Yesterday’s results from the 2013 elections in Zimbabwe show that Robert Mugabe is back with a bang! The Financial Times has a headline that is most interesting: “Mugabe, the ageing ‘master’, delivers knockout blow to rival”. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party won more than 60% of the votes. Unlike last time, when the elections were reportedly rigged, this time monitors from the African Union have called the elections “peaceful, orderly, free and fair.”
The results show continuing anger against Tsvangirai after the Wikileaks cables had revealed in 2010 the links between his MDC and the U.S. The cables showed that Tsvangirai had asked Western countries to toughen economic sanctions on Zimbabwe after he lost the 2008 elections. Most opinion polls after that had shown the MDC sliding down.
Clearly, land reform loomed large during these elections too and Mugabe’s win is widely seen as a vindication of his party’s record of land reform. It may be useful to go back a bit into the history of land reform in Zimbabwe to understand the present situation there.
The situation in Zimbabwe today cannot be divorced from its history and the developmental path it was forced to follow after 1979. Zimbabwe was earlier Rhodesia, which received independence in 1979 under the popular leadership of Mugabe. The most important task of the new regime was land reform, in a country where most of the land was monopolised by white settlers. However, independence had come with riders. The most important rider was the signing of the Lancaster agreement that said that there should not be any land reform in Zimbabwe for a period of 10 years! This clause was written in to protect the holdings of white settlers. This was a bizarre condition to come with freedom, but then the then leadership had agreed to it.
For the next 10 years (1980-1990), Zimbabwe did not implement land reform at all (remarkable indeed for a backward country). In this period, the West was supposed to provide aid to Zimbabwe. However, aid was not sufficient and Zimbabwe was forced to enter into a deal with the IMF with structural adjustment conditionalities. Mugabe was an agreeing party to the IMF deal, and he never protested against its conditionalities in the 1980s. Precisely for this reason, he was the darling of the West, which ironically criticises him today. As a result of the IMF deal, the fundamentals of the Zimbabwe economy went from bad to worse. The Zimbabwean people were pushed to suffering, but the West continued to back Mugabe, thanks to his IMF deal and shelving of land reform.
In the 1990s, land reform became legal and Mugabe began steps to implement it (partly forced by the economic state and partly to strengthen his own black constituency from drifting away). In this period, the West defaulted on its aid promises. This then became a point of conflict between Mugabe and the West. The West wanted to stymie land reform at any cost, to protect the white settlers. And, slowly, for a variety of reasons, Mugabe became a fighter for land reform.
Now, when land reform began to be implemented, there was a huge reprisal from the white settlers, aided ably by the Western governments as well as the Western media. This was in the late-1990s and early-2000s. It was a time when the whole of Africa stood steadfast with Mugabe. The West went all out for a regime change in Zimbabwe by setting out a media blitzkrieg (part of this campaign was also a set of abusive-biographies of Mugabe published in the 2000s, like that by Martin Meredith). Funnily, the poor economic position of Zimbabwe was given as the justification for why there should be no land reform! But this was a direct result of the IMF deal of the 1980s; the best way that the West could hide this shame was to put all the blame on Mugabe (see the brilliant pieces by John Cherian in the archives of Frontline).
What has land reform done? I think few people know how remarkable some of the impacts have been. There has been, very importantly, the emergence of a black elite in agriculture (however locally powerful and “thuggish”), as has been well documented in the studies of scholars like Sam Moyo. This is a historic change that Mugabe’s land reform brought about, and we should not underestimate it.
The questions raised about whether land reforms led to destruction of Zimbabwe’s agriculture are slowly getting settled. See an interview with Professor Ian Scoones of the University of Sussex here. In a report in 2012, the New York Times pointed out another important facet of the impact of land reform:
“Before Zimbabwe’s government began the violent and chaotic seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, fewer than 2,000 farmers were growing tobacco, the country’s most lucrative crop, and most were white. Today, 60,000 farmers grow tobacco here, the vast majority of them black and many of them working small plots that were allotted to them in the land upheavals. Most had no tobacco farming experience yet managed to produce a hefty crop, rebounding from a low of 105 million pounds in 2008 to more than 330 million pounds this year.
The success of these small-scale farmers has led some experts to reassess the legacy of Zimbabwe’s forced land redistribution, even as they condemn its violence and destruction.”
In an FAQ published on their site in July 2013, CNN cited World Bank to note that:
“…since 2009, Zimbabwe’s economy has started to recover from a decade-long crisis. The value of mineral exports increased by 230% during 2009-2011, while the value of agricultural exports increased by 101% during the same period. Growth in 2011 was led by strong growth in mining (50.5%), agriculture (17.1%) and services (16.3%), according to the World Bank.”
However, Mugabe is no saint. He was well involved in the IMF deal of the 1980s, but as time passed, he fell out with the West. To stay in power, he grossly violated human rights and shut down the free Press. That needs to be condemned. However, it is also important to note the nature of politics practised by the opposition in Zimbabwe too. It is clear that the victory of the opposition in Zimbabwe would be the defeat of land reform in Zimbabwe. There was never any doubt about this. For that reason, the fall of Mugabe would bring to power a West-friendly, neo-liberal, anti-land reform government in Zimbabwe.
The challenge ahead for the African leaders is to discuss and debate with Mugabe about his own future and usher in a democratic government. No doubt. But the contours of those talks will be set by the land reform movement within Zimbabwe. And the West needs to stay away. John Kerry's statement that the election results are not credible is typical of the US' habit: never learn from history.