Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Thursday, 4 February 2010

Mugabe allies block Zimbabwe land audit

By Brian Hungwe
Mashonaland Central, Zimbabwe

Children hoe corn on a farm near Harare, file image
Many farms have gone low-tech in recent years

A two-year land audit was due to begin in Zimbabwe in February - but an angry reaction from President Robert Mugabe's allies and more attacks on white farmers have put that in doubt.

One of the first casualties was Raymond Finnaughty.

Just before Christmas, a 15-strong group armed with sticks and traditional weapons confronted him at his farm in Mashonaland East province and ordered him to leave.

The armed men were accompanied by a central bank employee who claimed the property.

Although the High Court granted Mr Finnaughty an order to stay and told the new occupant to leave, she stayed put.

In early January, he was forced off the farm - abandoning more than 150 workers and livestock including chickens, cattle and pigs.

If it's true that Mugabe owned more than one farm, we mustn't forget he is the father of the nation
Cabinet minister

"We are totally gutted. We are farmers, we all know - everyone in the world knows - that the country is totally desperate for economic revival. That's what we're here for," says Mr Finnaughty.

"I'm a Christian and I live on my faith, [but] at this moment I'm not talking to [God] because I'm very bitter at this stage."

He and his family fled to Harare where they now fear for their lives.

Uncovering rot

White farmers say at least five other farms have been attacked since Finance Minister Tendai Biti, from the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), allocated $30m (£18.8m) for the land audit in his December budget.

The audit is intended to clarify who owns what and ensure no-one owns more than one farm, 10 years after Mr Mugabe's government embarked on its programme to hand over mainly white-owned land to black people.

Robert Mugabe, file image
Robert Mugabe says he is righting colonial wrongs

Mr Mugabe says he is carrying out his land reform programme to right the wrongs of the colonial era, when black farmers were forced off their land and forced into less fertile areas, while the best land was reserved for white farmers.

But the scheme has been widely blamed for destroying Zimbabwe's agriculture-based economy and turning the country into a net importer of food.

On Wednesday, Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said the country needed to urgently import 500,000 tonnes of maize to avert food shortages.

As part of the 2008 deal to form a unity government, both Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party and their new partners in office, the MDC, agreed to a land audit.

But many of Mr Mugabe's allies have benefited from land redistribution, and it seems some fear the audit will uncover a lot of rot.

In northern Mashonaland Central province - a hilly region with prime agricultural land - ownership of farms reads like a who's who in government.

And many top officials own more than one farm - in violation of the "one man, one farm" policy Mr Mugabe set down several years ago.

"They are registered under different names, relatives - even children," says one resettled farmer.

Milk militias

It is common knowledge that Mr Mugabe owns Highfield Farm, in Norton, about 40km (25 miles) outside Harare.

He and his wife have also appeared on state TV declaring that they jointly owned Gushungo Dairy Farm in Mashonaland Central.

An armed guard at teh gates of a farm in Chegutu, file image
Land seizures from white farmers began 10 years ago

Swiss-based food giant Nestle almost pulled out of Zimbabwe last year after they came under political pressure from militias to buy milk from the Gushungo Farm.

But such issues are hardly mentioned within Zanu-PF circles.

The audit is charged with fishing out those who own more than one farm - but it does not specify any punishment.

The only official pronouncements on the subject have come from Mr Mugabe himself, who promised in the past that anyone owning more than one farm would have the surplus ones repossessed.

One cabinet minister, who did not want to be named, defended the president's conduct, saying: "If it's true that Mugabe owned more than one farm, we mustn't forget he is the father of the nation.

"He spent over a decade in jail fighting for your freedom. Don't compare yourself, or even me, with him."

Who's hiding what?

Leaders of the so-called war veterans - pro-Mugabe militias - have already said they will not co-operate with the audit.

And Mr Made has been lukewarm on the audit - saying it was premature to judge the land-reform programme.

Like most Mugabe allies, he blames a decade of plummeting agricultural output on harsh conditions and sanctions imposed by the West.

"We might be wrong to say that there are large tracts of land lying idle, [the farmers] need to be capacitated and sanctions removed," he said.

But other Zimbabweans believe the audit's timing is perfect.

Deon Theron of the Commercial Farmers Union, which represents white farmers, says if the audit is held up many things "will be swept under the carpet".

"Anyone who is resisting the audit has something to hide - it's as simple as that," he said.

"If you have nothing to hide, let's do the audit to establish what has happened."

There have been land audits before in Zimbabwe.

Mr Mugabe's Land Review Commission looked into the issue in 2003, and the Charles Utete Commission also undertook an audit.

Neither has published its results - with insiders saying they would "open a can of worms".

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