Three years ago the world's media were transfixed as Robert Mugabe unleashed war veterans on to Zimbabwe's white-owned commercial farms. Despite all the attention, the thousands of farmers whose land was seized were powerless: the full force of the Zimbabwean state was ranged against them, at times to murderous effect.
But within weeks of the first invasions in February 2000 a glimmer of hope appeared in the form of a thick-set, ruddy-faced English solicitor. John Lockwood, then 37 and from Sunderland, had an audacious plan: aided by a distinguished British legal team he would bring a class action on behalf of the dispossessed white farmers, claiming financial compensation for their lost farms from the British Government. The farmers, he stated "would receive full value for their land...payable to a bank account of their choice." The case would be based on the historic debt that Britain, the former colonial power, owed Zimbabwe for land reform.
Lockwood, who had spent time in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, trekked the country armed with contracts and a letter of instruction from a South Shields law firm, named McCarron and Smallcombe. He addressed hundreds of evicted farmers at meetings, outlining his plan and requesting £1,000 downpayment "for start-up costs" for the action.
Guy Watson-Smith attended a number of Lockwood's meetings. In September 2001 he and his family were forced at gunpoint off their farm 50 miles south of Harare. The farm was Zimbabwe's single largest producer of tobacco and was taken over not by the landless, but by Solomon Mujuru, Zimbabwe's former defence minister and a key figure in the ruling Zanu-PF party hierarchy. "I heard Lockwood talk about his scheme four times, including at a mass meeting for farmers in Harare," recalls Watson-Smith, who now lives in South Africa. "His sales spiel was quite convincing. I didn't sign up, but a lot of desperate people did."
Among them was "Eric Peterson" (not his real name), who is still in Zimbabwe. Prior to being chased off his 40,000-acre ranch in early 2001 he invited Lockwood out to stay in order to assess his credentials.
"I believed he was genuinely trying to establish a mass action. He put his arguments across to us quite logically. He even claimed to have Lord Carrington on board," Peterson says. Lord Carrington chaired the 1979 Lancaster House talks that ended Ian Smith's white minority Rhodesian government and led to Zimbabwe's first democratic elections and independence in 1980. Convinced, Peterson paid Lockwood $100,000, then the equivalent of £1,000.
Lockwood claimed that he could resolve the bitterest legacy of Zimbabwe's colonial past. The issue of land ownership was a major stumbling block at the Lancaster House talks. Twenty years after independence, the fact that 6,000 white farmers still owned half of Zimbabwe's most arable land, while a million black peasant families occupied just 38 per cent, was a smouldering injustice, violently exploited by President Mugabe as he faced the first serious political challenge of his reign from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
According to Lockwood, the UK - with possible contributions from other donor countries and organisations such as the World Bank - was legally obliged to pay the farmers for their seized land. But this obligation was not merely based on public commitments Britain had made to fund land reform, but on new evidence Lockwood himself had uncovered. "John Lockwood has unearthed a number of important documents," his proposal claimed. "The single most important document which was signed at about the time of the Lancaster House Agreement incorporates an undertaking by the British government to acquire commercial farm land for the subsequent transfer to the Zimbabwean government.
"Initial discussions with the British government have elicited a cautious response, but the negotiation channels have been established and will be pursued vigorously," his proposal continued. If no agreement was reached, it stated, Lockwood and his legal team "would pursue the matter in the British courts". In September 2000 he lodged a case with the Law Society's multi-party action group in London. It read: "Currently seeking counsel's opinion on MPA [multi-party action] regarding very large number of farmers in action to re-acquire land."
What precisely this "very large number" of farmers is, isn't clear. It could be as many as 1,400 - as Lockwood told Justice for Agriculture (JAG), a Zimbabwean farmers' trust - or, more realistically, around 300 - as he told a number of individual farmers The Independent has spoken to. Either figure represents considerable business - and compounds the deep unease many in Zimbabwe now express about Lockwood and his enterprise. For despite a flurry of early meetings, including one seeking the advice of an eminent QC in London, three years on there is no discernible progress in the action and some farmers have sought legal advice in an effort to recover the money they paid him.
Eric Peterson's doubts hardened after his fourth meeting with Lockwood. "My lawyer attended and put some pretty sharp questions to him," he says. "He asked Lockwood to provide documentation to verify how he would account for the money. Lockwood agreed to provide it within the week. Since this meeting, nine months ago, he has been uncontactable."
Peterson, along with two other farmers, is considering legal action against Lockwood. The patience of Zimbabwe's leading farming organisations is also exhausted. John Worswick, the vice-chairman of JAG, said, "He hasn't turned up to prearranged meetings, didn't meet our lawyers, never faxed through documents."
Doug Taylor-Freeme, the President of Zimbabwe's Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU), said: "I don't blame farmers for considering legal action against him. He certainly has not produced the goods."
Nicholas Atkinson QC provided written advice for Lockwood on the proposed action in November 2000, but says that he has heard nothing since and has not been paid for it. McCarron and Smallcombe, the Tyne and Wear solicitors who previously employed Lockwood, closed in December 2002 - and had already severed their involvement with him and the proposed multi-party action a good while earlier.
The Independent tracked down Lockwood to his home in Sunderland, where he said he was taking a break prior to returning to Zimbabwe. He said that due to the complexity of the case he was now working on it through his own company, JAL Legal Consultancy Ltd. "We knew it was going to take a few years but we didn't expect it to get this big. Initially it was just to help out a few friends in Zimbabwe then some other people got to hear about it."
Lockwood, whose solicitor's practising certificate expired in February 2002, declined to say how many farmers had signed up to his venture. He claimed that those who wished to be kept updated on the action's progress had his contact details and some had received written updates. Out of the £1,000 the farmers had paid him, he said that "we end up with £37 per client" after paying litigation insurance and tax.
Lockwood insisted that Britain was liable to pay for Zimbabwean land reform, and questioned about the "important documents" from the time of Lancaster House that he claimed to have "unearthed", said: "You can get that through [Lord] Carrington's speech [in the House of Lords] last October."
Asked if Lord Carrington was on board, he replied: "I'll put it this way. One way or another Carrington will be on the stand. He has been approached. I'll go that far."
Lord Carrington said he was unaware of any of the documents or agreements that Lockwood claimed to have found and could not recall any contact with him. "I have no recollection of a separate document, other than that which was signed at Lancaster House but there was I know, a general agreement in that we would help out in the acquisition of land. I do not remember a Mr Lockwood," he said.
The dispossessed farmers are increasingly resigned. "There are a lot of farmers who are after his [Lockwood's] blood now," said one farmer's wife, who with her husband signed up to the scheme after they fled their farm. "I really can't bring myself to phone him ever again."
Another ex-farmer said: "Lots of the people who signed up are now living abroad. We're very much in the dark and clinging on to the hope that it will all go ahead."Reuse content