Zimbabwe's land reforms are an example to all, claims Mugabe

  • @peterpopham

As an exercise in chutzpah it took some beating.

Taking the stage at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation summit on food security in Rome yesterday, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe presented his ravaged nation as a text-book case of land reform – its only problems being the result of "illegal sanctions" and the machinations of opposition parties "which are a creation of the West".

The country's gross national product has plummeted 40 per cent since the land invasions by Mr Mugabe's self-styled "war veterans" began in 2000, dispossessing the white farmers whose corn, wheat and beef had kept Zimbabwe and the region around it in food surplus. The militants lacked the skills to run the farms, most of which have in turn been taken over by Mr Mugabe's cronies. Now most of those farms lie idle.

As result, Zimbabwe is today forced to import tens of thousands of tonnes of maize to stave off famine, and if it were not for famine relief provided by the UN the people would starve. Zimbabwe's inflation rate is more than 165,000 per cent, and residents rely on remittances from Zimbabweans living abroad to help keep them afloat. But nothing could be farther from President Mugabe's rosy vision of his nation.

"My country's primary agriculture policy objective remains that of ensuring national and household food security through our own production," he told the conference yesterday. "In this regard, Zimbabwe has recognised the importance and centrality of land... Over the past decade, Zimbabwe has democratised the land ownership patterns in the country, with over 300,000 previously landless families now proud landowners."

Disillusionment with Zimbabwe's economic collapse and its failure to feed itself are seen at the root of the challenge to his power in the last election in March, which has forced the run-off election to be held on 27 June. But that's not how the President sees it. The people have warmly welcomed his policies, he claimed. Only the iniquity of the British and their friends have caused difficulties.

"While this land reform programme has been warmly welcomed by the vast majority of our people, it has however... elicited wrath from our former colonial masters," he told the conference. The UK in turn "has mobilised her friends and allies in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand to impose illegal economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. They have cut off all development assistance, disabled lines of credit... all this has been done to cripple Zimbabwe's economy and thereby effect illegal regime change in our country." Those behind the efforts to unseat him, he said, were "opposition political parties, which are a creation of the West".

Back in Zimbabwe, the latest target for the government's ire is the aid group Care, which has had all its work suspended because of allegations that it sided with the opposition party during this year's election season – a charge denied by a spokeswoman at group headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US. "Care has strict policies against political involvement and categorically denies that the organisation has encouraged or tolerated any political activity," said Lurma Rackley.

In Rome meanwhile, Mr Mugabe was vaunting the achievements of his government's agricultural policy, which included irrigation, building small and medium-size dams, farm mechanisation and low-interest loans.

Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, skipped Mr Mugabe's contribution.

From Washington, Tom Casey, the State Department's spokesman, said Mr Mugabe could only serve "as an example of what not to do in terms of managing agricultural and food policy", and that Mr Mugabe "has a lot to answer for to his own people".