11 June 2002

Mugabe exploits his hour upon the stage

A defiant President Mugabe told the World Food Summit yesterday that he was "responding to the people’s cry for land" by requisitioning white-owned farms in Zimbabwe. "Zimbabwean land belongs to Zimbabweans," he declared as he disclaimed responsibility for his country’s increasingly desperate food shortages. But while Mr Mugabe’s speech was applauded by his fellow African leaders Western officials deplored his presence at a four-day summit devoted to combating hunger. It was "distasteful to see the President of Zimbabwe giving the impression he really cares about his citizens", a European Commission spokesman said. "I am uncomfortable when any head of state that is tyrannical and predatory comes to a conference like this," Andrew Natsios, head of the American development agency USAID, said. President Mugabe should acknowledge that he was himself "primarily responsible" for much of the hunger and economic deprivation afflicting Zimbabwe, Mary Robinson, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, said. Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change said that it was "shocked and dismayed at the sheer hypocrisy of Mr Mugabe’s attendance". It blamed his irresponsible land reform policy and blatant economic mismanagement for the fact that up to six million Zimbabweans were starving.

Leaders were angered by Mr Mugabe’s use of a loophole in a European Union directive banning him from setting foot in EU countries because of his treatment of political opponents, human rights abuses and the media. The directive, imposed when Mr Mugabe expelled EU election observers in February, makes an exception in the case of "international conferences". Italy said that Mr Mugabe was "an unwelcome guest", but Rome had no choice but to let him attend the summit. Mr Mugabe used the United Nations summit in Rome to circumvent the ban and, in the absence of most Western leaders, he enjoyed centre stage. He said that whereas Zimbabwe had previously been farmed by "only a handful of colonial settler farmers", now it had more than 260,000 "indigenous farmers on varying sizes of land" who were transforming Zimbabwe into "vibrant agricultural zones". He boasted that his "Fast Track Land Acquisition and Resettlement programme" - launched two years ago – had "enabled people to fight poverty by directly working on their own productive and fertile land . . . Their own, I say with emphasis, because land is the most important natural resource of any country and must belong to and be truly owned by the country’s indigenous people. Zimbabwean land must rightly belong to Zimbabweans - that is the true test of our national sovereignty."

Mr Mugabe said that agriculture played a dominant role in Zimbabwe’s economy and society and his Government had therefore launched its "Plan of Action" to "yield improved incomes and greater food security". He added: "Contrary to widely disseminated misrepresentations by our detractors, there is now a brighter future for our farming community across colour, gender and ethnic divides . . . we applaud those members of the international community who have stood by us and shared our vision." Mr Mugabe admitted that there were "food shortages in both rural and urban areas", but said that they were due to drought. Mrs Robinson argued that some leaders of developing countries "do not always adopt good policies." She hoped that Mr Mugabe would acknowledge that even African leaders were beginning to "recognise the need to tackle corruption, strengthen the rule of law and adhere to human rights . . . there are grave problems with Zimbabwe and I am very concerned about the situation there". There were, however, "millions of people for whom this is not a political issue but a terrible crisis of food security". (The Times, UK)

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