DISPLACED Zimbabwean white farmers have presented government with a staggering US$10 billion bill for property confiscated during the country's chaotic land redistribution exercise, setting the stage for a row with the cash-strapped inclusive government.
The Agricultural Recovery and Compe-nsation (ARAC), a unit of the Commercial Farmers Union (CFU), has submitted compensation figures for land seized from its predominantly white membership under the land reform programme which started in 2000 and is still being implemented despite initial reports that it had been completed.
The land reform, which was executed swiftly and ruthlessly despite international criticism, plunged the country into its worst economic crisis in history, triggering western sanctions against the government of President Robert Mugabe which consequently lost its mass appeal due to widespread poverty triggered by the collapse of the agricultural sector, which had a domino effect on the agro-based economy.
The reforms were meant to transfer vast tracts of fertile land from a tiny minority of white commercial farmers, who produced most of the country's food and agricultural exports, to black farmers, most of whom were either landless or were forced to survive on poor quality soil.
In just two-and-a-half years from June 2000, the government took over between nine and 11 million hectares from white farmers.
But, by government's own admission, widespread corruption marred the whole exercise, triggering calls for a land audit by former opposition party activists now in a power-sharing inclusive government with President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. Although some black farmers benefited, many are still without land while vast tracts of fertile land lies unexploited on expropriated farms.
An ARAC executive confirmed that they had written to government for compensation but declined to give details. However, The Financial Gazette's Comp-anies & Markets understands from sources that the CFU's evaluation of confiscated property is between US$6 billion and US$10 billion.
The government's own evaluation of the properties puts them at between US$1,5 billion and US$2 billion. The former white farms were heavily mechanised and developed. "We recognise the current initiatives and limitations with regards to government's budget and have, therefore, put forward proposals to the Ministry of Lands and Rural Resettlement and Ministry of Finance, an interim payment proposal that should bring relief until a comprehensive solution is reached," ARAC manager, Ben Gilpin, said.
President Mugabe's government forcibly expropriated about 5 000 former white-owned farms after a row with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.
Clare Short, Britain's then secretary of state for international development, had infuriated President Mugabe after writing a letter to then minister of agriculture and land, Kumbirai Kangai, rejecting Britain's colonial responsibility for land reform in Zimbabwe.
Described by one publication as "One bad letter with long-lasting consequences", Short's letter to Kangai had said: "Dear Minister, George Foulkes has reported to me on the meeting which you and Hon John Nkomo had with Tony Lloyd and himself during your recent visit.
"I know that President Mugabe also discussed the land issue with the prime minister briefly during their meeting.
"It may be helpful if I record where matters now rest on the issue. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (in Edinburgh), Tony Blair said that he looked forward to developing a new basis for relations with Commonwealth countries founded upon our new government's policies, not on the past."
Short had then insisted: "I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe.
"We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. "My own origins are Irish, and as you know, we were colonised, not colonisers." The letter had sparked an angry response from President Robert Mugabe's government who proceeded to expropriate white-owned farms under an exercise that turned violent and caused an international outcry.
But it would appear that the reforms that emerged out of the process, while noble, became marred by nepotism and poor implementation. This has complicated the issue of redress to the affected farmers. In a notice issued in December 2009, seven months after formation of the inclusive government, the Ministry of Lands, Land Reform and Resettlement requested over 1 000 former white commercial farmers to collect, "as a matter of urgency" undisclosed amounts of money as compensation for improvements made on expropriated farms in terms of the Land Acquisition Act.
This courted an angry reaction from the Justice for Agriculture, a break-away unit of the CFU representing hundreds of displaced white farmers, which described the compensation as "daylight robbery" and said the government notice was a sham intended to convince outsiders that the farmers were being treated fairly.
The CFU maintains that compensation value should include land, improvements, interest, and consequential damage.
President Mugabe's government has insisted that compensation be paid only for buildings and improvements made on seized properties and not for land.
Nonetheless, government has still not been able to mobilize sufficient resources to compensate the farmers in the absence of international support.
Most of the acquired farms have been rundown, with key infrastructure vandalised.
Gilpin said the CFU had many elderly farmers whose livelihoods had been destroyed and needed assistance. Essentially, they needed to restore dignity by ensuring their claims to compensation were dealt with.
"These folks are generally not able to work, but, we know of people who soldier on in spite of age and infirmity, simply to get enough to stay alive," Gilpin said.
ARAC was created out of the need to find space within its mandate for the representation of a group of its constituency who, though farmers, were no longer able to farm.
"The fast track land reform programme has been with us for 12 years now, and as the country's agriculture sector struggles to recover, so does my constituency which still awaits compensation and continues to face a hostile and excluding environment," said Gilpin.
He added: "There are younger farmers, and for some of these, we have facilitated training and orientation towards development work and hope that there are agencies both within Zimbabwe and outside who will use their services and considerable experience. While farmers have been through a lengthy apprenticeship, the changed circumstances have necessitated a change from managing to teaching, but, there remains a depth of skill, available to use in recovery."
Many competent farmers who were at the same time professional employers of large numbers of people, and tax payers who contributed greatly to the country's development, have gone to neighbouring countries, transforming their agricultural sector.
"There are others who seek to actively farm, and this covers not only some few still on the land, but others, a new generation, which yearns for opportunity and inclusion, we hope and advocate that a legal and constitutional frame work will not discriminate against these people," he said.
Gilpin compared the current situation in the country's agricultural sector to a woman in the throes of child birth only to lose the baby due to a long and complicated delivery, resulting in her experiencing disability because of the delay in receiving help.
"I think that on reflection, that this is a metaphor for agriculture today in Zimbabwe: the past is dead, the present is stillborn and a viable future is yet to be conceived," Gilpin said.