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Andrew Crowley

President Robert Mugabe is not solely to blame for the economic problems facing Zimbabwe as many in the western world have claimed. 

In some economic policies like land reform, Mugabe’s management has had some positive effects, even though the reform has not been completely successful. Responsibility for the partial success of the land reform, rather than being entirely attributed to Mugabe, should be shared between Mugabe and the British government.Land reform in Zimbabwe is a crucial matter in development, as according to the World Bank (WB) (2008), agriculture remains instrumental in the achievement of sustainable poverty alleviation. Land reform in Zimbabwe epitomises President Mugabe’s controversial governance and lies at the heart of the tense relations between Zimbabwe and Britain.

When, in January 2015, Robert Mugabe, the 90-year-old president of Zimbabwe in office since 1980, was appointed chairperson of the assembly of the African Union (AU), many expressed their concerns and dismay. Piers Pigou, Project Director of the International Crisis Group in Southern Africa, stated: “His elevation sends a negative signal of African solidarity with leaders who’ve misruled their countries” (Al Jazeera 2015). Obert Gutu, a representative of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, accused Mugabe of having damaged both the economy and the nature of democracy in the country (ibid). 62% of Zimbabweans recently declared, in fact, that they are discontent with the country’s economic situation (Afrobarometer 2014-2015).

In spite of these serious criticisms, shared by many African heads of state, when Zimbabwe’s turn to have its chairperson of the AU came, Mugabe’s appointment was not officially challenged. This occurrence uncovers the controversies around the figure of Mugabe. He has been considered, for instance, both a national hero who united and freed his country, and, as the historian Stuart Doran (2014) elucidates, the responsible for the genocide of 20,000 Ndebele people, who in the 1980s opposed Mugabe’s party ZANU-PF. Furthermore, Freedom House (2015) has recently accused him of political violence and infringements of human rights, especially during elections.

The democratic deficit of Zimbabwe due to Mugabe’s government is indisputable: the EU sanctioned the country in 2002 and recently renewed the sanctions as a result of Mugabe’s electoral frauds and human right abuses (Reuters 2015). Regarding the economy, Mugabe’s role in it has not been completely detrimental as many in the western world have claimed. In some economic policies like land reform, Mugabe’s management has had some positive effects on the population of Zimbabwe, even though the reform has not been completely successful. The responsibilities for the partial success of the Zimbabwean land reform, rather than being solely attributed to Mugabe’s management, should be shared between Mugabe and the British government.

Land reform in Zimbabwe has historically had a crucial importance. As clarified in an Africa All Party Parliamentary Group’s report on the issue, “Land has been not just the basis of Zimbabwean economy, but an integral part of its politics and identity” (2009, p. 18). Consequently, in 1980, one of the main priorities of the newly appointed President Mugabe was land redistribution from white commercial farmers to black farmers. This was due to the fact that 70% of arable land was owned at the time by white farmers who accounted for only 1% of the population (ibid, p.19). Mugabe declared that “[Zimbabweans] can never have peace in the country unless the peasant population is satisfied” (in Bright 2011, min 23:44). Hence, he committed in the over 30 years of his government to land redistribution in order to lift the peasant population of Zimbabwe out of poverty.

Land reform in Zimbabwe has been a long and complex process. From 1980 until 1990, land was being allocated from white farmers to black ones on a willing buyer-willing-seller basis, meaning that only land put willingly on sale could be acquired by the government for redistribution. Britain provided the government of Zimbabwe with the funds necessary to buy land on a dollar-to-dollar basis: every dollar of aid received was spent on land purchases, as Professor Moyo, a leading expert on Zimbabwean land reform, clarifies (2001). Such criteria were established in the 1979 Lancaster House agreement between the British government and the future leaders of Zimbabwe, including Mugabe.

In 1992 the terms of the Lancaster House agreement expired and the Zimbabwean government introduced compulsory land acquisition principles in its constitution (ibid). New negotiations between Britain and Zimbabwe started, but failed very soon. In 1997, Blair refused to subsidize the Zimbabwean land purchase, due to a lack of transparency over the receivers of land. Many, in fact, thought that Mugabe had actively distributed land to his cronies, rather than to the poor.

Hence, Mugabe, who was under a great political pressure due to war veterans’ demands for pensions and land, responded with a forced acquisition of over 1,000 farms, many of which were taken violently from white farmers (Birght 2011, min 57:27). Mugabe, once again, did not hesitate to use violence to pursue his political ends.  This new phase of land distribution, known as Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP), started in 2000 and is still ongoing.

Mugabe’s policies of land redistribution have been criticised by David Smith in the Guardian (2010) as ineffective in pursuing the social rebalancing they were aiming for, as many saw them merely as a way to distribute land to black elites supporting Mugabe. This has been proved to be largely untrue. In the 1980s, land distribution in Zimbabwe was considered, in the words of The Economist, as “one of the most successful aid programme[s] in Africa” (1989). More recently, with regards to the FTLRP, Ian Scoones, Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, found that two thirds of land in the Masvingo region was given to low income black farmers (in Winter 2010). Of the remaining third of this land, only 5% was allocated to former members of the elite, indicating cronyism (ibid). These findings are confirmed by Moyo (2011) who maintains that land reform in Zimbabwe has been redistributive in nature. Additionally, according to the Zimbabwean paper, The Herald (2016), considered by many a mouthpiece of ZANU-PF, the government has recently introduced a data system which will prevent multiple land ownership and ensure a fair distribution of land. The Zimbabwean land reform seems to have had an overall positive impact on the pursuit of social rebalancing.

The economic outputs of land reform, however, have not been as positive. During the first ten years of land redistributions, Zimbabwean agriculture was flourishing and Zimbabwe, according to the journalist Trevor Ncube, was the “breadbasket of Southern Africa” (in Bright 2011, min 25:15). The World Bank (2015) refers to 1990s as a time of “strong economic performances” for Zimbabwe, as agriculture constitutes nearly a fifth of the Zimbabwean GDP and a functioning agricultural sector has always provided a boost to the Zimbabwean economy (WB, ND).

This trend did not continue under the FTLRP. According to Scoones (2014), farm workers were negatively affected by this programme and many casual workers, mostly women, found themselves unemployed, due to the violent farm expropriations of the 2000s. Between 45,000 and 70,000 farm workers households were displaced after 2002 (Scoones 2013). Additionally, Scoones suggests that the violent seizure, by black peasants, of farms owned by white farmers as a result of FTLRP undermined the social cohesion of Zimbabwe (in Winter 2010). White farmers could, in fact, work as consultants or “marketing men” for the new black commercial farmers, but many of them refused to do so as they were violently dispossessed of their land (ibid).

Finally, the production of maize, the main subsistence crop in Zimbabwe, and tobacco dropped after 2000 (ibid). Tobacco seems to have almost disappeared, as Matt Gwelo, a Zimbabwean student in Manchester, noticed after his last trip home.  Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of the region, is today dependent on food aid from the US and the EU due to the 2016 drought, as recently reported by the Guardian (2016), and 73% of its population now lives in poverty (WB, ND).

The UK government bears responsibilities for these negative outcomes, not only Mugabe. John Major in 1996 agreed with Mugabe to re-establish the Lancaster House undertakings, as both Professor Moyo (2001) and Heidi Holland (2009), author of the book Dinner with Mugabe, recall.  When Blair became prime minister, however, he refused to abide by this agreement. If Blair had continued subsidising land reform, possibly the FTLRP would have never been implemented. Blair’s demands for transparency as a condition for funding, due to his concerns (proved unfounded) that the recipients of land were not the poor, were too unrealistic for the time. The level of statistical capacity of Zimbabwe in the 1990s was, according to the World Bank (ND), insufficient (scoring 54 out of 100) and no accurate statistics on the recipients of land distribution could be produced. Not funding land distribution, Britain not only denied crucial support to Mugabe in a time when it was needed the most, as the president was under political pressure by war veterans, but also prevented new black farmers from receiving training on the cultivation of tobacco, whose production consequentially dropped.

The Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai (2009) argues that aid donors should be concerned with avoiding funding corrupt autocrats without forgetting citizens and normal people. Britain, suspending its aid programme in Zimbabwe, did not seem to have considered the long-term damages this caused to the people who are now risking starvation, such as the farm workers who are the ones who suffered the most from the cutting of funds of the Blair administration.

Britain’s refusal to fund land reform gave Mugabe the opportunity to present himself as the defender of African freedom against imperialism, by condemning Blair as an enemy of Zimbabwe and polarising the relations between the two countries. Britain, on the other hand, has been demonising Mugabe throughout the 2000s: examples of this can be found in British newspaper headlines referring to Mugabe as “Hitler” (Africa Report 2014). Dr Tendi from the University of Oxford explains that “These examples of demonisation helped forge a perception in Britain that Mugabe was somehow 'evil' and that it was the 'good' British government's duty to take a strong moral stand on Mugabe's leadership” (ibid). Such narratives have a detrimental impact on the future relations between the two countries. Overcoming them and recognising Britain’s responsibilities in the partial success of land redistribution in Zimbabwe would be essential for a reconciliation between the two countries which might be meaningful for the economic recovery of Zimbabwe.

* Giuseppe Maio is a Political Scientist and freelance journalist interested  in international development and global  economy. He previously worked as a researcher for the World Bank. [email protected]


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