Riding through a Nigerian forest on motorbikes, four white Zimbabwean farmers are checking out the land they’ll soon settle on, hoping to start a new life after being chased off their farms by government-backed thugs at home.
Uprooted by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s land-redistribution program, scores of farmers have already been welcomed by the country’s immediate neighbors for the jobs and economic growth they promise to create.
But Nigeria, 2,500 miles northwest of Zimbabwe, represents a new phase of a budding exodus.
The four men visiting Shonga are an advance party for 15 farmers moving here this month along with their families, 50 black Zimbabwean farmhands and 2,000 cattle.
“Everybody is enthusiastic for the project to get going,” said Alan Jack, 46, whose farm was grabbed five years ago by about 50 youths armed with clubs and machetes.
Mugabe has encouraged the land seizures as a means of redressing wealth inequalities rooted in British colonial times. But the policy has been widely criticized for its brutality and has made Zimbabwe, once a food exporter, dependent on aid to save nearly half of its 12.5 million people from starvation.
Since 2000, some of the thousands of farmers forced off their land have moved to neighboring Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. Few, if any, have moved to West Africa, but governments here -- Ghana and Senegal as well as Nigeria -- are lining up to host them, according to the farmers.
It’s an endeavor that requires tact, if only because all of these countries bear the legacy of white colonial rule. Zambia has publicly warned its newcomers not to form white “cliques” or set up “elitist” white country clubs, to stay out of politics and not get involved in supporting opposition groups as they did in Zimbabwe.
There are also fears in Nigeria that the farmers’ arrival will raise unrealistic expectations among low-income farmers already in the Shonga area, 200 miles north of Nigeria’s main city, Lagos.
But the Nigerian government, which initiated the white migration, remains gung-ho. Olayinka Aje, an aide to the governor of Kwara, Shonga’s state, says the farmers could turn the area “into the food basket of the West African sub-region.”
Jack said he was attracted to Shonga because of good rainfall and firm, deep soil in which “just about any crop will grow.” Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with 126 million inhabitants, also offers a huge domestic market.
If things go well, more white Zimbabweans could move in the next year, he said.
Mugabe’s government refuses to comment on the farmers’ emigration, but continues to insist that the land seizures are the way forward.
The farmers will hire hundreds of Nigerian workers who, along with the Zimbabwean farmhands, will clear an allotted 37,000 acres of trees and towering termite mounds to make way for maize, rice, soybeans, and dairy and poultry farms.
Nigerian farmers here tend small plots growing such staples as cassava and corn without machines or fertilizer. The Zimbabweans are offering technical know-how and advice on cost-free techniques for improving yields, such as better crop spacing. The government has promised to fund a 16th farm for training purposes, run by a Zimbabwean farmer.
But Nigerians are wary. Huge state-run projects here usually are gutted by corrupt managers. Near Shonga, combine harvesters corrode in open fields, left from a project that collapsed in the 1990s.
“We have a vision, and I am trying to share that faith with the people,” said Halina Yahaya, emir of mainly Muslim Shonga, but “people say we hope we are not being taken for a ride.”
As well as signing an agreement with the local government, legal owner of Kwara’s land, the farmers needed to negotiate with the emir, who also holds land rights under local custom.
The 7,000-plus villagers of the area, who have virtually no healthcare or primary education, harbor very high expectations. Jibril Muazu, chief of Ogudu, a village bordering the Zimbabweans’ future farmland, wants new roads, electricity, drinking water, hospitals and schools.
“If the commercial farmers are going to benefit from our land, these are the ways we should benefit from them,” he said.
Aje, the governor’s aide, insists that all these demands will be met by a trust fund financed by a 1% levy on the newcomers’ turnover.
The four Zimbabweans, constantly joking like old friends, seem undaunted by the challenge of rebuilding a social life far from home.
“In Zimbabwe, we did everything together as farmers. We’ll just do the same here,” Jack said. “There’s 15 of us. It’s enough to get on in life.”
AP correspondent Angus Shaw in Harare, Zimbabwe, contributed to this report.