Did Robert Mugabe fake a flood in Zimbabwe this February?

Human Rights Watch alleges that villagers were evacuated from a 'national disaster' and put to work as cheap labor in sugarcane fields.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe stands during celebrations to mark his country's 34th Independence Day in Harare April 18, 2014.

This February 3,000 families were driven out of an area in southeast Zimbabwe known as Tokwe-Mukosi when flood waters rose dramatically.

The flood was proclaimed a “national disaster” by Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, after state media reported it was caused by the broken wall of a dam.

International donors pledged food and humanitarian aid, which has been steadily delivered. 

In an operation conducted partly by the military, the displaced and destitute families -- about 20,000 people -- were quickly whisked off and resettled in a “transit camp” of tents 80 miles away, on something called the Nuanetsi Ranch. 

The ranch is home to sugarcane fields that feed a large ethanol production facility that is also on the ranch. The sugar cane and ethanol project is jointly owned by Mr. Mugabe’s political party, Zanu (PF), and a controversial Zimbabwe businessman named Billy Rautenbach, sometimes called “Africa’s Napoleon.”

From the moment the 3,000 families were relocated, they were told that their new employment was filling a sugarcane farming labor shortage. They were also advised that distribution of their donated food aid was contingent on their work.

Now a Human Rights Watch investigation alleges not only that the families were commandeered as a form of cheap labor to serve Mr. Mugabe’s energy business interests – but that the flood itself was artificially created.

There is no broken dam wall, the investigation found. In interviews with three senior employees of the Italian firm, Salini Impregilo JVC that is helping construct the dam, it is alleged that the flood was created by closing the sluice gates of the dam, which covers an area where two rivers come together. The closed flood gates caused high waters to back up and flood out the villagers.

 “What the media reported – that the dam wall collapsed leading to floods – is false information,” said one of the senior Salini officers, all three of whom requested anonymity. “The dam wall did not collapse and was never in danger of collapsing. With sluice gates and spillways open, it would have taken at least five years for the dam to fill up to capacity, but in this case they were deliberately closed because villagers in Tokwe-Mukorsi had resisted relocation.”

Tiseke Kasambala, director of southern Africa for Human Rights Watch, charges that  “these 3,000 families have been displaced under questionable circumstances and dumped in a place where their only alternative is to be cheap labor for Zimbabwe’s ruling party.”

The Human Rights Watch charges were vociferously denied by local Zimbabwe officials and members of the ruling Zanu (PF) party, which won reelection last July in a vote that was highly contested. 

“That is the most mischievous and ridiculous comment you can get from Human Rights Watch,” said the provincial affairs minister for Masivingo province, Kudakwashe Bhasikiti, where the dispute is taking place. “Flooding was not only experienced in Zimbabwe but even in the UK, Canada.”

Mr. Bhasikiti three days ago banned five journalists from visiting the camp and the area, charging them with bias -- effectively closing off access to the families and to further examination of the dam. 

Mr. Bhasikiti also denied that Mr. Rautenbach, the wealthy co-owner of the ethanol project, was formally affiliated with the ruling party. However, Rautenbach’s ties to Mugabe are old and well-known, and on those grounds he has been sanctioned by the US, UK, and EU dating to 2008.

HRW officials contacted by the Monitor confirmed that flooding at the turn of the year had taken place in the region but that leaving the flood gates open would have caused the waters to run off.  “This was a water management issue, not a flood,” said one.

Instead, HRW points to local villagers that were displaced who were told by military officials that Mugabe had ordered the reservoir basin at Tokw-Mukosi where they lived to be filled up without delay.  

Thousands of children have had their schooling disrupted or no longer have access to education in the tent city refugee camp, according to a visitor there.

A makeshift school set up near the camp is not adequately equipped and staffed to meet the children’s needs.

There were also widespread allegations that Masvingo police and provincial officials responsible for distributing food, blankets, and clothing have diverted some of the aid to the neighboring towns of Triangle and Chiredzi, where they are sold for profit, allegations HRW monitors witnessed to be true.

“The Zimbabwean government has an obligation to ensure that displaced people have food, clothing, and shelter, but when food aid is turning up in local markets instead of in the tents of the displaced, then the responsible local officials need to be investigated,” said Kasambala.

One of the Italian corporate officers that leaked information to HRW summed up the situation by saying, “’Floods’ enabled [the] government to swiftly remove some 20,000 people without compensation under the guise of a national disaster while at the same time attracting international sympathy and aid from the donor community." 

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