Mugabe Allies Intensify Bid to Take Farms of Whites

Farmer Peter Etheredge, above, says squatting on his land signals fear among Mugabe allies that the new government will end their looting. At left, a hand works at a dairy farm.
Farmer Peter Etheredge, above, says squatting on his land signals fear among Mugabe allies that the new government will end their looting. At left, a hand works at a dairy farm. (By Karin Brulliard -- The Washington Post)
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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 7, 2009

CHEGUTU, Zimbabwe -- The young men set up camp by a shed on the Etheredge family's citrus farm just as Zimbabwe's new unity government was being sworn in last month. They claimed to represent a senator who for two years has sought to take the property despite court rulings that the family has a right to keep it.

The targeting of Stockdale Farm, where unarmed squatters have done little more than plow one field and hang around, is part of a surge in recent attempts by cronies of President Robert Mugabe to confiscate the last of Zimbabwe's white-owned properties, farmers' advocacy groups say. And some government officials and Western diplomats warn that it shows the volatility -- perhaps even the futility -- of the power-sharing arrangement between Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 29 years, and longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Last week, Tsvangirai demanded a stop to the farm seizures, which he said were illegal. At his 85th birthday gala days later, Mugabe vowed that land redistribution, which he calls a remedy for colonial injustice but which has usually benefited his elite supporters, would continue until all white farmers were gone.

Farmers' groups say the recent incursions have mostly been nonviolent, unlike the invasions of white-owned farms that began in 2000, when ruling party militias beat and killed several white farmers and displaced tens of thousands of farmworkers. The land seizures have driven the destruction of Zimbabwe's agricultural sector, economists say.

Just what the renewed push for evictions represents is unclear. Farmer Peter Etheredge sees hope in the squatters' presence on his land, saying it signals a fear among Mugabe's allies that the new government will soon put an end to their looting.

"A friend said this is the last kicks of a dying horse," said Etheredge, 38, a chain-smoking, blunt-spoken man in aviator sunglasses. "That's exactly what it is."

Others, including some government officials, farmers and Western diplomats, say the farm takeovers signal not panic, but defiance -- a move by hard-liners in Mugabe's party to spoil a power-sharing deal they never wanted, although its success is widely viewed as vital if the country is to overcome economic ruin, hunger and cholera.

"There are people who are not interested in this inclusive arrangement," said an official with Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change. "They would want to make sure they redirect or derail this process."

There have been several signs that the coalition rests on shaky legs.

Last week, Tsvangirai held a news conference at which he lambasted what he deemed "parallel forces" at work and blatant defiance of the power-sharing agreement. Among other things, he accused Mugabe of reneging on a promise to release dozens of imprisoned civic and opposition activists.

Still, Tsvangirai's party says it is committed to staying in the coalition. "You have to fight incrementally," said Nelson Chamisa, a party spokesman.

The Movement for Democratic Change has made some strides. Tsvangirai's finance minister cobbled together the funds to pay civil servants $100 in foreign currency for February, which prompted many teachers, who have been on strike for nearly a year, to return to work.

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