Zimbabwean farmers move on to new pastures north of the Equator

On a steamy day in central Nigeria, four white Zimbabwean farmers who were kicked off their land back home, are carving out a new future -- mapping out fields, building houses and drilling boreholes.

They may have moved north of the Equator and more than 4,000 km from Zimbabwe but farming is familiar territory.

"We are very happy to have this place. The land is rich," said farmer John Sawyer, pointing to the dark soil of the land that runs alongside the River Niger near the town of Shonga.

Sawyer and his three companions were chased off their farms in Zimbabwe by machete-wielding supporters of President Robert Mugabe, who has made land redistribution one of the tenets of his increasingly-criticised rule.

Many white farmers, despairing of ever getting their homesteads back, have quit farming and headed for a better life in Australia or New Zealand. Others have opted to start afresh in other Southern African countries like Zambia and Mozambique. But Sawyer and his cohorts are the first to venture so far north and west.

Their destination: Kwara State, Nigeria, where the local governor has allocated some 16,000 hectares to 15 Zimbabwean farmers on a 25-year lease.

Sawyer and three colleagues are the advance party, with the others set to follow later in the year along with their families, 50 black Zimbabwean farmhands and 2,000 cattle. They will run dairy farms and grow maize, rice and soybeans.

Authorities and farmers alike are bent on avoiding tensions between the newcomers and local Nigerians.

"We recommended them to be settlers not as sole proprietors of land," Agriculture Minister Adamu Bello told state-owned Radio Nigeria. "We want to benefit from their wealth of knowledge but we would not allow anybody to become lords over our people."

Training centre

Alongside the 15 Zimbabwean farms, there will be a 16th farm which will act as a government-funded training centre, where Zimbabwean farmers will teach Nigeria's largely-subsistence farmers the techniques of modern mass-scale farming.

"I think the project will be very successful and we hope to impart our knowledge to help the Nigerian local farmer," Sawyer told IRIN.

A local subsistence farmer works the earth in Shonga

Kwara State Governor Busola Saraki has said he also expects the farmers to generate jobs for local people and help boost Nigeria's agricultural production.

Some officials have talked about the area becoming the breadbasket of West Africa, pumping out crops of maize, rice and soybeans. Prior to independence and before oil warped Nigeria's economy, the country's fertile soils provided the nations wealth.

The Zimbabwean farmers have the credentials to bring about that change. Aid workers blame current food shortages in Zimbabwe on their eviction from farms that once fed much of the surrounding region and whose produce was exported worldwide.

Among the 8,000 or so residents of Shonga, hopes are equally high. The immediate expectations are for jobs and improved earnings.

"We are willing to leave our farms to go and work for them for a monthly wage," said Idris Hassan, a subsistence farmer working small plots as is the practice in most of Nigeria. He wants to learn about the latest farming equipment and methods by working for the Zimbabweans.

The incoming farmers have said they hope to employ hundreds of local Nigerians, but have avoided setting a specific target.

Aside from the direct knock-on effect of employment, Shonga residents also hope the arrival of the Zimbabweans will focus national government efforts on an improvement in basic infrastructure and services.

"We've not been making money from our farms mainly because of the difficulties we face transporting our produce to town," he explained.

Poor roads, no electricity, scarce water

The only paved road in Shonga is the one that runs from the state capital, Ilorin, but it is in poor shape and has collapsed in some places.

The town, which lies 400 kilometres north of Nigeria's de facto capital Lagos, has been without electricity for the last decade since a previous government agricultural project collapsed.
People rely on streams and a scattering of boreholes for drinking water.

All these things need addressing, explained Halina Yahaya, the traditional Emir ruler of Shonga.

"We expect that this project will bring development to the villagers," he told IRIN.

Nigerian farmers repair their tractor

But the precedents are not encouraging. A previous government attempt to spur development --- the construction of the Bacita Sugar Factory in the late 1970s -- collapsed after it became embroiled in massive corruption and mismanagement scandals.

"Bacita was a big disappointment to our people," said Yahaya. "I hope this time the vision of the government is not thwarted by corrupt people."

And many people have their doubts about the whole Zimbabwean farming endeavour. Tayo Olagoke, a businessman who hails from Shonga but now lives in Lagos, believes that Nigerians could do the work of the foreigners, given the right support from the government.

"With this move to bring white farmers, the government is making us look stupid," Olagoke told IRIN. "If the roads were good and I was able to raise soft loans to acquire tractors and other equipment, I wouldn't have gone to Lagos in search of better fortunes."

He predicted that discontent would bubble up quickly in Shonga if the local people's earnings from the Zimbabwean farms did not meet their expectations.

Discontent on the horizon?

Already not everyone is jumping on the Zimbabwe farming bandwagon. Some residents in Shonga, fearful that the foreigners will become landlords, have petitioned the federal government in Abuja about the project.

The Fulani nomads, who are used to freely grazing their cattle on the land that has been assigned to the Zimbabweans, are also a potential problem area.

Fulani herder leads cattle to graze on the farmland allocated to the Zimbabwe farmers

Kwara State government spokesman Mohammed Kanga acknowledged the Zimbabwean farmers have already expressed concern about the presence of the nomads. "We have held a series of meetings with the Fulani chiefs and they have promised not to tread on the farmlands as long as they are provided an area where their cattle can graze," he said.

Even the law under which the land was assigned is controversial. The 1978 Land Use Act was passed as a military decree by Obasanjo, who was then a military and not democratically-elected ruler, and gives all power over Nigerian land to the state government.

Under the law any piece of land required by the government can be acquired. Compensation is paid for crops or buildings that are razed, but not for the use of the land itself.

To date, the law has been used most in the southern Niger Delta oil region of Nigeria to the bitter opposition of the inhabitants.

The law has remained a major source of friction between locals and oil multinationals operating on delta land, and some analysts fear that similar friction may occur in the central region where the Zimbabwean farmers have been given land.

"If all goes well all the aims outlined by the government in inviting the white farmers may be achieved," Val Okeke, a real estate lawyer, told IRIN. "But there is a worst case scenario, where their presence might breed discontent and the unrest of the oil region is replicated around Shonga."