Power to the Mob

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President Robert Gabriel Mugabe has made a career of shifting between pragmatism and demagoguery. At independence in 1980 the former scholar turned guerrilla leader promised a nation of peace and reconciliation and "a new spirit that must unite and not divide." His Zimbabwe African National Union Party, which had led the fight against white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia, formed a coalition government with rivals from the Zimbabwe African People's Union. But within years Mugabe had fired ZAPU's leader from the government, cracked down on political opponents and named himself Executive President. Since then he has maintained his grip on power through deft political manipulation and blunt intimidation. "He's ruthless," says one senior Western diplomat. "A skilled brinksman," says another.

Last week, though, it seemed as if Mugabe's machinations had finally spun out of control. Thousands of veterans of the liberation war, urged on by the President, have occupied more than 1,000 white-owned farms over the past two months. The veterans have shot dead two white farmers and killed four black opposition campaigners. They have also torched farm buildings, including the homes of hundreds of black farm workers. In his televised state of the nation address on the 20th anniversary of independence, Mugabe, 76, said that his government understood the "frustrations of the war veterans just as we appreciate the pressures faced by the commercial farmers," but fell short of ordering his supporters off the farms. A few hours later Mugabe described white farmers as "enemies of the state." Instead of celebrating 20 years of freedom, the country seemed to be sliding toward anarchy. "There is an air of sadness and fear," says Welshman Ncube, secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main political opposition group.

The farm invasions began two months ago, soon after a slim majority of voters rejected a constitutional referendum backed by Mugabe. The referendum included proposals allowing white-owned farms to be confiscated without compensating their owners, who include both the descendants of white settlers who seized the land from its original inhabitants, and farmers who have bought land before and after independence. Angered by the defeat, the first for the ruling party in any vote since independence, and looking for something to shore up support for his government and divert people's attention from the collapsing economy, Mugabe encouraged the illegal occupation of white-owned farms even after High Court rulings ordering the so-called war veterans many of whom are too young to have fought in the war to leave.

One of the first farms to be invaded was Saffron Walden, a 3,000-hectare wheat and cattle farm 30 km west of the capital, Harare. In late February Liz Hinde, 55, whose husband Ross' family bought the farm in 1951, was at home alone waiting for some friends to arrive for lunch. As they drove along a muddy road through pouring rain the friends passed some 200 armed men heading toward the farm and phoned ahead to warn Hinde. She radioed neighbors for help and hid in long grass behind the chicken run. The men, waving machetes and clubs, gathered at her gate.

Local white farmers soon arrived and two leaders of the invading group were allowed inside. "They told me, 'We have come to take not only your farm but all the best farms. We don't want the bad ones, only the best,'" Hinde recalls one man saying. Late that afternoon the men left in hired buses but were back again the following day. Since then around 10 occupiers have built a shelter in one of the farm's paddocks. "We just ignore them," says Hinde. "And luckily they haven't harassed our workers or us again."

Others have not been so lucky. From the start, war veterans beat farmers and black farm workers and burned houses. Ten days ago a group of veterans abducted and shot dead David Stevens, who owned a farm in the Macheke district, southeast of Harare, and who was also active in the MDC. On the same day a separate gang firebombed and killed two black MDC supporters in Buhera. Three days later, a group of around 100 veterans armed with AK-47s stormed the cattle farm of a second white farmer, Martin Olds, outside Bulawayo in the country's southwest, set fire to the house and then killed Olds in an hour-long shootout. "These guys are not playing, they are deadly serious, and they are out of control," John Osborne, who was among five farmers abducted and beaten by Stevens' killers, told the BBC.

But while land reform is undoubtedly an emotive and important issue in Zimbabwe, a more prosaic reason has motivated Mugabe's latest crusade: votes and political power. The President's popularity has slipped over the past few years and his loss at the referendum roused new hope for an opposition victory in parliamentary elections scheduled later this month.

Opposition activists say that the war veterans and other Mugabe supporters are targeting opposition members as much as farmers, and fear that Mugabe, who is not up for re-election himself until 2002, may use the growing violence as an excuse to declare a state of emergency and postpone the parliamentary elections indefinitely. "[The land invasions have] nothing to do with race. It is all about intimidating the opposition," MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai told reporters after arriving home from a tour of South Africa, Britain and the U.S. "Mugabe has lost the support of the majority of Zimbabweans."MORE>>

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