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Could 'land grab' by Tsvangirai's niece overshadow Zimbabwe progress?

Britain pledged $8.2 million in aid after Prime Minister Gordon Brown held a landmark meeting with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Monday, but an attempt by Tsvangirai's niece to take over a white-owned farm is causing a stir back home.

By Ian EvansContributor to The Christian Science Monitor, a Contributor / June 22, 2009

Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai listens during a news conference with his British counterpart Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street in London Monday.

Lewis Whyld/Pool/REUTERS


Cape Town, South Africa; and Harare, Zimbabwe

He's earning plaudits and some funding abroad, but Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is facing embarrassment at home, where his niece has tried to seize a white-owned farm.

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The Zimbabwean prime minister has not commented publicly on the apparent land grab by his relative, but sources close to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party leader said he was "not happy" about the events – and that they risked overshadowing progress in the unity government.

Mr. Tsvangirai, who shares power in Zimbabwe with President Robert Mugabe, is currently on a US and European diplomatic tour to raise money for his beleaguered country. Britain pledged an extra £5 million ($8.2 million) Monday, after Prime Minister Gordon Brown held a landmark meeting with Tsvangirai. Mr. Brown pledged more help if reforms gained momentum, expressing concern over whether the unity government was making progress.

Tsvangirai's diplomatic entourage includes politicians from Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, whose travel bans were lifted by the European Union ahead of the first official EU-Zimbabwe meeting in seven years last week. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980, agreed last February to share power with Tsvangarai in the wake of a disputed 2008 national election.

But his niece's land claim has highlighted deep divisions between the MDC and ZANU-PF factions over one of the country's most controversial policies.

Tsvangirai opposes farm invasions, calling for the rule of law to be respected. But he has angered farmers' leaders by describing some attacks as "isolated incidents." They claim he has been powerless to prevent nearly 80 farm occupations since the unity government came into being in February.

While he plays down the farm violence, Mugabe and ZANU-PF have insisted there was "no going back."

Who has gotten the land?

Mugabe began his policy of farm redistribution in 2000, claiming he wanted landless peasants to benefit from farms owned by whites. But critics say most have gone to political allies. Of the 4,000 farmers in Zimbabwe in 2000, only an estimated 400 are left, leaving the country desperately short of food and leaving tens of thousands of workers unemployed as land lies idle.

Since last December, around 150 white farmers have faced court action for "illegal occupation" of their property while the government has ignored rulings from Southern African Development Community tribunals that say its policy was illegal.

But recently, attention has centered on Tsvangirai niece Arikana Chihombori's attempted seizure of De Rus Farm in Chegutu, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of the capital, Harare.