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New Life in Nigeria Yields Results for White Zimbabwean Farmers


In Nigeria, a small group of white Zimbabwean farmers have set up new commercial farming operations. The farmers lost their Zimbabwean land in President Robert Mugabe's controversial land resettlement program in the early 2000s. But leaders in Nigeria have since welcomed the white Zimbabweans, assisting their move to Nigeria in the hope that they can kick-start the country's stagnated agricultural sector. Sarah Simpson visited the Zimbabweans on their farms in Shonga, in Nigeria's central Kwara State.

In the blistering afternoon heat, under the shade of newly built cowsheds, Zimbabwean farmer Irvine Reid remembers how a Nigerian governor named Bukola Saraki sowed the seeds of his new life in West Africa.

"In the beginning, the governor of this state, that is Governor Saraki, he got hold of us and asked us to explore the possibilities in agriculture," he said.

The white farmers were still smarting from often violent land evictions carried out with the full backing of the Zimbabwean government. Trust was an issue.

"The farms were invaded - as everybody was. We were given 24 hours to leave. And we did not have much warning - that is what we had to do. We had to leave the farm," said Reid.

But Governor Saraki paid for the farmers to come on a look-see tour of Kwara State in a bid to woo them across the continent and promised land on 25-year leases with bank loans underwritten by the government.

Their plane landed in Nigeria's largest city, Lagos. The sprawling slum-chocked urban jungle did not impress the farmers, but the farm land on offer some 250 miles inland, did. Shonga had instant appeal.

Simpson: "How long did it take you to make up your mind?"

Reid: "Once we got here? About an hour."

Simpson: "Really?"

Reid: "Yeah, once we got through Lagos. Lagos was not attractive at all. But once we got out here onto the farms we saw the potential. The Niger River is just behind me, I can see it in the distance there. That is an endless source of water and that is why the farms are positioned here. That is why we came to this site."

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa. But that vast wealth has done little to improve the lives of millions of Nigerians who toil as subsistence and small scale farmers. Improving agriculture is key to broad economic development in rural states like Kwara, says Governor Saraki.

"We have always said that to get the Nigerian economy going it has to be driven through agriculture - that has to be the focus," said Saraki.

Governor Saraki says the Zimbabwean farmers have essential skills that Nigeria's 140-million strong population can learn from. The benefits are already visible in Kwara, he says, and this will guarantee the projects continuation beyond the end of his tenure in three years time.

"I think the project has sold itself, it now has ownership - ownership within the country, ownership within the community and within the state. And I think that is what matters. When we started off there were a lot of people who did not believe in it. But by now there are 3,000 people employed in Shonga - they are the ones that are going to defend it," said Saraki.

Local farmers are happy to have 'the whites' around, they say. Young men can now earn a daily wage laboring for the Zimbabweans and still have enough time left over to tend their own farms. Many can now afford Chinese imported motorbikes and mobile phones, like Musa Mogadi.

"Everything is much better since the white man came to this area. Mr. Reid really tries to help the people that work for him. And since the white man came here everything is developed so we thank God for him," said Mogadi.

Though happy to be so welcome in Nigeria, where English colonialists never tried to own land and race relations have never been politicized, the white farmers closely follow events in Zimbabwe.

Opposition leaders accused 84-year-old President Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, of attempting to fix the results of recent elections. And there is now going to be a runoff election in the presidential race.

Whatever the final result is, farmers like Irvine Reid say they are in Nigeria for the long-haul.

"There is huge potential. There are many, many mouths to feed here. There is great potential and farming is a new venture for most people in the country," continued Reid. "And we are very excited to be part of it."

But while business keeps them in Nigeria, most like Paul Retzlaff say that Zimbabwe will always be home.

"Some people come from Europe, or Britain or whatever. That is where home is. But for me home is Zimbabwe," said Retzlaff. "But this is where I am settled."

Zimbabwe's opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai recently visited Nigeria to ask for help in resolving the disputed elections. But so far, Nigeria has declined to intervene.

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