention behind the Nigerian accord, the planned fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe next week by the five southern African presidents, and the October Commonwealth Conference in Brisbane is to talk Mr Mugabe and his followers down from their vindictive campaign against the small community of whites and the enormous community of black opponents. In the calm surroundings of Europe’s drawing rooms, these may seem rather reasonable requirements.

However, on the frontline in Zimbabwe they appear as little more than wishful thinking. Mr Mugabe’s own people say so in public. On the day I arrived in the country, the Zanu-PF MP and war veteran, Nobby Zinzi, told parliament that anyone who thought the ruling party would hand over power was kidding himself. A few days earlier another Mugabe stalwart, Didymus Mutasa, had said in court, under oath, that if circumstances required there would be a coup in Zimbabwe.

This is not the ranting of party extremists, but an expression of Zanu-PF’s official position, and supports the view of political opponents that even if the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai did win a presidential election, he would not necessarily take office. As one senior opposition politician told me: “There is nothing Mugabe will not do to retain power. He is prepared to take out Morgan Tsvangirai if he feels it necessary.”

This win-at-all-costs approach explains the escalation of violence and intimidation that has spread throughout the country over the past two weeks. On a farm that provides five per cent of the country’s maize, “war veterans” looted an entire warehouse of fertiliser and grain and smashed the three combine harvesters, each worth 300 million Zimbabwe dollars, that would have harvested what is left of this year’s crop.

On the same day, more war veterans, all of whom are paid wages out of the national treasury, attacked Matabeleland farmers, occupied gold mines in the region and set fire to huge swathes of the countryside, so destroying the grasslands at a critical time of the year. Now the cattle that provide the country with one of its last trickles of foreign currency will starve and the beef industry will collapse. This is not a spontaneous popular uprising by landless peasants, but a campaign orchestrated from the very top of government to terrify the people into submission.

For all these outrages, the most sinister development is Mr Mugabe’s increasing attachment to his most vocal political ally. As his southern African neighbours have over the past weeks been distancing themselves from him, so he has turned to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi for support.

Col Gaddafi recently swept into the country in a motorcade that had travelled from Lusaka, on the way stopping at the besieged farming community of Chinhoyi and telling the whites they should leave the country.

The Libyans have just concluded a $300 million oil deal and the Zimbabwe government has all but admitted that part-ownership of some of the state’s oil company NOCZIM is part of the deal. They have also bought at least 10 luxury properties in the capital of Harare, and have expressed interest in agriculture and tourism businesses.

It is the Libyans that Mr Mugabe’s political opponents fear most. David Coltart, the shadow Minister of Justice, told me he had received reports that the Libyans were now assisting with Mr Mugabe’s security and there was talk of assassination squads moving into Harare. He said that the previous week Patrick Chinamasa, the minister of justice, had approached him during a parliamentary recess and warned him, in front of witnesses, that “if you think you have been under pressure from us, you haven’t seen anything yet”.

When he opened Zanu-PF’s special conference last December Mr Mugabe blamed the whites for the country’s economic ills. “Our party must continue to strike fear into the heart of the white man,” he thundered. “They must tremble.” In this, they have succeeded and over the past six months the confidence of the small but economically influential white community has evaporated. For the first time they have stopped talking about “making a plan” or “lying low” until this particular storm blows over. Now they are queuing up at five in the morning outside the British High Commission, scrambling to get their British passports in order.

In the past weeks Mr Mugabe has set a course down which his country is plummeting irreversibly, and whatever happens at the forthcoming international gatherings, nothing will deter him and his henchmen from clinging on. He will retain power at any cost.