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Why white Zimbabwean farmers plan to stay in Nigeria

Farmers who moved to Nigeria after being kicked off their farms by President Robert Mugabe say they won't return to the land they love even if Mugabe fails to emerge victorious in the disputed March 29 election.

By Sarah SimpsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2008

Looking ahead: Kwara state governor, Buloa Saraki (l.) visits the airport as the first cows arrive from South Africa.

Sarah Simpson


Shonga, Nigeria

A jet carrying a herd of Jersey cows touches down at an airstrip in the Nigerian countryside, transporting dairy cows from South Africa.

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Their new owners, a small group of white farmers from Zimbabwe, watch as the herd clip-clops down the gangplank. The farmers casually contemplate flying back to homes they lost to President Robert Mugabe's supporters. But whatever the outcome of Zimbabwe's disputed presidential poll, they are not likely to be returning to the land they love soon.

"My heart would want to go back, but my brain would say no," says Susan Mactavish, who's spent her whole life in Africa and now lives on a 1,000-hectare (2,471-acre) farm in Nigeria's west-central Kwara State. "I've put too much into this place to abandon it."

Zimbabwean farmer John Sawyer says he would look closely at the Zimbabwean economy before reinvesting in farming there. Zimbabwe's infrastructure and services have decayed as Africa's breadbasket has turned basket case with hyper-inflation of 165,000 percent and 80 percent unemployment. The seized farms have largely failed, and nearly half of Zimbabweans are malnourished.

"If we go back to Zimbabwe tomorrow, then it's like when we arrived here. We'd have to start all over again," says Mr. Sawyer, who wears the khaki sun hat and shorts that are almost a uniform for the white farmers. He goes barefoot, even when working in the fields.

While the Zimbabwean government evicted most of the 4,000 white farmers without compensation (some 130 were chased off in the past month), the Nigerian government has spent millions of dollars to woo these farmers here. In southern Africa, English and Dutch settlers tilled large farms for hundreds of years, causing friction with local groups over ownership of the land. But Nigeria's history is different: English colonialists never tried to own land and race relations have never been politicized.

For the Zimbabwean farmers it's a commercial opportunity and personal challenge. For the Nigerian government, it's a chance to tap into years of expertise and kick-start commercial farming operations in a country of 140 million where farming has long been neglected.

Until the group of 13 arrived in Nigeria, the land they now farm was, they say, "bush." There were a few scattered subsistence farms, no electricity, and no mobile phone coverage. But the nearby Niger River promised unlimited water once bore holes and irrigation systems were in place.

Three years later, Nigerian farmers have been moved to alternative land, with compensation from the government. Boreholes have been drilled, some 13,000 hectares of land cleared, mobile phone coverage is in place, and each farm has a house with Internet access, satellite TV, pretty gardens, pet dogs, and swimming pools.