Over my dead body? After close to two decades, Zimbabwe now moves to return back land controversially taken over by the late Robert Mugabe government

A white farmer in Zimbabwe. (foreignpolicy)
  • The Zimbabwean government began its land reforms in the 1980s to address the imbalances in land access ownership and use that had existed in the country before independence. 
  • The government of Mugabe undertook a number of reforms over the years, with the most recent being the fast track land reform programme (FTLRP), introduced in 2001.
  • President Emmerson Mnangagwa is now taking another stab at the programme and hopes to kill two birds with one stone and turn Zimbabwe from a basket case to Africa’s bread basket.

After close to two decades, Zimbabwe has started the process of returning back land to farmers whose farms were controversially taken over by the government of the late Robert Mugabe.

On Friday, the Zimbabwean government gazetted new legislation under which former landowners may opt for repossession or monetary compensation.

Among the champions of the latest programme is the South African Embassy in Zimbabwe which welcomed the move to return land under Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreements (BIPPAs) and Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) to its former owners.

“We welcome the development, as we believe there is enough land waiting to be used,” a spokesperson from the South African Embassy, speaking on behalf of ambassador Mphakama Mbete, said by phone from Harare, CGTN Africa reported

The Zimbabwean government began its land reforms in the 1980s to address the imbalances in land access ownership and use that had existed in the country before independence.

The government of Mugabe undertook a number of reforms over the years, with corresponding modifications to the law and redistribution targets. The most recent initiative, the fast track land reform programme (FTLRP), was introduced in 2001 to speed up the redistribution of land.

However, the programme didn’ live up to its noble end. It instead resulted in violence, a lack of legitimacy in land ownership, and a chronic weakening of the country’s agricultural infrastructure, all of which have contributed to Zimbabwe’s deteriorating social and economic conditions.

It was criticised for being both chaotic and violent and ended up in numerous deaths in the course of land seizures.

The government of Emmerson Mnangagwa is now taking another stab at the programme and hopes to come out successful and unscattered. By doing so it hopes it will kill two birds with one stone and revive the country’s agriculture industry from a basket case to Africa’s bread basket.

The new regulations will apply to indigenous farmers whose farms were appropriated, as well as to those whose land was protected by bilateral treaties. Several countries, among them South Africa, Austria, France, Germany, Mauritius, Holland, Sweden and Malaysia, had signed investment protection agreements with Zimbabwe at the time.

Of those covered by bilateral treaties, South Africans were the worst affected, according to the Commercial Farmers Union in Zimbabwe, as over 200 farmers lost their land.

The land issue has been hanging over Zimbabwe’s neck for years with Western countries led by the United States demanding the country must return back the land before it can lift the chocking sanctions it has imposed on the once flourishing southern Africa country. To appease the west, Zimbabwe began paying compensation to white farmers who lost their farms.

“In 2018 alone, $12m was paid to 29 farmers. In the 2019 national budget we set aside US$53m for the same purpose,” The Herald newspaper quoted Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube as saying last year.

There’s a catch though, the new legislation does not automatically grant compensation.

Any application may be rejected “on the basis that granting it would be contrary to the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, regional or town planning or the general public interest”, according to the gazetted regulations.

Boosting a huge track of arable land enough to feed the whole of Africa, land reform has been blamed for Zimbabwe’s failure to feed itself, with the country resorting to imports and international help.

The United Nations World Food Programme plans to double the number of Zimbabweans that it assists, up to 4.1 million, and will require over $200 million to meet needs in the first half of 2020 alone.

Only time will tell if ‘the crocodile’ will survive to tell the tale and pull off the hot and controversial land issue.

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