Nigeria: A New Home For Zimbabwe’s Exiled Farmers
Sunday Herald (UK), Jun. 27
Victims of Mugabe’s land grab are being invited to set up farms across the border. But how will ordinary Nigerians react to this unprecedented wave of white settlers? Fred Bridgland reports
WILLIAM Hughes used to be regularly voted Zimbabwe’s top dairy farmer, producing 5000 litres of milk a day. Highly respected, he was vice president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union and believed he was immune from land grabs launched by president Robert Mugabe in March 2000.
Mugabe himself issued a decree in 2001 exempting dairy farms — high-tech and high-skilled — from his government’s land distribution programme which has seen more than 4000 white commercial farmers forcibly removed from their properties.
“A year later the death threats began,” said 55-year-old Hughes, who had spent 30 years breeding the perfect genetic stock from Holsteins for high milk yields in semi-tropical Zimbabwe. “If some local bigwig wants your farm, it’s curtains for you.”
Hughes lost his farm and his life’s work, but now plans to build the first modern dairy in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous state, where white commercial farmers have never previously settled, despite more than 70 years of British colonial rule.
He is one of a core team of 15 Zimbabwean farmers, all thrown off their properties, who are about to become Nigeria’s first white settlers, the advance party of an eventual hundred or so Zimbabweans scheduled to move to the giant West African country.
They have been invited by Bukola Saraki, the young and dynamic governor of Kwara state, on Nigeria’s western border along the upper reaches of the huge Niger River.
“In Kwara we don’t have oil, but we have a vast amount of land, 2.3 million hectares, available for agriculture, which has the potential to provide jobs and bring down the cost of food,” said Saraki from Ilorin, the state capital.
“If I truly thought our peasant farmers could take us where we want to be, I would probably not have invited the Zimbabweans. We decided the only way to push agriculture was through commercial farming, he admitted.
“White farmers in Zimbabwe were having problems with Robert Mugabe. They saw themselves as Africans and wanted to stay in Africa. We thought: if you’ve got what it takes to make it in commercial farming, the opportunities are here.”
The impending migration of Hughes and his colleagues is the latest and most remarkable chapter in the exodus of white Zimbabwean farmers — shown the door by Mugabe and vilified as greedy racists — to other African countries where they are breathing new life into moribund farming economies. Zambia, an importer of maize, its staple food, for the first 36 years of independence, has become a maize exporter since the first white Zimbabweans began arriving in 2001.
Zambia and Mozambique have been the diaspora’s favourite destinations. Nigeria came late in the day, not only because there had never been white commercial farmers there, but because Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, seemed to be a close ally of Mugabe.
But Obasanjo insisted on meeting Saraki and the Zimbabweans when they visited Kwara last month to stake out 1000-hectare farm territories on 99-year leases in well-watered virgin bush alongside the Niger River. Obasanjo, quoted by Nigeria’s ThisDay newspaper, said Nigerian agriculture was mired at the rake-and-hoe level, but needed to move into a modern, commercial era. “We do not want to take away what is good for Zimbabwe from Zimbabwe, but we also do not want you to leave Africa,” he told the white farmers. “I believe it is in the best interest of Africa that you do not leave.”
Saraki said he wanted a pioneering Zimbabwean farming community in his state because Nigeria, despite its abundant land, is spending £1.6 billion a year on food imports, including rice, sugar, chickens and milk, which it should be producing itself.
When elected governor last year, Saraki launched a Back To The Farm strategy. But he quickly realised that the agricultural economy was composed of peasant farmers, “most of whom were in their 60s and 70s, with little exposure to modern technology, no mechanisation, producing low yields, with no money to buy tractors or inputs”.
He had read of the Zimbabweans’ successes in Zambia and Mozambique and decided to woo others to resettle on the Niger and kickstart an agricultural revolution. Saraki is spearheading a national drive to make Nigeria self-sufficient in food production and wean it from oil-based revenues, which have totalled more than £200bn over the past 40 years.
“When we found oil [in the Niger delta] we didn’t ask people in southern Nigeria to look for shovels to dig for oil,” said the highly pragmatic Saraki. “We brought in foreigners with expertise. The land we have is an asset that isn’t being utilised and the only way we can do that is to bring in people with the necessary skills.”
Hughes and other Zimbabweans have been granted pioneer status. This gives them a five-year exemption from tax and import duties on equipment. They will be allowed to bring in experts to train local workers. A cargo hub is planned in Ilorin, and Saraki has pledged to build roads and provide security and telecommunications
Alain Faydherbe, 40, will be one of the pioneers. Until recently, he owned a sugar mill and four cane and cattle farms in Zimbabwe’s lowveld. He exported oranges and mangoes to Europe. When he resisted a takeover of his properties by senior Mugabe regime officials, he was thrown into prison. “They brought in the youth brigade,” he said. “We’ve been reduced to nothing. Zimbabwe is my homeland, but I’ve been left with no option but to look outside.”
Surveying the Niger bank where his farm’s boundaries will be marked out, Faydherbe said setting up a commercial farm was an intricate business. He cautioned against visions of cargo planes soon taking off from Ilorin laden with Kwara roses and mangoes for European capitals. “We’ll have to start small, with chickens, cowpeas, soya, maize and rice to test the local markets and build up some operating capital,” he said. “Exports will come later.”
But what about the locals’ reaction to an invasion of whites from a country with a racist and reactionary history? “White people have never settled here, so there has never been discrimination,” said Sulu Gambari, the Emir of Ilorin, supreme traditional leader of Christians and Muslims in Kwara state. “They will see we are the perfect hosts.” And Mohamed Alasan, headman at Yelwa, where a sugar mill that once employed 4000 people lies abandoned, pointed to his emaciated villagers and said: “We want the whites to come and run the sugar estate because they won’t mismanage it.”
Surveying the rows of abandoned Land Rovers, bulldozers, trucks and offroad bikes lying rusting in the sun, and crowds of hungry Yelwans with beseeching eyes and threadbare garments, the Zimbabweans made some quick calculations and reckoned that if they quadrupled the acreage of land previously under cane they could restore the abandoned mill and earn revenue of up to £90 million a year.