Mugabe: Last white farmer should leave

Speaking at a rally to celebrate his 85th birthday, Zimbabwe's President says that the farm seizures will go on. Raymond Whitaker reports

A defiant President Robert Mugabe used his 85th birthday celebrations yesterday to insist that land seizures would continue, and called for the country's last white farmers to leave. "Land distribution will continue. It will not stop," Mr Mugabe told a rally in his home area of Chinhoyi, north-west of the capital, Harare. "The few remaining white farmers should quickly vacate their farms as they have no place there."

Last year a group of white farmers whose land had been targeted for seizure by the government went to a regional tribunal of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which ruled in their favour, but the Zimbabwean leader called the decision "absolute nonsense". He added: "We have courts here ... that can determine the rights of people. Our land issues are not subject to the SADC tribunal."

The comments by Mr Mugabe, who turned 85 last weekend, dashed any hopes that the formation of a unity government two weeks ago with his bitter political rival, Morgan Tsvangirai, might lead him to use his birthday celebrations to announce reforms. Rumours before the gathering were that he could announce the release of around 40 political prisoners, or even a date for his retirement, but there was no sign yesterday that Mr Mugabe was planning to set any limit to his time in power. On Wednesday he will have ruled Zimbabwe for 29 years.

Mr Mugabe's stance does further damage to the credibility of Mr Tsvangirai, who became Prime Minister a fortnight ago after yielding to overwhelming regional pressure to take his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) into a coalition with Mr Mugabe. The MDC has demanded the release of political prisoners, including Roy Bennett, the MDC treasurer and deputy agriculture minister in the unity government, who has been charged with treason. But he and more than 30 others remain behind bars.

The opposition has also failed to dislodge Gideon Gono, the central bank governor whose reckless printing of money has rendered the Zimbabwe dollar worthless and fuelled the highest rates of inflation the world has ever seen. Further damage to the economy is likely to result from two other developments: more land seizures and attempts to gain control of the few foreign enterprises still operating in the country.

Since the coalition government was formed, invasions of white-owned farms have surged, with about 40 having having been seized, according to a farmers' support group. As for foreign-owned businesses, Mr Mugabe signed a law last year to transfer control of mines and banks to local entrepreneurs in the name of black empowerment. Yesterday he said the government would press ahead with the policy. Such measures make it even less likely that foreign donors will help rebuild the Zimbabwean economy. Last week the MDC's secretary-general, Tendai Biti, given the thankless job of finance minister in the unity government, appealed vainly for US$2bn (£1.4bn) in emergency economic aid from SADC leaders meeting in Cape Town.

Mr Tsvangirai raised eyebrows last week when it was initially reported that he would attend the party. Last year the MDC leader attacked Mr Mugabe's birthday celebration as "a gathering of the satisfied few" while people were starving, but on Thursday his spokesman, James Maridadi, said: "He was invited, and he is attending," adding that it was "in the spirit of national unity".

Yesterday, however, Mr Tsvangirai did not appear. Mr Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, said the Prime Minister had withdrawn after realising the event was organised by the President's Zanu-PF party, adding: "People should not read this as a snub. He excused himself."

For several weeks, reports circulated that Mr Mugabe's supporters were demanding thousands of dollars in donations from businesses for a lavish celebration at which hundreds of lobsters and cases of champagne would be flown in. The 21st February Movement, a youth branch of Zanu-PF, set a target of $250,000 for the event, but was still struggling to reach that figure late last week. Organisers were still holding fundraising dinners with a couple of days to go, and resorted to running an advertisement on Thursday in the state-run Herald newspaper, urging benefactors to pay up on their pledges.

This was taken as an indication that Zimbabweans were less intimidated by Zanu-PF since it was forced to surrender its monopoly of power, even though Mr Mugabe reassured his audience yesterday: "I am still in control and hold executive authority, so nothing much has changed."

The President also told his party supporters the unity government was a temporary arrangement, and they should prepare for new elections, possibly after two years. "Let's not mourn over the inclusive government – let's accept it as it is," he said. "But this government is an interim government to stabilise the economy and end violence and conflict."

The celebration appeared to be more modest than predicted, with about 2,000 red-scarved supporters gathering for what Mr Tsvangirai characterised as more of a private Zanu-PF meeting than a public party.

Organisers said dozens of cattle would be slaughtered at the party, leading John Makumbe, a veteran political analyst and outspoken Mugabe critic, to call the event "obscene". "In a normal country this kind of party would not be taking place in [an] environment where so many people have no food," he said. "This celebration, amid so much suffering, is obscene and a sign of an insensitive leadership."

The five-month-old outbreak of cholera has killed nearly 4,000 people in Zimbabwe. Save the Children pointed out last week that one in 10 Zimbabwean children will die before their fifth birthday, and most of their mothers won't even live to half Mr Mugabe's age.

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