- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe has decided to reverse his land grab and offer some white farmers the chance to lease back their holdings in Zimbabwe, sources close to the government said yesterday.

Mr. Mugabe apparently has been forced to backtrack on six years of chaos and his own determination to rid the country of all white farmers by an economy that is shrinking at a rapid rate.

The International Monetary Fund last week told Zimbabwean Finance Minister Herbert Murerwa — who has helped himself to a white-owned farm — that land seizures should halt immediately and that without increased agricultural production there was no chance of halting Zimbabwe’s slide.

In an orgy of violence, Mr. Mugabe seized the land, homes, equipment and infrastructure of about 4,000 white commercial farmers who produced almost half of Zimbabwe’s foreign currency.

The U-turn is expected to be announced within days. The politburo of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, has been informed, and selected journalists in the state-controlled press have been briefed on how to spin the policy reversal, the sources said.

About 250 whites remaining on small portions of their farms immediately will be offered state leases for the land they used to own. Some hope their full land holdings will be restored at a later stage.

Farmers hope the leases will give them some legal protection from local warlords continuously trying to evict them or seize their equipment or crops.

In a second stage, the leases will be extended to some white farmers who have been evicted, particularly where there is no activity on that land. Some fled to Britain, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.

In anticipation of the change of policy, the Commercial Farmers Union has advised its members to apply for leases, and some farmers have completed lease applications at the Agriculture Ministry.

Union President Doug Taylor-Freeme, in a rare statement yesterday, called for a “moratorium on land and agricultural policies.”

All those involved in agriculture should get together and “rebuild the entire industry to return as the principal employer of labor and generator of food and foreign exchange,” the statement said.

The government is expected to acknowledge in the next few days that it has used only about 50 percent of the land it seized. Economists say the figure of idle land is closer to 80 percent to 90 percent.

The new policy is understood to have been approved by Mr. Mugabe, but it is unlikely he will announce it, as the government hopes to play down the U-turn.

It will be executed by two of his most trusted lieutenants, Land Reforms Minister Didymus Mutasa and Agriculture Minister Joseph Made. Neither of them was available for comment yesterday.

Many of the farmers who lost their holdings are cynical about any offers from the government. Many will need convincing that the offer is genuine unless it is endorsed openly by Mr. Mugabe, and even then they still may be skeptical about a president who has broken promises.

“The government vastly underestimates the damage of its insane policies,” said one of Zimbabwe’s former top cereal producers.

“They probably believe that allowing some of us to return will turn the economy around in a single season. We won’t be able to do anything without international finance, and we won’t get that until there is political reform,” he said.

“It’s … miserable out there. All our friends have gone, our equipment has been broken, irrigation has been vandalized, our homes have been wrecked, the roads are a mess, our workers have gone. So why should we return?”

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