‘No One Is Safe’: Zimbabwe Threatens to Seize Farms of Party Defectors

Norimitsu Onishi, New York Times, August 24, 2016

Dozens of angry young men jumped off a truck in front of Agrippah Mutambara’s gate, shouting obscenities and threatening to seize his 530-acre farm in the name of Zimbabwe’s president. They tried to scale the fence, scattering only when he raised and cocked his gun.

Zimbabwe made international headlines when it started seizing white-owned farms in 2000. But Mr. Mutambara is not a white farmer. Far from it, he is a hero of this country’s war of liberation who served as Zimbabwe’s ambassador to three nations over two decades.

But when he defected from President Robert Mugabe’s party to join the opposition a few months ago, he immediately put his farm at risk.

“When it was happening to the whites, we thought we were redressing colonial wrongs,” said Mr. Mutambara, 64, who got his farm after it had been seized from a white farmer. “But now we realize it’s also coming back to us. It’s also haunting us.”

Zimbabwe is suffering one of its worst economic crises in years. Banks have run out of cash. The government is struggling to pay its workers. Public protests, including one in July that shut down the capital and a united show of force by the nation’s biggest opposition figures on Friday, have rattled Mr. Mugabe’s government.

Desperately seeking loans, Zimbabwean officials have visited Washington and European capitals in recent months, swallowing years of resentment toward the West to promise economic and political reforms, including ending the tortured pattern of farm seizures. Even Mr. Mugabe, now 92 years old and increasingly frail, has pledged to compensate white farmers.

But despite the promises, prized farms are at the center of heated political infighting in Zimbabwe. As the battle to succeed Mr. Mugabe intensifies, dozens of political figures who have fallen out of favor, like Mr. Mutambara, are facing the seizure of their farms. With the economy in peril and the governing party split in a scramble for power, land is being used as a vital tool in the struggle for control.

“No one is safe,” said Temba Mliswa, 44, who was the chairman of the party’s chapter in Mashonaland West Province before his expulsion from the party in 2014.

Mr. Mliswa got a 2,000-acre farm belonging to a white Zimbabwean in 2005. When he took possession, Mr. Mliswa said, police officers beat the white farmer and his workers.

But last year, Mr. Mliswa said, hundreds of youths sent by the party invaded the farm again, destroying property and beating his workers. They eventually left, but one of Mr. Mugabe’s ministers recently held a rally in which he threatened to take Mr. Mliswa’s farm unless he stopped criticizing the president’s party.

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