I TRAVELLED to Africa over the last weeks. While in Rwanda, I met a Mr Robert Mugabe. When he told me his name, I initially thought it was a joke, but I became curious. A Rwandan acquaintance later explained it to me this way: in the 80s, Robert Mugabe (the President of Zimbabwe) was so popular as a revolutionary that many parents gave the name Robert Mugabe to their children during that time.
I am not sure how true this theory is. However, it turns out that there are also many Robert Mugabes in Uganda, so it’s possible that this name is either widely used, or also means something in the languages of the great lakes region. Nevertheless, there is currency in the logic that the name Robert Mugabe was very popular back then – so popular that when Nelson Mandela came out of prison and stole the limelight in 1993, Mr Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, is alleged to have taken to disliking and resenting the then President of South Africa.
So Mr Mugabe was once very popular. So what could have caused a leader like him to start conducting himself so irrationally as to cause a scorched earth policy on a nation to the extent of even peddling what seem like falsehoods and deceit on the people? As I was writing my research papers on Sub-Saharan Africa, I pondered over this question.
Making mistakes is acceptable, deceipt is not.
Saru mo ki kara ochiru, is a Japanese proverb, which literally means even monkeys fall from trees. The proverb implies that everyone makes mistakes as human beings are not perfect. Since we are not perfect, even leaders make mistakes or errors of judgment, and when they do, society expects them to take responsibility and apologise. However, it’s one thing to make a mistake and another to peddle a fib. On the other hand, it’s one thing to tell a fib and another to partake in calculated political and economic deception. The latter amounts to deliberately selling the people bottled smoke.
Addressing a group of small-scale farmers at a farm in Zimbabwe in July this year, Mr Mugabe announced a new farm ownership document called a land permit which he described as an important document giving security of tenure. The state media in Zimbabwe and its analysts variously chipped in praising the ageing President for this new document, claiming as he did, that this should finally fix the problems farmers have had accessing financing from banks – a necessary process that brought success to Zimbabwe’s white farmers back then. Now that farmers have been or are being issued with this land permit, what’s wrong with it you might ask?Advertisement
Empowerment or a great deception?
President Mugabe is an educated man they say. It is therefore not plausible that he is not aware that this land permit he launched and touted is not really worth the paper it’s written on. Many people would be inclined to think that he is fully aware that the land permit is not a very useful document to the farmers, who already had a document called an offer letter with them. If he is aware, which he certainly is, then the President is engaging in national deception, which has dire consequences on the immediate and long term future of Zimbabwe’s agricultural well-being and food security.
Far from empowering farmers, the government, which distributed land to thousands of Zimbabweans in a largely disorderly fashion punctuated by a number of land audits, found itself in a fix, which is largely routed in poor planning, lack of forethought and foresight, and poor national resources management. In short, while purporting to empower farmers, the government gave them access to farming land, but not its ownership. You can farm on the land and call it yours, but it’s not really yours because it belongs to the state. Therein lies the disempowerment reality in this scheme. This is problem number one.
Almost all farmers in Zimbabwe who got land did not have to prove that they had the resources nor farming knowhow. In any case, with an empty national purse, many Zimbabwean farmers do not have the cash resources to sink into the land for months till harvest and marketing time. This leaves farmers with access to land (which they do not own), but without inputs to run the business of farming. This is problem number two.
The Crunch Point and how the settlers fixed it
Banks are institutions that collect money from depositors for safekeeping and then sell that money for a price called interest to those looking for money, in a process called lending. Before lending money entrusted to them by depositors, the banks assess the borrower’s ability to repay the borrowed sum (called risk assessment) and demand an asset of similar value or more to fall back on in the event that the borrower fails to pay back (collateral). In the farming business, it’s often the title deed which proves that you own the farm (and not a land permit). This is banking economics 101.
The challenge farmers in Zimbabwe face is that they don’t own the land supposedly given to them. What they have is no more than an advanced form of sharecropping with the government. So they cannot access funding from the banks because they cannot prove ownership of the land. But why do banks refuse to give loans to these farmers? Besides the obvious lack of long term liquidity for lending in Zimbabwe’s banking market, the risk is that in the unlikely situation that the banks were to accept the so-called land permit that Mr Mugabe launched in July, if a farmer fails to pay back a loan, the bank would not be able to sell the land to recover depositor money lent to that farmer. That is the genesis of Mr Mugabe’s headache, and is problem number three.
The Americans have a saying – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The system of using title deeds was successfully used by previous administrations and white farmers because it worked, and because it followed common sense. The land tenure system created a funding mechanism for investors in the farming business. But Mr Mugabe and Company destroyed the working formula without a working plan to replace it which is why Mr Mugabe launched this so-called land permit fourteen years after he started encouraging supporters to take over farms. He ventured into the unknown blindly, without forethought or foresight, or at least a plan of how to deal with these realities. At best, he should not have disrupted a working model. He should have figured out a way of giving title deeds to the farmers. Without that, it’s a problem that will never go away.
While the naïve claim to have been empowered, there is a lesson to be taken from the way land was distributed in Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabweans will remember that their government repeatedly told the new land occupiers to not build “permanent structures” – meaning do not invest a lot of money in calling the farm your home, because things can change mid-air.
The real motive for the land permit
The land permit in Zimbabwe is a clear damp squib and a fraud. Its origins are rooted in a plan to manage the crisis of expectations from farmers. This crisis in turn is rooted in Zimbabwe’s underfunded 2014 budget, as well as the economic crisis which started soon after Mr Mugabe’s party won elections last year. The land permit was mooted to pretend to solve the challenge farmers were facing in accessing finance with the offer letters they previously held. Given the reason why banks prefer title deeds to land permits, that is not going to happen. And given that Mr Chinamasa, the finance minister’s finance purse is empty, the government will this agricultural season be unable to distribute free largesse of farming inputs as it often does, especially where there is political capital to be exploited. With no free inputs to farmers this year, the government had to come up with this useless paper nicely packaged as a land permit.
Simple people that are victims of deceit
And yes, it is what it is, a great fraud on the minds of simple-minded masses. Mr Mugabe has, over the years, mastered one thing to his political advantage. He explained it this way while reprimanding Jonathan Moyo at a funeral in July when he said Zimbabweans are “simple people”. He concluded that the majority of Zimbabweans are simple-minded, and with that in mind, he can pull wool over their faces at his whims and caprices, and get away with it by spinning one yarn after another.
Ken Yamamoto is a researcher on Africa at an Institute in Tokyo. He researches and travels frequently in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. He is presently impressed by the transformation Rwanda is going through. You can contact Ken on firstname.lastname@example.org