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Monday, 3 April, 2000, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Britain's troubles with Mugabe
Squatters on Zimbabwe farms
Mr Mugabe has encouraged squatters to occupy farms
By BBC News Online's Emma Batha

In recent months Zimbabwe's beleaguered president Robert Mugabe has accused Britain of everything from causing its crippling fuel crisis to setting ''gay gangsters'' on him

His supporters have invaded some 750 white-owned farms with his blessing and are warning of a ''bloodbath'' if the land is not handed over to blacks.
Population: Black 99.4%, White 0.6%
Best Farming Land: 70% White owned
Unemployment: more than 50%
Inflation: Was nearly 70%, now just under 50%

The simmering tensions erupted in violence at the weekend when white Zimbabweans taking part in an anti-government march in the capital, Harare, were singled out and beaten up.

The attacks were blamed on veterans from the war of independence, who are also behind the farm occupations.

London has already drawn up contingency plans for evacuating some 20,000 British passport holders if the situation worsens.

And it is warning visitors to the country to be extra vigilant for signs of trouble.

Diplomatic bag

Mr Mugabe appears convinced that Zimbabwe's former colonial rulers are scheming to bring him down ahead of elections due this year.

Relations between the two countries hit a new low in early March when Zimbabwe opened a British diplomatic bag, prompting the UK to temporarily withdraw its High Commissioner.
Diplomatic bag
London was furious when Zimbabwe opened a diplomatic bag
British Foreign Office Minister Peter Hain said the search was an outrageous breach of international diplomatic law.

The six tonnes of baggage turned out to contain routine communications equipment.

But Harare, far from being embarrassed, defended the search, saying the consignment could have contained weapons because Britain supported ''subversive'' elements in the country.

Fuel crisis

Mr Mugabe currently sees the hand of Britain behind all Zimbabwe's problems.

When the International Monetary Fund cut off aid last year, citing concern about who was funding the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr Mugabe said it was as a result of British pressure.
Peter Tatchell
Mr Tatchell tried to arrest Mr Mugabe in London
And when a fuel shortage brought factories to a halt, he said it was because British-owned banks were hoarding foreign exchange.

In several outbursts he has even accused Britain of polluting the world with homosexual values.

Mr Mugabe was infuriated last year when the British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell tried to arrest him during a trip to London over the torture of two journalists.

The president accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of using "gay gangsters" to attack him because of his controversial plan to seize farms owned by British descendants.

He refers to Mr Blair's administration as the "the gay government of the gay United gay Kingdom".


The problem of land reform lies at the heart of the tensions between the two countries.

There are only 70,000 whites left in Zimbabwe, around 0.6% of the population. Yet white farmers still own 70% of the most fertile land.

British settlers began moving blacks off their farmland when they started arriving in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia, in the 1890s.

About half the population were shifted onto barren communal properties - often in drought-prone areas.
zimbabwean farming family
Land distribution has long been a divisive issue
The land issue was a major cause of the guerrilla war which led to independence in 1980.

When Mr Mugabe was elected the same year he warned white farmers their land would eventually be returned to blacks, but said they would receive a fair price.

However, with resources stretched thin, Zimbabwe has purchased just 50 properties a year on average since 1992.


Relations started deteriorating in 1997 when Mr Mugabe announced plans to grab around 1,500 farms.

He said Britain should foot the bill for compensation because Rhodesian colonists had stolen the land from blacks in the first place.

But Britain refused, pointing out that much of the land redistributed since 1980 had ended up in the hands of government officials rather than the poor.
President Mugabe
President Mugabe's popularity is on the wane
In February, Mr Mugabe held a referendum to try to secure constitutional changes giving him another 12 years in power and allowing the confiscation of white-owned land.

When he was defeated, he encouraged the occupation of hundreds of white-owned farms by veterans from the Rhodesian War.


Mr Mugabe is desperate to regain rural support before elections are held.

He knows that for the millions of people eking out an existence on overcrowded communal land, the prospect of resettlement on white farms is a strong incentive to vote for his ruling Zanu-PF party.
Mr Mugabe is refusing to remove squatters from white farms
White farmers do not dispute the need to redistribute land.

But they argue it would be economic suicide to seize land from experienced farmers and hand it over to people with no experience of large-scale farming.

They have also warned that the farm invasions are harming production and further damaging Zimbabwe's struggling economy.

Mr Hain, the British foreign office minister, has said Britain is ready to advise on proper land reform instead of the present "pistol to the head" seizures.


Both London and Harare stand to lose if relations deteriorate further.

Around 7% of Zimbabwe's imports come from Britain which in turn takes 11% of its exports.

However, one of Britain's recent exports landed it in hot water.

Prime Minister Tony Blair came under fire for allowing the sale of spare parts for Zimbabwe's Hawk jets which have been used in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Britain, which boasts about its ethical foreign plolicy, has since tightened controls on arms exports to Zimbabwe and other countries involved in the civil war.

But Mr Mugabe may soon find it is not just weapons that he cannot buy.

Britain has warned that his erratic behaviour is jeopardising Zimbabwe's chances of receiving international financial assistance.

Mr Hain says Britain is ''a friend of Zimbabwe'', but sums up current relations as ''a dialogue of the deaf''.

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See also:

10 Mar 00 | Africa
10 Feb 00 | UK Politics
15 Feb 00 | Africa
07 Jan 00 | Africa
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