Since 2000, the government of Robert Mugabe has been illegally seizing Zimbabwe’s white-owned commercial farms, forcing from the land both farm owners and farm workers. Mugabe’s aim is to hold on to power at all costs, and enrich his cronies and supporters. This brutal campaign is now being speeded up, with over one-thousand farmers ordered to surrender their properties this month. The seizures have thrown Zimbabwe’s economy into chaos, and destroyed the country’s ability to produce food. Coming in the middle of a prolonged drought, Mr. Mugabe’s actions have put over six- million people at risk of starvation. Can a man-made famine in Zimbabwe be averted? I’ll ask my guests, Gilbert Khadiagala, acting director of African studies at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Robert Daguillard, a reporter with the Voice of America. Welcome, and thanks for joining us today.
Host: Gilbert Khadiagala, how bad is the food situation right now in Zimbabwe?
Khadiagala: It is bad because there are estimates of six to eight million people facing the danger of starvation. Cereal production has been declining over the years, and compounded by the drought, of course. So this situation is very desperate and it is not going to get any better anytime soon, particularly in the context of the politicization of the question of land and land redistribution.
Host: Robert Daguillard, U-S officials have said that the seizing of farms has been perhaps the worst thing that could be done at a time of drought, when those commercial farms would be the “insurance policy,” as Mr. [Andrew] Natsios, head of U-S-A-I-D [United States Agency for International Development] said, for acting against a drought. What’s the relation between the seizure of farms and the food situation?
Daguillard: Well, the seizure of farms is very inefficient, in both and economic and agricultural terms. You see, the trend in agriculture in the last several years, if not several decades, has been to greater exploitations, greater properties, that help produce more food. Here you have a situation in which the government is trying to seize prime farm land that has been very productive farm land for, indeed, more than a century and a half, and cut them up into small plots of land for small farmers. That sounds fine in theory, that sounds very just in theory, since the government of Robert Mugabe says it is trying to work on the behalf of, and in favor of, dispossessed, impoverished small black farmers. However, you also need infrastructure. You need irrigation, you need roads to get from one plot of land to main roads, and to get from one plot of land to the other. So, land reform is going to be very, very expensive, and very inefficient. Of course, if you cannot produce, that is going to heighten the risks of famine and of food shortages, which have already been cruel in Zimbabwe for the past two years.
Host: Gilbert Khadiagala, when did the land seizures begin?
Khadiagala: The land seizures seriously began two years ago, linked to the upcoming parliamentary elections last year, but also this year’s elections…
Host: How were they linked to the elections?
Khadiagala: They are linked to the elections because this is a way for Mugabe to mobilize political support. Zimbabwe has been, like most African countries, undergoing a process of transition. So you have the emergence of political parties, and the political party that emerged in Zimbabwe, the M-D-C, or Movement for Democratic Change, was picking up on the political grievances that do exist in the country, things like corruption in governance, or the lack of the rule of law. So as the opposition got stronger, it was now easier for Mugabe to begin to rally support. And where does he rally his support? He mobilizes the war veterans to begin to seize white-owned farms.
Host: And these are the veterans of which war?
Khadiagala: The liberation war, the war Zimbabwe fought against the government of Ian Smith, during the liberation struggle. So these are the former freedom fighters who are now a political football in the contest with the opposition group. What he does is he unleashes them upon the white farmers, because land grievances have been real in Zimbabwe… land redistribution has not really occurred. Therefore, it was much easier for him to begin to mobilize, in the context of this ongoing political change, black opposition, to use black grievances about land to fight the opposition.
Host: What would real land reform look like in Zimbabwe?
Khadiagala: Land reform would essentially mean some of the commercial farms would be subdivided into more manageable, smaller plots. But land reform primarily also means that you are going to compensate the white farmers who originally owned this land. Therefore, what has been happening that there is a mechanism in place, a mechanism in place since 1980, when Zimbabwe got its independence, to say you have fair and just compensation for the white farmers who are leaving their land. Then, in turn, this land is distributed to Africans. So that is the orderly process of land reform, essentially compensation and redistribution of these large commercial farms to small peasants.
Host: Robert Daguillard, is that the reason why the white farmers have had court ruling after court ruling in their favor, saying that what’s happening is against the constitution [of Zimbabwe]?
Daguillard: Absolutely. Zimbabwe had a widely independent and widely respected judiciary system. White and black judges worked together on their rulings, and the government by and large accepted those rulings. It was an internationally respected judiciary system and an internationally respected law society. The response of the Mugabe government to these rulings has essentially been to improvise. Zimbabwe was never either a complete democracy or a classic authoritarian system. It had elements of the rule of law -- democratic elements -- and an increasingly authoritarian rule by President Mugabe, on the other hand. When President Mugabe saw the judiciary system –- rightly, I think –- pointing to the shortcomings of his system, of his attempts to seize farmland from white farmers without compensation, he essentially had the so-called war veterans -- which, I might add, also included young street toughs, essentially thugs that were recruited off the streets to then help the cause of the ruling party -- threaten the lives of judges. They burst into courtrooms during hearings and essentially tried to show “who was boss,” as we say here in the United States, that the government would take no such nonsense like the rule of law. And judge after judge, including the country’s former chief justice, Anthony Gubbay, have been forced to resign because they simply could not take the pressure anymore. So, having done this, the government was then able to install friendly judges who progressively have given a slant to the judicial system more favorable to the government.
Host: Gilbert Khadiagala, as you mentioned, there was a political agenda to mobilize the war veterans with the promise that they would be given land. But as the white farms have been seized, perhaps the most prominent distribution of farms has gone to relatives -- Mr. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, has taken over a three-thousand acre farm -- to political associates, military leaders. How much of this land is going to cronies, and how much of it is actually being distributed to the landless poor?
Khadiagala: That has been the problem from the outset. The orderly process of land redistribution that I was alluding to earlier was supposed to essentially return land to the war veterans and the landless. But that process has been botched from the outset. All the land reforms that have been happening were essentially going to Mugabe’s cronies. And the very recent seizures, too, are essentially strengthening that very trend. There is not going to be a genuine land reform unless you have a government that has the people’s interests at heart. The Mugabe government has never been interested in a genuine land reform process because this land reform process is going to strengthen essentially the hands of the people, the masses, who are actually yearning for more land. So, it has been a very confused land redistribution process. But that’s why the link between governance and the land issue needs to be made very clearly. You cannot have a good land reform process if you don’t have a government that is responsive to the people from the beginning. That is why people forget that in fact the land reform process that the regime is using to buy political points, is actually not benefiting the so-called war veterans, or neither is it benefiting the masses. And that is a bigger political problem, because there is a government that is not necessarily responsive to the needs of the very people it is supposed to speaking on the behalf of.
Host: Robert Daguillard, there aren’t just the white farmers who own this majority of commercial farms, but the workers on these farms are predominantly black and they’re being dispossessed as well. One report I read said that when Grace Mugabe –- President Mugabe’s wife –- took over this three-thousand acre farm, the black farm workers came to her and asked what they were supposed to do, where were they supposed to live. She told them to “go live by the river!”…
Daguillard: … which is what they are doing. They are living by rivers, they are living by roads. Shantytowns have sprouted up along the country’s main roads. The people simply do not know where they are supposed to go, they have no money, no means of subsistence. They essentially own only what they are able to carry. The United Nations, which has issued set after set after set of statistics on how food shortages and famine could affect Zimbabwe in the very near future, has in fact pointed to them, the victims of the dispossession program of Robert Mugabe. There is absolutely no question that the farm workers, who help make the country’s agricultural economy work, have been dramatically, dramatically affected by this situation. No question about it.
Host: One recent report I heard, from a reporter outside Harare [the capital of Zimbabwe], was that as this has become more chaotic, that there is looting going on, and as this process … many of the farms… there are no crops, trees have been cut down, fences have been stripped for their wood. What is the state of farms in Zimbabwe right now? Is it as chaotic as that, or is that just in certain areas? Gilbert Khadiagala?
Khadiagala: I think any time you have violence as a means of resolving conflict, you unleash other forces. So I think the disorganization in the agricultural sector that has come about because of the politicization of the land reform has impacted, as Robert was saying, agricultural production as a whole. If the farms are being abandoned by the farmers, and then they are being forcibly seized by the new owners, you are still going to have problems of just adaptation. Some of these farmers who are taking over the land actually do not have the capacity, do not have the skills. It will take them a while, actually, to take over these farms and make them productive entities. Again, in the context of drought and so on, you are going to have a bigger impact on agricultural production. It’s going to take them a while to actually take over, to take charge of these farms. They don’t have that much time to do it, especially when there’s a drought going on. So it is a chaotic situation. It has to be chaotic because, as I said, violence becomes a mediator of this conflict and it just makes things worse.
Daguillard: If I may add something to what Gilbert just said…?
Daguillard: No one says that the redistribution of land is not a legitimate issue. Again, Mugabe, when he came to power, could very legitimately point out that the British dispossessed the Africans of their land when they took over what is now Zimbabwe in the early nineteenth century. They can point to an inequity in the present distribution of land. It is true, after all, that about four-thousand five-hundred white farmers own essentially a third of the country’s arable land. And it is indeed the best land, the land with abundant rainfall, the land that can produce the best crops. Having said this, under the current situation, you now see that the large portion of that one–third of fertile land in Zimbabwe is really not being farmed at all. So, fields are going untilled for one year, two years, and that leads to the food shortages you see now. It’s absolutely dramatic. Let’s try to imagine, here in the United States, that a significant portion of our best land goes unfarmed, untilled, for two years. What do you think would happen?
Host: Gilbert Khadiagala, as this food crisis has escalated, there’s been an effort by the world community to send food aid to Zimbabwe. The U-S has committed an extra hundred and ninety thousand metric tons, on top of about three-hundred thousand metric tons, of food aid. But the U-S has been complaining that President Mugabe has been politicizing the distribution of food aid, taking advantage of the crisis to give food to the areas that have supported him in the presidential election, and withholding food aid from those areas where his opposition had support. What’s going on with the distribution of food aid?
Khadiagala: The distribution has been politicized to the extent that you still have to do it through government entities. The government is in charge. I think the ideal model would be to say –- and that is part of the debate that has been going on within the international community –- how does one get food to the real people. But you don’t really have to go through the government because if you go through the government and it’s part of the whole problem, then you are not really going to address the problem of distribution. So I can see the inequitable distribution, if the government is really in charge of the whole process. The alternative is to say that there are organizations in Zimbabwe –- civil society organizations both local and international –- that should actually take charge of the process of food distribution. You have the World Food Program, for instance, which should be the key actor in the distribution of food. And that is, I think, a way to resolve some of the problems, because if you give it to the government, of course, it is not going to get to the real people. It becomes, again, an instrument for the regime to appear that it is rewarding its supporters and punishing its opponents.
Host: Is the government going to allow these non-governmental organizations to take over this role of distributing food?
Khadiagala: I think, in the context of drought and potential starvation, the government can be convinced to at least give power to these organizations. The civil society movements in Zimbabwe have been very weak over the years, largely because of the Draconian legislation the government has come up with. And so, there is a way in which the international community can at least push for food distribution through these agencies. I think the government, in that case, would have to deal with external actors who are saying, you know, if people are starving, what better methodology should we use in making sure that the starving are actually getting their food. And so it’s a question… the organizational structures are there, independent of government. But they have been very weak because of very repressive laws. The government is not particularly keen on empowering these very organizations, because they look at them as allies of the opposition.
Host: Robert Daguillard, is the government of Zimbabwe, for political reasons, having caused this famine, now for political reasons taking advantage of it as a way to destroy those areas that are home of the opposition?
Daguillard: It’s quite possible. And you are talking about a badly, badly divided country in Zimbabwe. Again, journalists, the foreign press, were not allowed to go everywhere. But there is in fact significant evidence, and indeed, very numerous reports, that during the March presidential election you had ruling party thugs who worked for the ZANU P-F [Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front] party, trying to prevent opposition voters from entering polling stations, standing guard with machetes, with guns, or whatever. While in Harare itself, which is really the backbone of the opposition movement, lines were significantly slowed down. There is a crisis in both urban areas, with looting and violence, and rural areas, with the government trying to channel the distribution of food. There’s absolutely no question about that. And, you know, “it’s pay-back time”, as we say here in the United States. The government is using this as a weapon against opposition areas.
Host: Gilbert Khadiagala, what’s been the reaction of nations in the region –- South Africa and other countries –- to this growing famine?
Khadiagala: There have been mixed responses to the, well, let’s just call it “the bigger crisis” itself which began, as I said, two years ago. At the outset, you have the regional organization called SADAC [SAH-DAHK, South African Development And Cooperation], and South Africa takes up a leadership role in it. It did that from the beginning, not being very silent, [which would have been] a really embarrassing silence, about lawlessness and the opposition and the eviction of farmers and so on. But over the last year, SADAC became much more… they formed a committee to begin to mediate between the white farmers, the opposition groups, and the Mugabe government. So you had, for instance, our meeting last September where the region essentially went to Harare and told Mugabe that in fact lawlessness is not going to get us anywhere, particularly since the region is so interdependent. Last year, before the elections, there was more forthright action by SADAC, I mean, at least to condemn some of the things that Mugabe was doing. But this was all based on the very fact that he was going to run a good and fair election. But since the election, things are back to the status quo. I sympathize with people who say that the region should be doing more. On the other hand, there are very few things they can do, short of a blockade, or short of invasion. There isn’t really much that the regional actors can do. They have been trying to talk to Mugabe and tell him these are things that are embarrassing the region. They have been talking to him about a framework for equitable land redistribution.
Host: I’m afraid we only have a few seconds left. Robert Daguillard, let me ask you very quickly, what is the threat to the region as a whole and its food situation?
Daguillard: Well, the United Nations statistics are saying that thirteen-million people are threatened by famine, in light of the drought in southern Africa. Six-million of them live in Zimbabwe. So that is a contingent of fully half of those potentially threatened by the current food shortages, if indeed they get worse, as is projected. It seems to me that the threat is that you’re going to have a mass exodus from Zimbabwe…
Host: I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for today. I’d like to thank my guests, Gilbert Khadiagala, of Johns Hopkins University, and Robert Daguillard of the Voice of America.
For On The Line, I’m Eric Felten.