In Zimbabwe, a President With a Forked Tongue

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Speaking in English, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe does a credible job of sounding conciliatory, but addressing his supporters in his native tongue he comes across a little like Slobodan Milosevic. As the standoff between the country's handful of white farmers and the pro-Mugabe squatters who've occupied their land becomes increasingly violent, the 74-year-old Mugabe on Wednesday chose Independence Day to address the problem with a forked tongue. First he spoke in English and struck a conciliatory tone, expressing understanding for both sides of the conflict and sympathy for two farmers shot dead in the last five days, and extolling racial reconciliation as his country's prime export. But hours later, in speech delivered in Shona, he denounced white farmers as "our enemies, not just political enemies, but definite enemies in wanting to reverse our revolution and our independence." Mugabe's remarks, which come amid rising tensions brought on by the land invasions his government initiated after losing a February referendum that would have given him the power to seize white-owned farms without compensation, are likely to inflame an already volatile situation.

But inflaming the situation may be precisely what Mugabe has in mind. Playing to the landless rural poor by encouraging land invasions has been widely interpreted as an election ploy to reverse the declining support of a president who has ruled Zimbabwe through its 20 years of independence. With parliamentary elections likely by May, Mugabe's support in urban areas is down to about 25 percent. But the fact that 70 percent of the country's best farmland is owned by some 4,000 white commercial farmers gives the issue some resonance with the country's impoverished rural majority.

Mugabe justifies the expropriations on the basis that white farmers acquired the land only after 19th-century British colonization had wrenched it from its original Zimbabwean owners, and that Britain should therefore pay compensation for white farms expropriated by his government. Britain has offered to help fund a land reform program, but only after the invasions are ended. Mugabe critics often point out that in many of the instances where the government has bought out white farmers, the land has found its way into the hands of the president's cronies rather than being redistributed among the rural poor. Western donors, on whom Zimbabwe is increasingly dependent, weren't impressed either, with the IMF suspending aid until Mugabe restores the rule of law. But that may not happen until after the ruling party feels confident about the outcome of the election.