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People of Chilonga have full constitutional rights

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GOVERNMENT’S decision to unilaterally evict 12 000 villagers from the Chilonga area of Chiredzi in favour of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s cronies at Dendairy is a worrisome development and betrays official insensitivity to marginalised communities.

NYASHA CHINGONO
At a time the authorities are supposed to be protecting minority groups like the Chilonga people, who have borne the brunt of a harsh historical past, the state, in cahoots with Dendairy, seeks to grab the little they have.

The private-company-versus-community debate has grown over the past two weeks, amid stinging criticism of government policies that reward cronyism at the expense of poor Zimbabweans.   

Citizens on social media have expressed outrage over the government’s plan to relocate the villagers from their ancestral land for a lucerne grass project, threatening to boycott Dendairy products on the market. 

Although a Masvingo court gave the villagers temporary reprieve following an interdict to stay the evictions, the fate of the Chilonga people is still in jeopardy. 

Instead of repealing the offending Statutory Instrument, the government has simply refined it. 

While Chilonga villagers are living on the edge, dreading losing their land, presidential spokesperson George Charamba hinted on his @jamwanda Twitter handle that the government would soon come up with a refashioned statutory instrument on the evictions. 

“Lucerne growing is a small part of the development plan of the affected area. The plan is far-flung and involves irrigation of over 200 000 hectares under thousands of centre pivots, all for crop, fruit and beef production. Those wishing to diss (dismiss) the project do so by presenting it as a one-item affair, which it isn’t,” said Charamba. 

“They also predicate it on the coming in of an outsider as a fodder grower forgetting the bulk of the plan is State-involved and funded or the development of community and country! Anyway, there will be complete communication from government, both by a comprehensive statement and a refashioned statutory instrument.”  

A “refashioned statutory instrument”, according to Charamba, would still force out the villagers despite the interdict by a Masvingo magistrate to halt the evictions. 

Human rights activists say the government should repeal the Statutory Instrument that renders the Chilonga people landless.   

“The government should ensure that any eviction process is carried out only when it is strictly necessary, and follows due process, adequate prior consultation with those affected, adequate compensation, and provision of alternative land,” Dewa Mavinga, the southern African director at Human Rights Watch, said. 

Mnangagwa’s government unilaterally decided to transfer the communal land to Kwekwe-based dairy company, Dendairy, to set up a grass project for the Coetzee family’s sprawling dairy empire. 

Dendairy, a Kwekwe-based dairy concern, founded in 2004, is owned by the Coetzee family, with Scandinavian private equity firm Spear Capital holding a minority stake in the company. Spear bought 27% of Dendairy in 2015.

Darren Coetzee, head of Dendairy and a close Mnangagwa business ally from Kwekwe where the dairy company is headquartered, was awarded controversial rights to the land where thousands face eviction.

To regularise the move, Local Government minister July Moyo published a legal notice ordering thousands of people occupying nearly 13 000 hectares of land in Chilonga to leave immediately unless they acquire fresh rights of use or occupation of the land. 

The legal notice said the land was being designated for lucerne grass production. Lucerne grass is meant for stockfeed. 

This is not the first-time the government has displaced hapless villagers under the guise of propagating projects of national importance, with the villagers in Marange still living in squalor after they were unceremoniously removed from their land to make way for diamond production.

The Marange community has not benefitted from the diamonds mined in the area while Zimbabwe has little to show for the gems, largely because of looting by powerful politicians and senior security officials. 

Other projects like the Greenfuel ethanol scheme by Zanu PF-linked businessman Billy Rautenbach also displaced villagers in Chisumbanje.

Despite running several propaganda messages that the ethanol project would benefit Zimbabweans by cutting the fuel import bill and reducing the overall price of fuel, local motorists are still paying more than their counterparts in the region.

Although Dendairy pledged US$10 million as compensation for the displacement of the villagers, the offer was strongly rejected by community leaders who also allege that the villagers had not been given a voice in the matter. 

That farmers will be contracted as outgrowers for the lucerne project has been dismissed as mere propaganda since many promises of that nature have left victims licking their wounds. 

Despite resistance from the villagers, Mnangagwa’s government looks set to force evictions.

Political analyst and University of London professor Stephen Chan said the eviction makes a mockery of the government’s indigenisation programme. 

“It makes a mockery of earlier Zanu PF emphasis on indigenisation and the value of land culturally and spiritually to those on it,” Chan said. 

Chan said the government should ensure due process and compensation for the victims, but the constitutionality of the eviction remains questionable.

“Although the government claims legal cover for its decision, the fact remains that many thousands of people will be deprived of their long-standing lands and the relationship of their communities and community organisations to it. Rights against forcible displacement — especially without due process, representation, and offers of compensation — are part of any decent constitutional dispensation,” Chan said. 

The move has attracted widespread outrage from the MDC Alliance as well as political and human rights activists.

In a statement, MDC Alliance secretary for local government and rural development Sessel Zvidzai condemned the cronyism in the allocation of the land to Dendairy.

“We know that Dendairy is well heeled and well connected. As a result, it will get unfair favour from the powers that be,” Zvidzai said. 

The Chilonga case spilled into parliament last week, with Norton legislator Temba Mliswa asking whether the government was reversing the 2000 land reform programme. 

MDC Alliance legislator Tendai Biti, who went on a fact-finding mission in Chilonga, also alleged gross human rights violations and cronyism.

More importantly, the people of Chilonga are resisting the forced movements given that there was no consultation. Their voice must be heard.

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