Mugabe has built up a 10,000-acre farming empire

Robert Mugabe has built up a secret farming empire from land seized from at least five white-owned businesses, a Daily Telegraph investigation has found.

By Peta Thornycroft in Harare and Sebastien Berger

25 Sep 2009

Robert Mugabe has built up a secret farming empire from land seized from at least five white-owned businesses Photo: EPA

The discovery of the 10,000-acre holding worth £2 million is the first evidence of how he personally benefited from the land seizures programme which started in 2000.

More than 4,000 commercial farmers had their land taken in the drive that destroyed Zimbabwe's agriculture industry, the bedrock of the economy.

The country, now being guided by a power-sharing deal struck last year between Mr Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai, desperately needs to rebuild its shattered economy.

But Mr Mugabe's private farming empire is an obstacle to resurrecting commercial agriculture, according to experts. They say an audit of land ownership as part of essential structural reforms would expose the president's controversial control of the 10,000-acre area.

The Daily Telegraph located Mr Mugabe's private empire in the Darwendale area, near Mr Mugabe's tribal home, about 30 miles west of the capital Harare.

It is made up of six farms, including five properties seized from white owners over the years.

Violent land seizures began in Zimbabwe in 2000 carried out by so- called "war veterans" who fought against Ian Smith's white-ruled Rhodesia before independence from Britain in 1980. A parallel official process to take legal ownership of the white-owned land began the following year.

The 1,100-acre Highfield farm near Mr Mugabe's tribal home was bought commercially but five others were seized from their white owners.

Three were owned by the Skea family – Cressydale, John O'Groat, and Tankatara – who were forced out between 2000 and 2002 and have emigrated to Australia and New Zealand. The owners of the other two farms – Clifford and Cressydale 2 – were forced out in 2006 and 2008.

Leo Skea, who used to grow proteas and other crops at John O'Groat, said: "We arrived back from Europe in July 2002 to a farm overrun with war vets and we made the decision to leave as we could feel ourselves getting back on the treadmill to who knows where."

According to staff, the five seized farms were initially run by the government's Agricultural Rural Development Authority (ARDA), which poured in millions of pounds of Zimbabwean taxpayers' money.

One long-serving worker recalled the frightening days when the farm invasions began in 2000.

"First the president bought Highfield. Hordes of people were brought into another farm in open trucks and gathered all the workers, and told them it now belongs to ARDA," he said. "Those who didn't want to work for ARDA were beaten up and told to leave the farm, and the invaders started staying in the houses."

Workers said ARDA's role was reduced in 2006 and a small group of "war veterans" occupying some of the land were also asked to leave to make way for Mr Mugabe.

One of the war veterans, wearing faded blue overalls and shoes made from car tyres said Mr Mugabe had made sacrifices for the freedom of Zimbabwe, including a decade in jail, and deserved to have the land which now makes up his estate. He said: "He is our hero."

On several visits to the estate by The Daily Telegraph it was clear that the six farms were now being operated as a single business.

Workers said they were now employed either by Mr Mugabe or "Gushungo", his family name, which is also the new name for the estate.

"We were told the farms belong to the president," said the worker, who cannot be named for his own safety, or the farm on which he lives identified.

The appropriation of the farms by the president has not been officially confirmed. Earlier this year, this year the state- controlled Herald newspaper referred to Highfield as "the president's farm" but there was no mention of the neighbouring land.

The total estate now stretches over 10,000 acres on the edge of Lake Robertson including homesteads, managers' cottages, workers' houses, huge barns, sheds, workshops and 19 recently-acquired portable rotating irrigation systems known as centre pivots which cost about £80,000 each.

The estate is valued at about £2 million and Mr Mugabe visits every three months or so according to workers and some residents of Norton, a small town nearby.

They said his 14-vehicle motorcade, which normally includes an ambulance, would sweep along the dusty dirt roads of the area.

Staff say that Mr Mugabe grows maize, rice, wheat, different sorghums, and sweet potatoes, and has a herd of Brahmin cattle, goats, plus five camels. According to the official press, the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi presented Mr Mugabe with some camels early this decade.

Under Zimbabwe's state cereal trading monopoly, Mr Mugabe will have had to sell his produce to the Grain Marketing Board, which distributes it within the country. The monopoly was abolished under the unity government earlier this year, but it is not yet time for the next harvest.

The lush lands of Mr Mugabe's estate contrast sharply with former white-owned land in much of the country.

Zimbabwe's white commercial farmers, and the tens of thousands of employees they supported, used to produce exports which earned 40 per cent of the country's foreign currency. But now satellite images indicate that less than 20 per cent of the 20 million acres that were seized are in use.

The white farmers' demise – and the distribution of their farms to cronies of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party – triggered the catastrophic decline of the economy which has seen millions of people needing food aid.

A crucial clause in the political agreement signed between Zanu-PF and Mr Tsvangirai's MDC party a year ago demands a land audit as a preliminary step to rebuilding agriculture.

Brian Raftopoulous, a top Zimbabwean political scientist, said: "This is part of Zanu PF's rapid accumulation of property since 2000 and explains in particular the deep relationship between Zanu-PF's unwillingness to accede to a free and fair election, and its increasing control of the land.

"A land audit would expose the deep levels of corruption of public resources over the last decade, a very real blockage in the political agreement."

Mr Mugabe even argued as part of his justification for seizing farms that no one should have more than one farm.

Trevor Gifford, past president of the Commercial Farmers Union, said that as the properties were originally six different title deeds, Mr Mugabe was "breaking his own rules".

"None of owners of the five farms have been paid any compensation for them, which they should be according to the law," he said.

With the workings of the inclusive government still difficult, an MDC spokesman said that the party leader and prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai would not want to be "discourteous" by commenting on Mr Mugabe's personal affairs at this stage.

But Vincent Gwaradzimba, the MDC secretary for lands and agriculture said: "A land audit would expose that he (Mr Mugabe) has multiple farms, so one way to avoid a land audit is to make sure there is no full implementation of the political agreement. The land reform exercise was meant for the few, senior members of Zanu PF, and they have taken most of the good land for themselves."

The Daily Telegraph has asked Mr Mugabe whether he has received licences for the five seized farms but has not received a response.

No response has been received to requests for comment from Mr Mugabe's office, his spokesman, the agriculture ministry, or the central bank.

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