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Zimbabwe's army takes over black farms

By Daniel PepperContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2006


The soldiers rolled past Lot Dube's land, and set up camp nearby. They stopped just long enough to give him a blunt message: Your fields are ours.

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"They told us, 'We are taking away your fields from you'," says Mr. Dube, who farms a 10-acre plot south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second biggest city. The soldiers, who arrived last November, proceeded to plow under his tomatoes, onions, and sweet potatoes. Since 1982, these were the crops Dube had grown to pay for his children's food and school fees. Now, for the good of the nation, he was ordered to plant maize.

The Mugabe regime is looking for ways to ease a food and economic crisis so severe that inflation is running at more than 1,000 percent. But as pressure builds on the president to step down, Robert Mugabe is instead strengthening his grip.

He has ordered Zimbabwe's military to fan out across several rural areas to ensure that the government's grain silos are full.

That move has been mirrored in the cities by the appointment of military commanders to top slots at the Reserve Bank, the Electoral Commission, Zimbabwe Railroads, the Ministry of Energy, the Public Service Commission, the National Parks, and other key institutions.

Political opposition groups are largely neutralized by Mugabe's extensive domestic intelligence network. But experts say that without a viable political alternative, anger over rising prices, shortages of basic goods and services, and abuses by government officials could fuel serious unrest.

"[Militarization] is an admission that things have fallen apart and national governance can no longer continue in a civilian mode," says Jonathan Moyo, a former secretary for information and currently Zimbabwe's only independent member of parliament. Mr. Moyo warns of a possible "slide into anarchy" if social unrest erupts into violence.

Zimbabwe's economy has been shrinking for the past six years and has been dependent on food aid since 2002. Eighty percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, and food and fuel are scarcer than ever. Last month, the UN distributed emergency food aid to about one-fourth of the 12.5 million population, and said many people were surviving on one meal or less a day. This year, despite the best rains in 20 years, the government predicts the grain harvest of a country that was known as the breadbasket of southern Africa will be only half as large as in 2000, when the eviction of white commercial farmers began.

But putting agricultural decisions in the hands of the military is troubling to locals. "They don't know anything about farming," says Dube. "They say they want to end hunger in Zimbabwe. But I think they want to take the fields for their own use."

Ephraim Masawi, Zimbabwe's deputy secretary for information, says that reports of soldiers destroying farmers' vegetables has "never come to my ears." He adds: "These people have invited the army to try to help them because some have no collateral to go to the bank for loans."

The presence of the military, predominantly in the southern part of the country, and not in the north where Mugabe draws his support, is no coincidence. "The army has targeted areas that are potential opposition strongholds, those farmers that have voted for the opposition," says Gordon Moyo, leader of an opposition political group, Bulawayo Agenda. "It's an act of intimidation and a violation of human rights of those people."