Farmers call Mugabe's bluff on land

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The Independent Online

"Robert Mugabe has created this monster, now it's out of control," says Ian King, a farmer. Outside his office armed police try to negotiate with government supporters who say they have come to throw Mr King off "their" land.

"Robert Mugabe has created this monster, now it's out of control," says Ian King, a farmer. Outside his office armed police try to negotiate with government supporters who say they have come to throw Mr King off "their" land.

In the build up to last month's elections in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe encouraged his followers, led by "war veterans", to occupy hundreds of white-owned farms. He told them: "After the elections, the land will be yours." Having just scraped through the poll, he is now trying to meet their impossibly high expectations.

The veterans want their land and are losing confidence that Mr Mugabe will deliver it, so they are giving farmers deadlines of between 24 hours and seven days to leave. The government is desperate to be seen to be doing something but can only make more empty promises, which further heightens the tension.

Last Saturday, the Vice-President, Joseph Msika, announced that people would be given land "within hours". The official in charge of implementing the land reform programme confided it would take "at least four or five weeks".

This represents the view of technocrats. Some officials do want to allocate land in an orderly way by providing water and credit to the beneficiaries so that they can become productive farmers. But this takes time - a commodity which Mr Mugabe is running out of.

Critics argue that the President does not want to solve the land question, so as to keep what he sees as his trump card for the next election in 2002. Making grand announcements when it is obvious that nothing is actually happening on the ground does nothing to dispel that impression. A week down the road, with more farm invasions, more death threats and not a single person given land, those who have been squatting in makeshift shelters are only becoming more angry and frustrated.

And so are the farmers. Last week a group of farmers in Glendale, 40 miles north of Harare, went on strike. Over a breakfast of wholemeal toast and instant coffee, Richard Arkell said: "For the past five months, we've been wondering what was going to happen tomorrow. When we stopped work, at least we knew what tomorrow would bring. We had regained some control over our lives."

The authorities, grappling with an acute shortage of foreign exchange, know the importance of farms to the economy. Three days later, the police had begun to take action and the Glendale farmers began watering their wheat again, lifting the spectre of bread shortages later this year.

Before the strike, government supporters had forced their way inside the gate of one of Mr Arkell's neighbours and lit fires on his front lawn, while singing war songs about killing whites. He ran for his life.

Mr Arkell knows that the police are not going to evict the squatters. "But we want to be able to carry on with our work. [Protesters] should remain 100 yards from our homes, they mustn't interfere with the farmers, our wives or workers, and they mustn't demand fuel, food, transport, or anything else."

The police agreed to these requests and are now asking farmers to lay charges against anyone stealing or being violent. Two squatters' leaders have been arrested. Others have moved to a corner of a nearby farm. They refuse to speak to reporters "until we receive instructions from our superiors". They live in shacks made from plastic sheets. A Zimbabwe flag flutters in the wind, while washing is hanging on a wire fence. From time to time they go into the wheat fields and drive pegs into the ground, marking out "their" plots. But as long as they don't demand the farm labourers stop work, farmers accept this as progress in Zimbabwe.

Farmers in other areas are following the Glendale example. Mr King's Dorking farm, which supplies Harare supermarkets with dairy produce, is 15 miles away. He and his neighbours went on a one-day strike last week. The next day he was issued with a 24-hour ultimatum to pack his bags.

But when the deadline expired and the squatters returned in a brand new pick-up truck, armed police were waiting for them. Mr King reflects: "Thank God they were here, otherwise who knows what would have happened?" He has received several death threats and, until the strike, the police did nothing.

After a three-hour meeting, Mr King agreed to give the squatters a portion of his farm. Although they said they would not stay to claim it, the situation was defused. But as one of his neighbours observed: "We're not farming any more. We're spending all our time dealing with these invasions."

Mr King says that Mr Mugabe now has a choice - he can either evict the war veterans or let them take over and destroy the country. "A week ago, we believed that he was prepared to let the country melt down. But his appointment of a government of technocrats has given us hope."