The British Role in Land Reform

An insider’s story

The Zimbabwean

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Peter Freeman, the first British development agency representative to Zimbabwe in 1980, gives an insider's view into the workings of the early stages of the British-funded land reform programme.

For over a century, in colonial Rhodesia and post-colonial Zimbabwe, the right to own and occupy land has driven political struggle and dominated the economy.

For over 20 years, working for successive British governments, it was part of my life too. As millions of people now go hungry and agricultural production plummets what happened to frustrate the hopes we had at independence and to bring about our worst fears? This is what I saw.

In the early 1980's I was the British government's representative on the committee in Harare that approved resettlement projects that both governments financed. The cost of land purchase and of the necessary infrastructure - water, roads, power, clinics and schools - was shared equally between the two governments.

Each scheme was identified and developed by Zimbabwean officials and the land price was negotiated with the commercial farmer. They were appraised for economic viability by British advisers and we visited most of them. Other donors, including the EU and the African Development Bank, helped to finance infrastructure (though not land purchase) in other schemes. Independent evaluations showed subsequently that the great majority of them worked well, enabling thousands of small-scale farmers and their families to make a productive living. Over 2 million hectares changed hands in this way.

This programme stemmed from the much-criticised compromises made at Lancaster House in 1979. ZANU(PF) and ZAPU argued that buying out the white farmers was something for Britain alone to do, and many farmers would certainly have welcomed being paid in sterling with a British government guarantee rather than in Zimbabwean dollars. For a government in London that was cutting back heavily on public spending at home such largesse to people who had supported a rebel government, who were often not British citizens and mostly had no wish to live here, was never a starter. Watching the negotiations in 1979 from the Zimbabwe desk in the British aid ministry I remember being surprised at how easily Mugabe and Nkomo settled for pledges of future assistance for land reform, not even insisting on a figure for the amount of money.

More fundamental realities also favoured land reform in 1980. The Muzorewa regime had bought substantial tracts of farmland at cheap rates in areas where war (the cost of security) during the independence struggle hit commercial profits, and immediately after independence there were few alternative purchasers in the market. The planning bureaucracy in the Agriculture and Rural Development Authority (ARDA) and other government departments, and the availability of people and machinery to implement the plans, was also comparatively strong.

However from the start there was a serious problem. President Mugabe showed no interest, then or later, in solving the complex and sensitive political issue of land ownership via this negotiated route.

In 1981 a target of 180,000 settler families in three years suddenly appeared, many times higher than the capacity of the programme that British and Zimbabwean Ministers had signed up to. To do it would probably have produced the same dreadful results that we have seen 25 years later.

But the announcement had a political impact. The initial enthusiasm for the joint programme of Mr Moven Mahachi and Dr Sydney Sekeremayi, the first of many Ministers responsible for land reform, cooled as they failed to get support from State House. During the years that followed the flow of new proposals slowed down and the Zimbabwean capacity to implement them was dismantled.

When we reviewed the programme in 1989 we found that the British aid funds that had been pledged after independence, which Zimbabwe ministers had criticised as hopelessly inadequate, had not been fully claimed. The
Ministries of Land and of Finance had not asked for aid money due for work on approved projects and new proposals were not coming forward. Lynda Chalker, then Minister for Overseas Development, wrote to Zimbabwean
ministers reminding them of the debts that Britain owed and promising new money when the post-independence pledges had been used. There was no response.

This depressing lack of activity continued into the 1990's while the political pressure built up. Amendments to the constitutional provisions for land purchase changed nothing on the ground. The practical proposals of the commission on land tenure, which might over time have revolutionised farming practices throughout rural Zimbabwe and given renewed impetus for land reform on a sustainable basis, were brushed aside. And the British side, finding little pressure from Harare, buried its head and hoped the issue had gone away.

Shortly after I became responsible for British aid to Africa in June 1996 the Ministers for Land and for Local Government, Kumbirai Kangai and John Nkomo, arrived unexpectedly in London. They told Lynda Chalker they had come to reopen the Lancaster House settlement on land. Mugabe had, as usual, fought the recent election with grandiose promises of land transfer to be financed by Britain. They wanted the money, would stay as long as it took, and would be reporting back each evening to their President at his London hotel.

Three days of discussion followed, during which they were embarrassed to be given copies of the 1989 letter and surprised to discover that the UK Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind had researched the colonial Land Apportionment Acts while at law school in Salisbury in the 1960's. He knew more than them about the historic wrongs that needed to be put right through land reform. A memorandum signed by both sides promised a fresh pledge of British aid for a renewed joint programme. It offered technical help to develop it. Back in Harare, once again, nothing happened.

The following year Mugabe tried again. He hoped the arrival of a Labour government would enable him to tear up the compromises he had made, but never acknowledged, eighteen years before. He wrote to Tony Blair asking for a fresh start based on the British government accepting full responsibility for buying out the white farmers and handing the land to his government to distribute as he thought fit, the position he had consistently taken. He claimed, wrongly, that a previous Labour government had offered such a deal twenty years earlier when David Owen and Andrew Young had proposed a "Zimbabwe Development Fund".

Clare Short wrote a letter in reply that became famous when Mugabe read an extract to his party congress. The reference to her Irish background that he held up for scorn was intended to acknowledge that Zimbabwe is not the only place where land expropriation by the colonial power had had a negative impact on local people. Her encouragement to look forward, to work together to design a land reform programme that would meet Zimbabwe's needs in the 21st century rather than to focus wholly on the past, was either beyond his understanding or did not suit his political aims.

The part of her letter he did not read out offered a fresh start, though not the free hand and unlimited budget that he wanted. She offered financial and technical assistance for an organised, Zimbabwe-led, programme of land purchase and resettlement in partnership with other donors and within the context of a British development effort now being focussed world-wide on eliminating poverty. This was not what Mugabe wanted his people to hear.

Further efforts by Britain, the UN and the World Bank over the next two years to negotiate a sustainable rural development programme that would meet justifiable political expectations were brushed aside. In September 1999 the Bank Board in Washington approved a US$5 million credit that had been negotiated with Zimbabwean Ministers. It was meant to jump-start the planning process and to start up a land acquisition fund for groups of communal area farmers to draw on.

I don't know whether anyone in Harare had dared to tell Mugabe before the announcement. As ever he refused to endorse it and it was never implemented. Turning his back on the outside world he acted alone with the tragic results that The Zimbabwean continues to report.

So where did it all go wrong?

25 years ago many of us recognised that the pace of change, beneficial though it was, could not meet the political demands in Harare. But over many years attempts by politicians and civil servants in Harare to reduce the bottlenecks in planning and implementation, to allocate government funds for sustainable resettlement and to negotiate foreign aid to support them, gained little or no support in ZANU(PF), in the Cabinet or in State House.

Did Mugabe and his circle all along want to allocate land as a means of patronage, not as a route to development? Did they see land as simply a symbolic issue and simply fail to understand its economic importance? Could a more active British policy in the early 1990's have produced a response in Harare that might have got a programme going again before frustrations boiled over? Could the commercial farmers, rather than hoping to stay forever, have acknowledged their fate and negotiated a phased handover to productive successors?

These questions and others are unfortunately academic. The gap between what Britain and other donors were prepared to offer and what Mugabe demanded proved unbridgeable. Rather than compromise he has produced a famine.

The first British development agency representative