Accelerating President Robert Mugabe's efforts to seize white-owned farms, police in Zimbabwe this weekend arrested dozens of commercial farmers who have defied government eviction notices.
Police spokesman Andrew Phiri said today that authorities had arrested 133 farmers who failed to comply with the government's Aug. 8 deadline to surrender their property without compensation. An advocacy group for Zimbabwe's commercial farmers, Justice for Agriculture (JAG), said police had made 141 arrests since the roundup began Thursday.
Both numbers represent only a fraction of the 2,900 white farmers who have been ordered off their land. But the arrests demonstrate Mugabe's commitment to execute the evictions despite a potentially disastrous food shortage, widespread international condemnation and a court ruling this month that said the evictions are illegal without proper notification of banks holding farmers' mortgages.
The Commercial Farmers Union said that as many as 60 percent of the 2,900 farmers targeted for eviction had defied the order, many of them because they believed police lacked the manpower to enforce the seizures simultaneously.
But a police spokesman said today that they certainly intended to try. "We have made arrests in almost every province, and we will continue with the exercise until everybody has been accounted for," Assistant Police Commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said on state television.
Whites account for less than 1 percent of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people but own nearly a third of its arable land 22 years after the country's independence from Britain.
With his popularity waning, Mugabe, 78, pledged to rectify the colonial-era imbalance by seizing nearly 5,000 white-owned farms and redistributing them to landless blacks.
Mobs of government supporters led by veterans of the country's independence war began taking the farms two years ago. More than 100 people, mostly supporters of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, were killed in the violence, which culminated with Mugabe's reelection in March. The election was widely dismissed as rigged by the opposition party, Western powers and relief agencies.
Jenni Williams, a JAG spokeswoman, said farmers had no intention of confronting police but planned to continue to fight for their properties in court.
"Farmers are not defying the government but rather orders they believe to be illegal," she said.
Police said the arrests were made without incident, but JAG officials said that at least one farmer was beaten by a mob of government supporters at his home in the capital, Harare, even though he had vacated his farm.
Typically one of the continent's main exporters of grains, the country is one of six southern African countries facing severe food shortages caused by drought, mismanagement and disruption in farm activity as a result of Zimbabwe's political violence. The U.N. World Food Program estimates that as many as 6 million Zimbabweans face starvation if they do not receive food aid soon.
With a planting season approaching, the forced removal of the farmers and more than 70,000 experienced farmworkers has raised fears of irreversible harm to the country.
Many of the seized farms have gone to government officials and army commanders who have little or no experience in commercial farming. Peasants resettled on the land have been given none of the equipment, seeds, training or loans required to farm vast plots of land.
Mugabe has largely ignored such complaints. At a meeting last week of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, which represents nearly 10,000 small-scale farmers and many of those resettled on seized commercial farms, he said his land reform effort was "completely irreversible."
"This is not [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair's land," Mugabe said, referring to the former colonial power that he alleges is part of a racist, Western plot to topple him and preserve the status quo in Zimbabwe. "This is Mugabe's land. This is the land of our ancestors."