RAY SUAREZ: White farmers in this southern African nation raced against the clock this week to meet a government demand ordering them to pack their belongings and evacuate their farms. Their flight intensified after the government arrested nearly 200 white farmers in the past week for refusing to comply. Yesterday, police fingerprinted this group and then led them off in handcuffs, an event broadcast live on state television. President Robert Mugabe has ordered 2,900 of the country's 4,500 white commercial farmers to turn over their land as part of a highly criticized land redistribution plan.
Under Mugabe's order, the land would be redistributed without compensation to black Zimbabweans, many of them veterans of the guerrilla war against white rule in the 1960s and '70s. More than half of the country's best farmland belongs to whites, who are a minority and gained possession during decades of colonial rule. They make up less than 1% of the country's population of 12.5 million. Mugabe's plan was a big part of his re-election campaign this spring and had been so in previous elections. He said it was unfinished business left over from 1980 when the nation of Zimbabwe was created from the former British colony of Rhodesia. Yesterday, Bush administration officials said Mugabe should no longer be considered the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe even though he recently won re-election.
WALTER KANSTEINER: We do not see President Mugabe as the democratically legitimate leader of the country. The election was fraudulent and it was not free and it was not fair. So we're working with others, other countries in the region as well as throughout the world, on how we can, in fact, together encourage the body politique of Zimbabwe to, in fact, go forward and correct that situation.
RAY SUAREZ: The farm evacuations come at a time when southern Africa is suffering from the worst drought and food shortage in a decade. As many as six million Zimbabweans are at risk of starvation by year's end. Another six million in neighboring nations are also at risk, a situation exacerbated by land takeovers, according to the U.S. State Department.
ANDREW NATSIOS: Those farms are all shut down now. Either they've been confiscated or people are being arrested now. It is madness to arrest commercial farmers in the middle of a drought when they could grow food to save people from starvation.
RAY SUAREZ: U.S. officials also said Mugabe was committing gross violations by limiting emergency food aid to his political followers in the most severely affected region of the country. They said farmland was also being distributed to Mugabe's cronies. The white-owned farms once earned a big share of Zimbabwe's export income and helped feed its fast-growing population. Over the past two years, mob attacks on white-owned farms have led to the death of at least 100 white and black Zimbabweans, including at least eight white farmers. Mugabe says the land will now be distributed fairly, and last week he said white farmers need not fear if they complied with his order.
PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE: All genuine and well-meaning white farmers who wish to pursue a farming career as loyal citizens of this country have land to do so. We have been generous. No farmer we said need go without land, but what we will not accept is that they should have two farms, more farms, 135,000 hectares. To all this, no.
RAY SUAREZ: Farmers said that is not true. Yesterday, this farmer's wife read a court order delivered to her. After living on the property for 34 years, she and her husband had 14 hours to pack and get out.
LYNN FULLER: We have to vacate the premises immediately, never to access again without a police escort. Apparently, there's been a directive from the president and the vice president's office stating one man, one farm still applies. Well, this is one man, one farm. This is the only farm we have.
RAY SUAREZ: Farmers who refuse to leave face a fine and up to two years in jail.
For more on the situation in Zimbabwe, we go to Bill Fletcher, president of the Trans Africa Forum, an organization promoting research and commentary on Africa; and Jeffrey Herbst, a professor of political and international affairs at Princeton University and the author of "State and Politics in Zimbabwe." We invited representatives of the Zimbabwe government to appear, but they declined.
Professor Herbst, the deal that created Zimbabwe and ended the civil war promised that there would be no confiscation of farms, that farmers would be compensated if they wanted to leave the land. What happened between then and now?
JEFFREY HERBST: Well, the Mugabe regime ran out of reasons why it should be re-elected especially after the transition in South Africa, and as it sought desperately to reward its own followers and keep others from seizing power, took the land issue as a kind of populist cause that it could try to advance its own interests and appeal to the population who are still concerned about the inequalities inherited from colonialism.
RAY SUAREZ: But is there a historical wrong that needs to be righted? In effect, is Mugabe correct in one part of his analysis and perhaps wrong about the timing or something?
JEFFREY HERBST: Well, the inequality of a few thousand white farmers owning over half the land in a country is clear. However, the Mugabe regime after independence in 1980 did not embark on a particularly ambitious land resettlement program. Indeed throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, it was not that interested in land reform. It only refocused on the land program... land problem after 1995 when the president's own popularity began to decline.
At that point without an approach that would protect property rights and address inequalities, it sought to use rather blunt instrument of land seizures to address what is quite rightly an historical wrong. However, there were ways of going about it that could have protected the country's infrastructure, its long-term agrarian potential and redistributed the significant resource to the African majority.
RAY SUAREZ: Bill Fletcher, do you agree with that analysis?
WILLIAM FLETCHER: I agree with the gist of the analysis. I think that President Mugabe took a legitimate issue, which was the land question, and used it to serve illegitimate objectives. I think there's very little question of that. I think that the way that the issue was manipulated in the last election was outrageous. Nevertheless, having said that, the response of the United States government in this has been just as outrageous and I believe is actually inflaming the situation.
RAY SUAREZ: How so?
WILLIAM FLETCHER: Well, the United States, I feel, is once again the Bush administration is trying to play God. They're selectively deciding which countries to go after, which ones to leave aside with no level field, no clear criteria. Here we have a situation where the United States, prior to the election, as well always Britain, in taking their stand against Zimbabwe gave Mugabe the ammunition he needed in order to discredit or attempt to discredit the MBC, the opposition political party. As of yesterday's statement, he not only embarrasses the government of South Africa and Mozambique and Botswana, but he goes even further in making the internal, genuine opposition appear to be nothing more than agents of imperialism.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Andrew Natsios in the opening piece talk about how it's madness to kick farmers off the land in the midst of a food shortage. Is the United States wrong when it says that about the government of Zimbabwe?
WILLIAM FLETCHER: I think the United States government, the Bush administration is completely disingenuous when they talk about this. Their concern - this is issues of white farmers. If this was any other country in Africa they wouldn't have spent a moment in a press conference. I mean, that's what makes this completely disingenuous. There needs to be land reform in Zimbabwe, there's no question about it. The question is not whether there's land reform but when and how it takes place, and whether it is a democratic process in which the rural poor of Zimbabwe actually benefit from land reform or whether or not it turns out to be to the benefit of the elite.
The United States government by intervening in this way so openly, so brazenly ends up twisting the situation so that anyone that dares to oppose Mugabe, President Mugabe ends up looking like an outsider. This is dangerous for the internal opposition and it's dangerous for those... anyone else that wants to see genuine democracy come to Zimbabwe.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Herbst?
JEFFREY HERBST: I would have to disagree. It should be remembered first that in addition to the few thousand white farmers, they have tens of thousands of African farm workers who are also going to lose their livelihood. Zimbabwe is a country whose government is directly responsible for impoverishing and perhaps causing to be malnourished millions of people. There aren't many human rights situations in the world right now that are more desperate than that.
It should be remembered also that at the press conference, not only did the Bush administration officials dial up the volume on the Mugabe regime, but he also announced a significant increase in food aid that the United States is providing to people who would otherwise starve. Therefore, I think that it must be said that the Bush administration policy is consistent with the problems that are going on in Zimbabwe right now.
RAY SUAREZ: Does the world community in effect get handed the bill for Zimbabwe's internal agrarian policies?
JEFFREY HERBST: Of course. This is a problem that we've seen over and over again. Any time you give food aid, a certain amount of it is going to be diverted by the government for its own purposes as was said at the press conference. Sometimes as much as one third of the food aid goes to the government and then it uses it to reward its followers and pursue its own ends.
However, the other two-thirds or more of the food aid goes to starving people. We can't turn our back on the millions of people in Zimbabwe who are going to be malnourished or starved. We have to provide that food aid. On the other hand, we have to recognize that the Mugabe regime will benefit from the aid that we are providing.
RAY SUAREZ: Bill Fletcher, in light of what Professor Herbst said and your own criticism of U.S. policy, where should people go from here on out, those who would want to be externally friends of Zimbabwe?
WILLIAM FLETCHER: I think that the critical question is the involvement of southern Africa. The southern African nations must deal with this situation themselves. They do not need the United States and Britain entering into this situation and further destabilizing it. And I must say that I don't think that the Bush administration is consistent about anything except in its Machiavellian approach to international politics these days.
If you look at the situation in Africa, two million people have died in the Congolese civil war. What level of interest has the Bush administration had in this situation? Next door in Angola the country was destroyed through the direct involvement of the United States. What attention is the Bush administration paying to reconstruction assistance in the Angolan nation? Yet we come to Zimbabwe. I am not an apologist for President Mugabe. But this differential in stands is something that I think cannot be tolerated. It embarrasses the forces in Zimbabwe as well as the allies, the other countries in southern Africa that really do want to see a negotiated, reasonable settlement to the situation, short of civil war.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Bill Fletcher 20 years ago Zimbabwe was one of the leaders of the front line states trying to push to the end of the apartheid in South Africa. Now that there's this new body called the African Union and Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, is one of its leaders will South Africa return the favor and really intervene in a meaningful way?
WILLIAM FLETCHER: I hope that there's involvement. I want to be careful about this term "intervention." I think that there needs to be pressure on President Mugabe. I sincerely wish that he had stepped down from office some years ago. I think that had he, he would have been a great hero for the African world. I think he's unfortunately stayed on much too long but I think that there has to be quiet pressure but very firm pressure but conducted by Africans, not by the United States, not in this cavalier manner that it engages in, in which it endangers people that it claims are its friends.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Herbst, what about Bill Fletcher's point that being too heavy handed from outside only digs in Robert Mugabe's heels and takes away power and influence from those inside the country trying to oppose him?
JEFFREY HERBST: The internal opposition in Zimbabwe have consistently said that they welcome outside pressure on Zimbabwe, outside pressure to try to make the elections held a few months earlier to be free and fair and now outside pressure for the government not to violate human rights and to assist constructively in the agrarian situation.
The United States is a major player in Zimbabwe because we are feeding many, many Zimbabweans and I think in fact that both the Clinton and Bush administrations approached the Mugabe problem in a nuanced and constructive manner. There was quiet diplomacy for a long time. Many lifelines were thrown to Robert Mugabe by both the Clinton and Bush administrations. He refused them. He's acting now because of the domestic political imperatives he faces to stay in power -- not because of what is said in Washington.
RAY SUAREZ: Is the world roused to southern Africa's plight? Will the people there that face severe food shortages be getting the help they need?
JEFFREY HERBST: We've learned a great deal about how to respond to humanitarian disasters over the last 25 years. I think the international community has responded well to the drought in southern Africa. It was understood very early on what was happening, and a great deal is being done. The problem is these situations don't get resolved unless the governments on the ground participate constructively.
You can talk all you want about giving aid through non-governmental organizations and bypassing the government. But unless the governments of Zimbabwe and the other governments in the region play their role, then many of their own citizens will be hurt. And so far, the government of Zimbabwe not only through land seizures but through a variety of other economic policies has made it about as difficult as possible for the international community to help its citizens.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Bill Fletcher, thank you both.
WILLIAM FLETCHER: Thank you very much.