HARARE - British Prime Minister David Cameron’s new Conservative government is refusing to compensate thousands of Zimbabwe’s evicted white farmers forced by President Robert Mugabe off lands they had farmed for generations.
With the 48-year-old Cameron sweeping to a stunning May 7 election victory and forming the first majority Conservative government since John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, Catriona Laing, the British ambassador to Zimbabwe, this week told the Daily News on Sunday the new government will not support any compensation scheme set up to help evicted white farmers in Zimbabwe. In fact, the demand was met with scorn in Whitehall.
“The UK has never agreed to accept responsibility for compensation but we have always said that we would support a fair, transparent and pro-poor land reform programme as part of an international effort,” Laing said.
“The UK government supports, and will continue to support, the aspirations of the Zimbabwean people for a more democratic, stable and prosperous Zimbabwe.”
Thousands of veterans of the 1970s war against white minority rule in the former Rhodesia invaded most of the country’s 4 000 commercial farms starting in 2000 — demanding land they said was stolen by the British from their forefathers in the 1890s.
Mugabe, a lifelong Marxist who has attributed his country’s woes to economic sabotage by capitalist powers, used the appeal of forced redistribution of farmland and a genuine hunger for arable land in Zimbabwe to compulsorily acquire white-owned farms for black resettlement 15 years ago in a controversial move that critics claim wrecked the country’s agriculture-based economy.
Before the advent of his land reforms, the great majority of the 13 million Zimbabweans lived crammed together on over-used and relatively unproductive land held as communal property, while approximately 4 500 white farmers shared more than half of the best agricultural land.
Mugabe has said the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair was responsible for the crisis by back-tracking on the previous Conservative government’s plans to finance the purchase of land from the white farmers and thus redistribute it more fairly.
Zimbabwe’s demand that Britain be responsible for compensating the affected white farmers badly strained ties with the country’s former colonial ruler.
Harare says this had been agreed to under the 1980 Lancaster House accord that ended Zimbabwe’s liberation war.
Mugabe has said his government is willing to pay compensation — if the fifth largest economy in the world, Britain, provides the funds— for any developments like irrigation schemes and other structures erected on the land previously held by commercial white farmers, “but the full market value of the land, no, we cannot pay that.”
Mugabe amended the Land Act through a constitutional change forced through Parliament, which put the onus for paying compensation on Britain, as the former colonial power.
Britain has offered a $56 million package for voluntary redistribution of farmland to landless black people, but has always insisted it will not provide compensation for farms confiscated against their owners’ wishes. The Zimbabwe government used the same law to confiscate the more than 4000 farms.
Laing said: “UK aid programmes continue to deliver critical assistance and services to Zimbabweans. From 2013 to 2014, DfID provided £106m ($167m) to support the most vulnerable Zimbabweans.”
The Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), representing Zimbabwe’s 4 500 mainly white commercial farmers, has appealed to the international community, especially Britain, to make funds available so that farmers would be compensated for properties seized.
“With the new British government in place, there is an ideal opportunity for better engagement to find a solution to make funds available, in which farmers would be fully compensated for their land once and for all,” CFU director Hendricks Olivier told the Daily News on Sunday.
He said it would be helpful if the new Conservative government in Britain were to come to the table and participate.
The farmers’ plea for international aid is widely viewed as unrealistic. Diplomats and political analysts say that, no international donor would agree to compensate evicted white farmers.
Stephen Chan, professor of world politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said Britain is in no financial shape to compensate anyone for anything in any part of the world.
“That won’t change under the new government,” Chan said.
“Basically, the government will step in line with overall European policy towards Zimbabwe — rather than US policy, which is a little harder line. Much might depend on who the new minister for Africa might be, but that is not a Cabinet-level minister and has not, as of today, been appointed. Essentially, the UK has been without a minister for Africa for some months, as the previous incumbent fell ill,” he said, referring to Britain’s previous Africa minister Mark Simmonds who resigned in August 2014 ostensibly to spend more time with his family.
Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group’s southern Africa project director, said it seems unlikely there will be any serious progress beyond some of the background discussions amongst some of the interested parties that have taken place such as efforts to calculate the compensation amounts, until there is greater trust in the rule of law and effective due process in Zimbabwe — which is not currently the case.
“This will necessarily include moves on a comprehensive land audit, clarity on property rights, and some evidence that the Zimbabwean government is going to uphold what it says it will in terms of compensating those who lost their farms, as well as honouring payments around bilateral dispute settlements etc,” Pigou told the Daily News on Sunday.
“There would be a much stronger basis for engaging the UK on compensation issues especially if there was some seriousness about moving beyond the playground logic of ‘he said, she said’, if the Zimbabwean government was able to get its act together on these fronts. The big question remains whether it has that intention, and the capacity to do so. It would be very helpful also if the UK could set out its position and expectations on this front.”
Mugabe has lashed Britain for allegedly stirring up European opinion over the Zimbabwe issue.
Pigou said it was important to recognise the UK — under the previous Tory dominated coalition government — had already made a considerable shift in policy, albeit in the slipstream of the EU’s efforts to move from a punitive approach to one more focused on re-engagement and incentives.
“The suspension of Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement (dealing with appropriate measures) — leading to the resumption of development aid, and the suspension or lifting of restrictive measures to all but the first family and Zimbabwe defence Industries (ZDI) reflects a significant shift by the EU, and by implication the UK, which had for many years resisted such a move,” Pigou said.
The European Union has been gradually easing its sanctions on Zimbabwe — imposed over the violence surrounding the land reform, electoral theft and rights violations — as part of a strategy to encourage political reform after 35 years of Mugabe’s rule.
Pigou said for some, this has set a very dangerous precedent as the very issues for which the measures were introduced in the first place remain unaddressed, and an array of violations and related reform deficits remain present. Critics say Mugabe’s seizure of the white-owned farms was meant to help his ruling Zanu PF party regain the support of the country’s poor rural blacks.
“The new politics of constructive engagement opens to the door to all sorts of possibilities, but given the very limited reciprocation from the Zimbabwean government, it seems unlikely that there will be any major embracing of the current government,” Pigou said.
“I would be very surprised to see the lifting of measures against Mugabe himself or (his wife) Grace, and in that respect, there is a sense that the ‘politics of wait and see’ will remain in place, until RGM (Robert Gabriel Mugabe) leaves office.