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March 24, 2008

Nigeria-based white Zimbabwean farmers settle but long for home

The white farmers who settled in Nigeria after losing their livelihoods in Zimbabwe's controversial land reforms still have their hearts set on going back home one day.

"If we could get a stable government, I don't mind whether it is a (ruling) ZANU-PF or (opposition) MDC government -- what we are interested in is a good, non-corrupt, unselfish government -- we will all go back," said Graham Hatty.

Zimbabwe holds presidential elections on March 29, the first since a group of nearly 30 of the 4,000-odd commercial farmers forcibly evicted from their land, moved to this vast west African economic powerhouse. The vote, in which 84-year-old leader Robert Mugabe is seeking a sixth five-year term in office, will take place amid an unprecedented crisis in what was once a model of economic prosperity and democracy for the whole continent. He squares off against his ex-finance minister Simba Makoni and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Once a net agricultural exporter, Zimbabwe is currently reeling under food shortages, while the economy buckles under a mindboggling annual inflation rate of 100,000-plus percent. Both unemployment and poverty rates hover above 80 percent and at least a quarter of the population has fled misery to seek economic refuge elsewhere.

In Nigeria, the farmers are still bitter at the way the country has been run into the ground since the Mugabe launched the scheme in 2000 to take land from whites and turn it over to landless blacks.

"It's a tragedy, it's the same as genocide. They did not go about randomly shooting people, but millions of people have had their future taken away from them," said Hatty's wife Judy, on their 1,000-hectare cassava farm in Shonga, Kwara state, some 400 kilometres northwest of Nigeria's economic capital Lagos.

On a personal level they are relieved at the chance to pursue their careers, but say they are sad at not being able to produce for their own country.

"But we are excited to be here, it's been a life saver giving us something to do at our age after we had lost everything we ever had," said Hatty, 69.

"I am just grateful for what I have," said Hatty's neighbour Pete du Toit, a poultry farmer who is setting up a 10,000-bird-a-day abattoir. "Zimbabwe is still home, always will be, but I want this project set up and running and (then I) will go back home. I am going to do my best for west Africa," said du Toit, who farmed in Zimbabwe for 25 years.

"We miss Zimbabwe, that is our home and when we retire we will go back home," said dairy farmer Dan Swart. "We will get our farms back and put managers there ... and produce food again," he said. "It's depressing, there is no agriculture at home, it's a disaster."

Critics blame Zimbabwe's food shortages and economic crisis primarily on government mismanagement. But Mugabe says successive drought seasons are responsible for the food crisis while he blames the economic mess on Western-backed sanctions slapped on him and his aides for allegedly rigging his re-election in 2002.

Possible stumbling blocks for those wishing to return include the commitment and investment already undertaken in Nigeria, as well as the massive re-injection of capital that will be required to restart business in Zimbabwe.

"It took us 41 years to build it and it was gone in 41 days," said Hatty, holding back tears.

Many have vainly sought legal recourse to stop the loss of their farms, but only one case has got as far as a southern African regional tribunal. Fewer than 400 white farmers remain in Zimbabwe.

Nigeria invited the farmers to set up shop in April 2005, five years after Zimbabwe's land reforms. Three years down the line, the Kwara project is shaping up as an economic success story. Hundreds of hectares are planted with the staple cassava plants while an on-site state-of-the-art dairy processing plant and a poultry abattoir are set to be operational within months.

Nigerian authorities have given them five years to be fully operational.But delays in securing long-term loans in a country previously perceived as high-risk due to decades of political uncertainty and military rule, has slowed down the pace.

"There is a bit of frustration, but we are happy with the progress given the circumstances," said Olayinka Aje, the Kwara state governor's special assistant on the project. But "the future looks bright, and bags (of grain) are coming in," he added.

The one million residents of Shonga, initially apprehensive when some 400 families were relocated to make way for the venture, say the scheme is starting to bear fruits.

"Huge numbers of people have been employed... sooner or later we may need to import workers from other regions," said Idris Mohammed, a local community leader of this district of about one million residents.

Said a farm worker, "Shonga has been put on the world map, families have salaries and can send children to school. Food prices have come down because of abundant supplies."

The farmers say their aim is to help make Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation which imports roughly three billion dollars worth of food annually for its 140 million people, self sufficient in food production.

Africasia

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