The Western press casts him in role of an African Saddam Hussein. Neighboring leaders supported his policies but then succumbed to diplomacy and world opinion and, with a few notable exceptions, shunned him. The opposition in and its mouthpieces accuse him - justly - of brutal disregard for human, civil, and political rights and of undermining rule of law.
All he wants, insists Comrade - his official party title - Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is to right an ancient wrong by returning land, expropriated by white settlers, to its rightful black owners. Most of beneficiaries, being war veterans, happen to support his party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, and its profligate largesse:
"We must deliver land unencumbered by impediments to its rightful owners. It is theirs by birth; it is theirs by natural and legal right. It is theirs by struggle. Indeed their(s) by legacy." - he thundered in a speech he made to Central Committee of his party in March 2001 in response to mounting multi-annual pressures from war veteran associations.
It was Margaret Thatcher of Falklands fame who, after two decades of fierce fighting, capitulated to rebels, headed by Mugabe. The Iron Lady handed to them, in Lancaster House agreement, an independent Zimbabwe - literally, "Great Stone House". The racist Rhodesia was no more. But agreement enshrined property rights of white farmers until 1990 and has, thus, sown seeds of current chaos.
Many nostalgic white settlers in Zimbabwe - mostly descendents of British invaders at end of 19th century - still believe in their cultural - if not genetic - superiority. Their forefathers bought indigenous land from commercial outfits supported by British Crown. The blacks - their plots and livestock confiscated - were resettled in barren "communal areas", akin to Native-American reserves in USA minus gambling concessions.
Starting in 1893, successive uprisings were bloodily suppressed by colonizers and British government. A particularly virulent strain of apartheid was introduced. By 1914, notes Steve Lawton in "British Colonialism, Zimbabwe's Land Reform and Settler Resistance", 3 percent of population controlled 75 percent of land. The blacks were "harshly restricted to a mere 23 per cent of worst land in designated Reserves. There were only 28,000 white settlers to nearly one million Africans in Zimbabwe at this time."
Land ownership hasn't changed much since. The 1930 "Land Apportionment Act" perpetuated glaring inequality. At independence, according to "Zimbabwe's Agricultural Revolution" edited by Mandivamba Rukuni and Carl Eicher and published in 1994 by University of Zimbabwe Publications, 6000 white commercial farms occupied 45 percent of all agricultural land - compared to only 5 percent tilled by 8500 black farmers. Another 70,000 black families futilely cultivated infertile remaining half of soil.
As black population exploded, poverty and repression combined to give rise to anti-white guerilla movements. The rest is history. The first post-independence land reform and resettlement program lasted 17 years, until 1997. It targeted refugees, internally displaced people, and squatters and its aims were, as Petrunella Chaminuka, a researcher at SAPES Trust Agrarian Reform Programme in Zimbabwe, summarizes a 1990 government discussion paper in "Workers' Weekly":
"To redress past grievances over land alienation, to alleviate population pressure in communal areas and to achieve national stability and progress. The programme was designed to enhance smallholder food and cash crop production, achieve food self-sufficiency and improve equity in income distribution."
Land reform was an act of anti-colonialist, ideologically-motivated defiance. The first lots went to landless - and utterly unskilled - blacks. Surprisingly, theirs was a success story. They cultivated land ably and production increased. Certified farmers and agronomists, though, had to wait their turn until National Land Policy of 1990 which allowed for compulsory land purchases by government. There was no master plan of resettlement and infrastructure deficiencies combined with plot fragmentation to render many new farms economically unviable.
As ready inventory dried up, price of land soared. Droughts compounded this sorry state and by late 1980's yields were down and squatting resurged. Unemployment forced people back into rural areas. Egged on by multilateral lenders, white farmers, and Western commercial interests, government further exacerbated situation by allocating enormous tracts of land to horticulture, ostrich farming, crocodile farming, ranching and tourism thus further depleting anyhow meager stock of arable acreage.
International outcry against compulsory acquisitions or targeting of c. 1600 farms forced Zimbabwean government and its donors to come up in 1997-9 with a second land reform and resettlement programme and Inception Phase Framework Plan. Contrary to disinformation in Western media, white farmers and NGO's were regularly consulted in preparation of both documents.
In what proved to be a prophetic statement, aptly named Barbara Kafka of World Bank, quoted by IPS, gave this warning in September 1998 donor conference:
''We are delighted that government has called this conference as a key step in our working together to make sure that Zimbabwe reaps results it deserves from its land reform programme ... Nevertheless, we must not be naive. The downside risks are high. There is abundant international experience to show that poorly executed land reform can carry high social and economic costs ... For instance, a programme that does not respect property rights or does not provide sufficient support to new settlers, is underfunded or is excessively bureaucratic and costly, or simply results in large numbers of displaced farm workers, can have very negative outcomes in terms of investment, production, jobs and social stability."
This second phase broke down in mutual recriminations. The government made an election issue out of much-heralded reform and donors delivered far less than they promised. Acutely aware of this friction, white farmers declined to offer land for sale.