Mugabe - sinned against as well as sinning?

by James Linell

Mugabe - sinned against as well as sinning? 4 May 2000

Recent events in Zimbabwe have exposed President Mugabe to attacks of rarely paralleled unanimity and venom in the UK press and media. Illegal farm invasions unchecked by the police and resulting in the deaths of two white farmers, fourteen deaths of black Zimbabweans, and and a spate of assaults against opposition supporters have been strident headline news for weeks on end. Mugabe's government is blamed not only for failing to prevent or punish these acts of lawlessness. It is accused of a range of accompanying wrongdoings that deprive it of any political legitimacy. The truly important policy elements underlying Mugabe's actions and inactions and the historical background to the present troubles are either ignored or distorted to fit the anti-Mugabe campaign.

I have recently returned from my tenth spell in Zimbabwe since 1991. I visited white and black friends, rich and poor, discussing politics. Opinions and loyalties varied, whites being unanimously anti-Mugabe on every front, blacks being divided. All were concerned about the home and overseas press coverage of what was happening in Zimbabwe. It became to clear to me, as to many Zimbabweans, that the Zimbabwe opposition press and the UK press were presenting only one side and only one time-dimension of a complex case. Most experts and analysts agree that Zimababwe's whites own far too much of the country's land and other wealth, and are very rich. Too many black Zimbabweans own nothing and are desperately poor. The extreme contrast between the population density of black and white farming can be see by any traveller on the trunk roads of Zimbabwe, and the disparity between the lifestyles of white farmers and their black workforces and peasant neighbours is almost beyond western imagining. Mugabe is now, in a sense at long last, forcefully articulating the injustice of this exploitation both past and present.

He began to address the land issue in the early nineties. He made speeches saying that seventy percent of the best land in Zimbabwe had been taken from Aficans by force and often at gunpoint without compensation during the colonial period. This situation had not been set right after independence due to the 1980-90 'willing seller, willing buyer' terms of the 1979 Lancaster House agreement. There had not been enough willing sellers or enough indigenous money to buy, and British government support for land-re-acquisiton had amounted to a derisory 44m. Consequently the white farming community ended this period still holding 80% of the land it held under white rule. Mugabe argued that this land should now be returned to the land-hungry black Zimbabwean people. In 1991 his goverment passed a Land Acquisition Act allowing for compulsory state purchase of land. No significant action was taken under the Act, however, because of IMF and World Bank insistence on restrictive conditions including payment of full market-value compensation for land acquisitions (UNDP Report: 'Zimbabwe Human Development Report 1999' ).(ref 1)

In 1997 Mugabe returned to the issue. He argued that it is neither reasonable nor possible for the land to be bought back by the Zimbabwe government at full market prices. This would in effect be asking a country which is already poor to pay the cost of buying back most of the best of its own territory, at a cost of several billion pounds. Consequently, he said, legislation was to be introduced to acquire 1500 largely white-owned commercial farms compulsorily. There would be compensation only for land improvements but not for the land itself.

The announcement of this planned new legislation met intense opposition from commercial interests both at home and abroad. It was seen as a threat not just to Zimbabwe's white farmers and other white commercial interests, but also to similar landowners in other ex-colonial territories and the wider ethic of property rights in the global free-market economy. Thus Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) and the linked Zimbabwe Tobacco Association (ZTA), were able to form an immediate alliance with international allies. The World Bank and the IMF, the British and other western governments, and the western press united with the CFU and ZTA in condemning 'Mugabe's land grab'.

As a result of this powerful opposition, the land-acquistion proposals were initially frustrated and the Zimbabwe government appeared to be in retreat.

There was a Zimbabwean Land Conference at SOAS in London in 1997, attended by CFU and ZTA leaders as well as Zimbabwe and UK government and NGO representatives. At that point the white-farming lobby seemed to have won the battle against the main elements of the land reforms. The hectarage of the land acquisitions was to be reduced, there was to be compensation for the value of land as well as for improvements, and the whole process was to be hedged about with legal and procedural safeguards and delays and international monitoring. The CFU and ZTA speakers were triumphant, confident and patronising. They spoke of the sanctity of the rule of law which stood for the preservation of their property rights. Ignoring the role their own campaign had played in undermining international confidence, they argued that any land acquisitions would damage the Zimbabwe economy through driving away foreign investors. They even made a bid for Mugabe's platform of Zimbabwean patriotism. Their campaign against the land acquisition proposals was an expression of their love of their country, their commitment to contributing their special skills to their nation's economic prosperity, and their desire to save Zimbabwe from economic anarchy. Mugabe had by now lost the international propaganda war at least in western eyes. However the impression that he had accepted defeat on land reform has been proved wrong. Despite the strength of the opposition he knew he would face, he has recently returned to his land-acquisition programme with a new determination not to be deflected by internal and external opposition. In doing so he may not have anticipated how far the counter-campaign would turn into a concerted attack against himself, his government and his record.

The setting for this broader attack is the poor state of Zimbabwe's economy. The country has widespread economic problems including rising prices, high unemployment, low standards of public services and shortages of food and fuel. The anti-Mugabe campaign argues that because Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party have been in power throughout the economic decline they must be responsible. This in turn becomes an argument for their unfitness to rule, and grounds for dismissing the proposed land-reform programme as a diversionary tactic.

The argument however is deeply flawed.

The economic policies which are now failing were not policies designed by ZANU-PF. They were conceived and imposed by external agencies, supported domestically by the white commercial interests which are now criticising their outcome. In the early nineties, as well as accepting IMF and World Bank advice against radical land reform, Zimbabwe bent to pressure from those organisations and other bilateral donors and trade partners to adopt an Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP). Other poor countries also had ESAPs imposed on them, but these programmes are now going out of fashion because they have failed.

Zimbabwe's ESAP was a standard one - a package of devaluation, liberalisation of trade and capital flows, abolition of food subsidies and cutbacks in government spending in health and education. Devaluation led to inflationary pressures through increased import prices, massive reductions in the quantity of imports that could be bought by Zimbabwe's export earnings. and a huge increase in the country's debt burden. The liberalisation of trade opened the country's manufacturers to international competition for which they were unprepared; this resulted in large-scale business closures, a reduction of wealth-production in the economy, and increased unemployment. The relaxation of controls on the flow of capital led to a net outflow of nest-egging capital funds rather than the inflow that had been predicted. The abolition of food subsidies was instantly inflationary as all staple food prices rose by the amount of the subsidies removed. And finally, the cutting of education and health budgets have caused widespread distress and hardship and weakened the country's potential for development. Before Mugabe's recent land-acquisition programme, all scholarly UK opinion agreed that these were the root causes of Zimbabwe's economic woes. Now suddenly the UK press consensus is different. It is the people, not the policies, who have been at fault. The country's economic problems are the result of corruption in government circles. Also, by extension and by a happy coincidence, this record of governmental corruption discredits the proposed land acquisition programme because it will only benefit the corrupt. The charge of corruption in ZANU-PF is now central to the campaign against Mugabe and therefore needs examination.

By the government's own admission, there has been some ministerial corruption. Individual cases have been recognised, and some action taken. The charges however are much wider, that corruption, or 'cronyism' has permeated all aspects of political life, destroyed the nation's economic security, and proved that ministers and senior officials are incapable of responsible action. The evidence commonly given for this is not sufficient. Thus an isolated case of ministerial corruption is often cited without supporting evidence as proof of a wider trend, or reported and re-reported as though repetition multiplies the offence. More general charges often rely on definitions of 'corruption' that have been imposed by non-Zimbabweans and may not reflect Zimbabwe's own values. For example land-allocations to government officials and middle class blacks , acceptable to many Zimbabweans, are frequently cited as self-evidently corrupt. Furthermore such general charges are seldom substantiated by detail, and sometimes vary bewilderingly from publication to publication. For example, the Zimbabwe opposition 'Daily News' and Britain's Peter Hain state that 'all' or 'half' of recent land distributions have gone to ministers and senior government officials. Close examination of the facts upon which these accusations are based shows a different picture. The document released by Margaret Dongo, detailing these land distributions, shows that 7% percent of land beneficiaries since 1997 have been politicians and senior government officials, and they have together received 6% of the 370,000 hectares distributed (reference 2).

Meanwhile, with the exception of occasional stories in the Zimbabwe government press, the anecdotally widespread and systematic white evasions of income tax and foreign exchange controls pass unmentioned in the anti-corruption campaign, or are condoned by the white community as an acceptable response to black govermental corruption and 'unreasonable' regulations.

The final argument against Mugabe's land-reforms is based on a prediction. A white-world consensus has been engineered, that black farmers replacing white in Zimbabwe would lead to a plunge in national agricultural production. This is a complex issue, where facts like the following are often down-played: Zimbabwe's food security is threatened by a 40% fall in commercial farmers' staple food production in the past 5 years, as they have switched land to high-profit horticulture for export (UNDP Report); at least 50%of the white-owned land is unused by its owners, so that its use by black farmers would be net gain; and 75-80% of Zimbabwean food and some export crops is already produced by indigenous farmers.

This is the emerging picture: Mugabe is determined on his land-acquisition programme. He has been repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to achieve this by means accepted as respectable and legal by the outside world. Now he is using a mixture of radical legislation and short-term illegal means to push ahead with the programme. His opponents at home and abroad are determined to prevent this happening by engineering the destruction of his power-base by a ZANU-PF defeat in the coming parliamentary elections.

The result is a dangerous situation. Mugabe and his government are living with the pain of two severe defeats in Zimbabwe's post-colonial history, the continued white ownership of the best land and other wealth and the experience of bowing to international pressure over the the disastrous economic policies of the nineties. Now that he is seeking to redress the first and avoid repeating the second, he finds his back to the wall. He knows that he is opposed by international institutions and a powerful consortium of western nations. He believes, probably with some reason, that Zimbabwe's notionally black-led and popular opposition MDC party is substantially financed and directed by white Zimbabwean money and expertise. It is also openly forging links with his 'enemies' abroad. This MDC-led opposition succeeded in defeating the land-reforming draft constitution in February's referendum, and its tide of anti-government propaganda has effectively blocked import credits, especially for oil, and deepened the economic crisis for which Mugabe is given the blame. If the MDC wins the election, Mugabe sees the prospect of land-reform being diluted or forgotten and the gross inequities of wealth in his nation being perpetuated.

The British government and press's uncompromising opposition to Mugabe is leading the British public up a dangerous road. We may be carrying EU opinion with us, but African and other former colonial governments and media (reference 3) have largely resisted British pressure to condemn Mugabe. They support his land-reforming aims, and have only this week succumbed to intense British pressure to express 'grave concern' about his methods. The moral frenzy we are seeking to stir up is not only inflaming Mugabe's anti-colonial sensitivities and pushing him towards further defiance. It is also similar to the build-up towards our recent military and economic interventions in Iraq and Yugoslavia. We should be warned by those examples that neither economic sanctions nor military intervention are likely to remove Mugabe from power but would inevitably hurt the mass of already struggling Zimbabweans. Rather than stoking the fires of confrontation, it could be wiser for Britain to show more understanding of Mugabe's policies and their background, and demonstrate some impartial willingness to support him or any successor government in making them work.

Reference 1: United Nations Development Programme, Poverty Reduction Forum and Institute of Development Studies: 'Zimbabwe Human Development Report 1999' published March 2000.

Reference 2: January 2000 response to Margaret Dongo's parliamentary question in Zimbabwe parliament - list of 342 names and addressess, jobs, employers, and hectarages of land grants since 1997. This is hard to analyse because the job & employer information is not matched up to the lists of names and hectarages. I used as a secondary source a list of the 'politicians and senior govt officials' published on 8th (9th?) April in the opposition Zimbabwe Daily News, checking that they matched the job/employer lists in number, and then tracing the names and associated hectarages.

Reference 3: Guardian 20.4.00 'African heads of State stand by Mugabe'; The People (Kenya) 18.4.00. 'Commonwealth to tread warily on Zimbabwe'' and 'Cook tries to rally African support'; and editorials 18-20 April in East African Standard and Kenya Times.

Copyright (huh?): James Linell, 9 Hood Street, Northampton NN1 3QT, Tel: 01604 621066. E-mail <,> 4 May 2000


back 2 mainpage