Saturday, May 27, 2006

ZHAMPALI, Zimbabwe — For years, Zimbabwe’s white farmers have felt the wrath of President Robert Mugabe as they have been thrown off their land to make way for soldiers and ruling party cronies.

Now, longstanding black farmers have also become the focus of Mr. Mugabe’s unwelcome attentions.

Lot Dube’s crops of onions, tomatoes and sweet potatoes were growing nicely when soldiers marched into Insiza district, in the south of the country, set up camp and declared that all crops other than corn would be destroyed.

“They told us, ‘We are taking away your fields from you,’” said Mr Dube, 63, who has farmed 10 acres, 80 miles south of Bulawayo, since 1982.

The soldiers plowed up the vegetables, which he grew to earn cash to pay school fees for his children, and told him to plant corn.

Neighboring farmers — some of them women — who refused to uproot their own vegetables and fruit trees were beaten until they submitted.

That was last November.

Now Mr. Dube, and other farmers like him, have been told that they must sell most of their harvest to Zimbabwe’s Grain Marketing Board, for a price yet to be determined, as part of Mr. Mugabe’s drive to boost the nation’s supply of the basic food.

“They want to feed the nation with maize,” Mr Dube said. In fact, the government also plans to export the grain, to earn desperately needed currency to finance imports.

To make sure the country’s grain silos are filled, Mr. Mugabe has ordered his soldiers to fan out across the countryside, and in Mr. Dube’s district, they can be seen guarding roads and driving tractors.

“They don’t know anything about farming,” Mr Dube said. “They say they want to end hunger in Zimbabwe, but I think they want to take the fields for their own use.”

For all the army’s efforts, and despite the best rains in 20 years, even the government’s own figures predict the grain harvest will be only half as large as in 2001, when the eviction of white farmers began. Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of southern Africa but has depended on food aid since 2002.

The economy has been shrinking for the past six years and last month inflation hit 1,042 per cent — higher than any other country not at war.

The economic consequences of the regime’s failings are visible everywhere. Tourist destinations, such as the Victoria Falls, are empty and supermarkets are stocked with goods too expensive for most Zimbabweans to purchase and becoming more expensive by the day.

The use of the army to take control of the countryside has been mirrored by the appointment of military commanders to top positions in the civilian institutions, in an effort to strengthen 82-year-old Mr. Mugabe’s grip on the country. Generals, some still on active duty, now control the reserve bank, the grain marketing board, the electoral commission, the state-owned railway company, energy ministry, parks authority and other key institutions that were traditionally run by civilians.

“This is an admission that things have fallen apart and that national governance can no longer continue in a civilian mode,” said Jonathan Moyo, a former minister of information who quit the Mugabe government and is now Zimbabwe’s only independent member of Parliament. “It is a crisis. We are in an undeclared state of emergency.”

He forecast a possible “slide into anarchy” if social unrest erupted into violence. The army’s presence in the countryside is less evident in the north, where Mr. Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party draws its strongest support.

“It is partly a retributive act to take over their land and send signals to the surrounding landowners. It’s an act of intimidation and a violation of human right of those people.”

For southern farmers, the military presence is reminiscent of the mid-1980s, when a North Korean-trained unit of the Zimbabwean army massacred up to 20,000 Ndebele, the predominant ethnic group in the southern region, crushing support for an alternative to ZANU-PF.

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