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On land, Mugabe walked path other African leaders would not

08 Aug 2021 at 07:55hrs | Views
Former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe. File | AFP
Forget what you may have read in Western press about the late Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Forget the propaganda and Western hate. Forgive the excesses of his rule – human rights abuse and extremes that could run from Cairo to Timbuktu. But on land policy, Mugabe was right. Yet he was vilified for that.

Had he done nothing on the white-owned farms and left them intact, he would be ranked by Western media alongside Nelson Mandela.

Mandela failed to address the land inequity in South Africa, even when goodwill was on his side. Mugabe decided to give it a shot.

In his lifetime, especially at the tail-end of his rule, Mugabe was the most maligned president in Africa for doing what was right, on land, for his people.

Before Mugabe is buried as a hero, it is better to put some record straight lest it's forgotten.

The row between Mugabe and Western countries was not about democracy. Africa, before and  after 2000, was still the playground of various dictators who rigged elections, curtailed freedoms and vanquished opponents. Yet they never got sanctions.

We have had a galaxy of those dictators and they all had Western support. We can start with Daniel arap Moi, Laurent Kabila, Kamuzu Banda, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Mobutu Sese Seko, Jean Bedel Bokassa, Idi Amin Dada, Siad Barre, Marcius Nguema and of late Yoweri Museveni and Meles Zenawi. An endless trough of tin-gods maintained through the connivance of Western democracies.

It is important to note that as long as Western interests were not at stake, Mugabe would have got away with any mayhem.

It is only by understanding the land inequity in Zimbabwe that we could start appreciating why the land redistribution, however awkward, was the right thing to do.

Mugabe had inherited a nation with 98 per cent blacks and 0.8 per cent whites. The balance rest Asians and others. It is when you look at these numbers and look at the land distribution patterns that you realise how Zimbabwe, or rather Mugabe, had inherited a political headache.

By 2002, when Mugabe decided to carry out a comprehensive land redistribution – or rather to right the colonial wrongs – some one million black families occupied 16.3 million hectares of land. If you flip the coin to the other side, you find that 4,000 – yes, 4,000 – white families occupied 11.2 million hectares. Those are not numbers you will find in the Western press.

In essence, Mugabe was supposed to stay put in State House, be a good lapdog, and allow 50 per cent of the country's land to be occupied by a minority group that comprised less than one per cent of the population.

To make the matters worse, the blacks during the colonial days, and Ian Smith's rule, had been pushed to occupy unproductive soils and records indeed indicated that 70 per cent of the black Zimbabwean population was struggling to survive on these lands.

Land redistribution was one of the issues that had emerged during the Lancaster talks on Zimbabwe from the days when Bishop Abel Muzorewa, then leading Patriotic Front, which consisted of Mugabe's ZANU and Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU, decided to sign a pact dated December 21, 1979.

Actually, the first three-month conference chaired by Lord Carrington almost came a cropper after Mr Mugabe refused to sign as long as land reforms and resettlement of the landless was not addressed. It is now known that when Lord Carrington presented his first draft constitution, it had no reference to the land question.

Both Mugabe and Nkomo questioned the maintenance of the status quo for 10 years and posed a question that had no answer: If the war was about land, where is the land?


Mr Mugabe was then pressured by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Lord Carrington and after 40 meetings, he signed an agreement skewed in favour of whites together with Bishop Muzorewa and Mr Nkomo. In this skewed agreement, the UK government (and partly the US) agreed to finance the buying of the white-owned farms on a willing-buyer, willing-seller basis. Again, less than 3 per cent of the population was to retain 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament.

After he swept to power, Mugabe became the darling of Western democracies. He had white ministers in his Cabinet and the icing on the cake came in 1994, during the premiership of John Major, when Mugabe was bestowed with an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by the Queen. That entitled him to use the letters KCB, but not to use the title "Sir".

There was a string of honorary LLD degrees from the University of Massachusetts (1986), University of Edinburgh (1994), and Michigan State University (1990). These were revoked after Mugabe stopped playing ball with the white farmers.

At the Lancaster Conference, white farmers were given up to 1990 to develop their land or hand it over to the government. All those farmers who owned land that abutted communal lands were asked to dispose of it. It was written very clearly that, after 1990, the government had a right to nationalise all lands that had not been disposed of or developed.

70 per cent
But things went wrong shortly after independence. Mugabe had come to power with a promise to 160,000 black families that they would be resettled on white-owned soil within three years.

While the first phase was financed by the UK, it became apparent that London was not willing to finance the second phase of settlement. Within the first phase, only 8.5 million acres was given to 72,000 black families. While this was paid for by the UK government with £44m in aid,  no other money was given to Mugabe. He waited for the balance of the promised £77 million as the population grew and pressure increased. After ten years, he snapped – and started distributing land in an awkward way. He changed the law to allow for compulsory acquisition without compensation.

Before that, any time President Mugabe raised the issue of land and quoted the Lancaster promise, the white farmers, who were not willing to give away their land, and British bureaucrats, would cry foul. The farmers continued to dominate the productive Highveld with cheap labour and with no interest in vacating. They had London's support.

Then a series of land seizures started as the government began to move 500,000 families on to more than 3,000 expropriated farms. This was reported as land invasion as the government tried to rectify, albeit noisily, a colonial land policy where 1 per cent of the population owned over 70 per cent of the best arable land.

For that, Zimbabwe was hit with economic sanctions in the hope that the economy would collapse and Mr Mugabe would be deposed. That never worked.

If you read the Western press, which was backing the late Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, you would have thought that Mugabe was on his way out. But with a clear land policy, he triumphed in polls amid accusations that he was clinging to power. Tsavingirai could not even win a parliamentary seat when he tried to unseat Mugabe.

But the land reform was also abused by Mugabe and his cronies and – as happened in Kenya – they took some of the choice land.

Zimbabwe went through an economic blockade by Western nations and this saw inflation hit an all-time high in a bid to kick-start internal rebellion to oust Mugabe.

The economic blockade on Zimbabwe was not because Mugabe had done what other dictators had never done. His only problem was raising his voice in regard to land – and living to the guerrilla war promise. @johnkamau1

This article was first published on September 7, 2019

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