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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 13:00 GMT 14:00 UK
Deal follows four year land crisis
Sign on a farm outside Harare
The agreement should end illegal occupations
News Online's Angus Foster examines why white-owned farms have become such a contentious issue in Zimbabwe

The latest land crisis goes back to November 1997, when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said his government planned to seize about 4 million hectares of land from white farmers and distribute it to blacks.

The Zimbabwe dollar immediately collapsed.

Mr Mugabe said landowners should look to Zimbabwe's former colonial master - Britain - for compensation.

Britain said it was prepared to fund land reform, but only if it benefited poor people. Some appropriated land has ended up in the hands of government members.

Under Mr Mugabe's order, more than 1,500 large-scale commercial farms and ranches - nearly half the country's total - were listed for seizure.

Slow progress

But grinding bureaucracy and a complicated procedure for land acquisition meant progress was slow.

Robert Mugabe
Mugabe's staunchest support is in the countryside
Partly in a bid to speed up the process, President Mugabe last year launched a referendum on changing the constitution.

One of the amendments would have allowed the government to seize land from white farmers.

But the government lost.

Immediately after the result, thousands of Mr Mugabe's supporters, led by veterans of the war for independence, began invading white farms.

Veterans subjected many white farmers to progressively more threatening demands, ordering them to leave their homes or be killed.

Undeterred by the referendum vote, Mr Mugabe's government unilaterally changed the constitution in April to remove obstacles to its plans for land reform.

The new law did, however, require the government to pay for improvements made to the land.

Elections

In June, Mr Mugabe faced his sternest political test when a long period of one-party rule was challenged by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

The elections split the country down the middle.

Towns and cities voted overwhelmingly for the opposition.

But in the countryside, where a government-backed campaign of intimidation had greatest effect, the ruling Zanu-PF won a clear majority of the votes of the rural poor.

Black workers packing up
Many farm workers have been left homeless
Mr Mugabe ended up winning a narrow victory.

This prompted Jonathan Moyo, Zanu-PF campaign manager, to say the government would push forward with its land plans.

Mr Moyo said: "The majority of people who voted for Zanu-PF ... voted for land, and they will get that."

'Final phase'

Announcing the launch of the 'final phase' of its land plans, Vice-President Joseph Msika said the government would start resettling black farmers on 200 white-owned farms whose owners, he said, had not contested the acquisition.

The government, sometimes helped by the army, began settling people on farms and ploughing land, even though many farms' legal ownership was still the subject of legal disputes.

Meanwhile Zimbabwe's economic problems were continuing to mount.

In October, the government had to deploy troops to quell three days of protests against rising prices.

After a government acknowledgement that it would have to buy food from abroad, United Nations experts said food production had fallen sharply because of the government's attempts to transfer land owned by white commercial farmers to its supporters.

Violence

Violence in the countryside continued. Since the crisis deepened in April last year, nine whites and around 30 black opposition activists have been killed.

In July, a white farmer was arrested and charged for running over a black land settler at his farm near Odzi in the east of the country.

Then in August, the government announced it was upping the amount of white-owned land earmarked for the resettlement by blacks.

Speaking to the Commercial Farmers' Union (CFU), the Land Minister, Joseph Made, told white farmers that the government now planned to resettle not less than 8.3 million hectares - 70% of white-owned land instead of the original five million.

Soon afterwards, the trouble spread to the north western area around Chinhoyi, after the arrest of a group of 21 white farmers accused of beating up government supporters who had invaded a farm belonging to a white farmer.

About 40 families were reported to have fled their farms as the situation deteriorated. 4,500 black workers were also evicted.

Despite the mounting tension and international criticism, President Mugabe repeated his government's determination to press ahead with land reform, even if it led to sanctions from the United States and other Western countries.

But in Abuja, the government has apparently performed a U-turn.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Rageh Omaar reports from Abuja
"This agreement represents a key turning point"
The BBC's James Robbins
looks at the background to the deal
Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon
"There must be a greater grip on the rule of law"
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai
"I hope the government has learned its lesson"

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See also:

07 Sep 01 | Africa
06 Sep 01 | Africa
05 Sep 01 | Africa
25 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
17 Aug 01 | Africa
16 Aug 01 | Africa
02 Aug 01 | Africa
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